Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Here Be Dragons

The Borgia Map (circa 1430 AD) states, over a dragon-like figure in Asia ... "Here, indeed, are men who have large horns of the length of four feet, and there are even serpents so large, that they could eat an ox whole."


When I took my first good long gander at a modern political map of China, I was pretty bummed out to find that it was nowhere demarcated with a "Here Be Dragons" no-fly zone. The map was, in fact, nauseatingly detailed: a great big black-and-green inkblot clogged with unpronounceable megalopoli from one end to the other. There did not appear to be any unexplored, potentially dragon-infested regions of the Middle Kingdom. Indeed, there did not appear to be anywhere at all that wasn't crawling with people.

What struck me next was mainland China's resemblance to a chicken. Minus the legs and feet - I imagine the omnivores of Guangzhou Province devoured them centuries ago. With a side of pickled monkey brains. Still, the likeness is uncanny. China is a chicken. If you take Heilongjiang Province to be the beak - and how could you not? just look at it! - it's a graceful anatomical swoop south through the neck of Hubei, on down along the coastline, which swells into a fulsome, savory breast, upholstered by the luscious tenderloin of Anhui and Jiangxi Provinces.

My fellow volunteers and I live out in drumstick country. The wastelands to our immediate north I would liken to the gizzard or gall bladder of the Chinese chicken. Westward ho, and lo: China blossoms into the thunder thighs of Tibet, and Xinjiang Province, which is something like the tail of the chicken, a delicacy so rare and precious that you need a special government clearance just to eat it.

And lest this all seem a bit too glib and cheeky of me, I have received corroboration from many Chinese citizens from all walks of life and they, too, will proudly acknowledge that their country looks like a chicken. What of it? they ask me. I shrug. Just sayin', is all.

Something I noticed much later, long after I had, with the aid of an electron microscope, finally located my adoptive Chinese hometown on the map: there indeed be dragons in China, or at least dragons of the Google Earth variety. If we return to the east coast and scroll slowly downward from the beak until we arrive at the cleft where neck meets breast - the cleavage of China, if you will - off the coast of Tianjin, you will notice the unmistakable profile of a fire-breathing dragon, facing westward, laying to waste all of Shandong Province with its sulphurous loogeys. The illusion, I am told, is formed by the Bohai Sea, whose name does not mean "Dragon-ish Looking Sea" as you and I might hope. But then, I don't suppose the people who named it had access to Google Earth at the time. Rather unhelpfully, my Chinese-English dictionary tells me that the name "Bohai Sea" means "Bohai Sea."

But anyway, it looks like a dragon. So, Here Be Dragons, on a technicality. Still, from experience I am inclined to believe that the Chinese mainland is just teeming with dragons, and not the big red twelve-man stretch limo dragons you see snaking around the streets of Chinatown in Chicago on Chinese New Year's. Come to think of it, I've never seen a single fucking one of those in China. Then again, I've never seen fortune cookies or egg rolls here, either.

I'm lucky. Most Peace Corps volunteers are cast into the legitimate dragonlands. The phrase "in the bush" takes on a deeper meaning, I imagine, to someone serving in a Zambian village than it currently holds for me, a hack of an English professor in an unsung, overpopulated Chinese megalopolis of seven million strong. The volunteer in Zambia faces dragons of a more literal sort; he resides in a part of the world that, fifty or a hundred years ago, might as well have been labeled "Here Be Dragons." The volunteer in China has it much easier from a cartographic standpoint. I can Mapquest my way around Nanchong, fer chrissakes. But we nevertheless face dragons of a sort. They may only be dragons of the metaphorical variety, but they are no less frightening, imposing, or annoying for all that.

The fact remains that China - all of it, from beak to brisket - eludes the West, has always eluded the West, and looks likely to elude the West for as long as there is a West, and for as long as there is a China. It isn't just cultural misunderstanding or any of that mushy Obamanian glop, though it is also that. The differences between China and the West are fundamental differences. As in, irreconcilable differences. China, by and large, does not want to become more like the West. It wants the opposite of that. Japan and South Korea were similarly opposed to Western influence, once upon a time. But one way or another, they have come to embrace Western values along with Western commerce - not without some hand-wringing along the way, of course. The Chinese have adopted Western commerce while remaining extremely wary of Western values. And that wariness shows no signs of diminishing. Not from my very limited viewpoint, at any rate.

What surprised me most on my first visit to China, some three-odd years ago, was the absolute dearth of English. My first night in downtown Hangzhou - nicknamed the Silicon Valley of China - I desperately needed to use a telephone. I swung by an information booth just off the main square.

"Qing wen," I read from my Lonely Planet. "You meiyou yi ge ... um ... telephone?"
The girl behind the Plexiglas went into conniptions of misunderstanding.
"Telephone," I said. "Te-le-phone."
I talked into my hand. I took out my wallet and talked into that, too. Telephone, I said. Telephone. By then, she was looking at me like she was about to telephone the padded rickshaw to come take me away.

I was still a traveling greenhorn at the time, but not really all that much of one. I had lived in Poland, with its spotty English, and South Korea, with its even spottier Konglish. I was well aware that the English language hadn't yet conquered the world. In my travels, I had always made a point of learning more of the local language than I needed, so as to appear as dignified and untouristic as possible. But in desperate times, in all my travels, I had always been able to unearth an English speaker. Not so in the Silicon Valley of China. I forget how many people I asked that night on the laser-lit streets of Hangzhou. Telephone? Telephone? Telephone? Nobody knew what the fuck a telephone was. Here was China's most affluent upper crust, and nobody knew the English word "telephone," which has to be among the top ten most widely known words worldwide. Even in your Zambian village, I imagine the kids know what the word "telephone" means, or understand what a white dude talking into his wallet means.

That was my first impression of China, and it is an impression that has stuck with me long after I left Hangzhou, long after I retreated to the relative Sichuanese bush for two years. In the relative Sichuanese bush, it is even worse. Out here, if you don't speak a lick of Chinese - and many foreigners do not - I bid you good luck. The Chinese study English, even in the relative Sichuanese bush. In fact, they study their asses off. But very few Chinese seem in any way inclined to actually learn English. When you come right down to it, English just isn't very Chinese.

This is neither a positive nor a negative attribute of the Chinese mindset. I see very few reasons - and of those, only practical ones - why the average Chinese needs to learn English. The absence of English makes life hell for tourists, sure. But on the plus side, for me at least, the absence of English makes learning Chinese a helluva lot easier.

It's only when I really dwell on it that the absence of English disturbs me. Clumsy old, sloppy old English has become the world's lingua franca. English has become not only the language of business, not simply a means of communicating with lost tourists - for better or worse, English, wherever you live, has become pretty much the only means of interacting with people from the outside world.

For as much as China has opened itself to the outside world, and for as quickly as it has adopted an appreciation for Western commerce and Western luxuries, the average educated Chinese adult has no command of basic English and is not terribly interested in matters un-Chinese. He resides permanently in a Chinese bubble. The same, of course, could be said for a great many Americans. But we are lucky in that regard, because there is no real American bubble. Not anymore, not unless you're from Nebraska. And even then. Because the American bubble includes microbubbles: Mexican bubbles, African bubbles, Native American bubbles, Chinese bubbles and Japanese bubbles and Korean bubbles. Even the most isolated, most ignorant American is at least peripherally aware of those other bubbles. But the Chinese bubble is all China, all the time.

I don't claim to be an authority on China. Who can? But there is a palpable swagger here. I see it mostly in the young people. It's a swagger that says, we are Chinese and we don't need to be anything else. The rest of the world has wronged us for centuries - for millennia, even. What do we owe the rest of the world? I respect that swagger to a point. I respect that much of the national pride swirling around here has been earned through the sort of hard work that Americans shudder to think about. We shrink away from the sort of pride the Chinese have, because we sense - guiltily and probably correctly - that we are no longer worthy of it.

But outside of China, most of us are slowly learning a lesson that we will all have to learn eventually: that our bubble no longer exists. Or perhaps it's just the opposite. Perhaps our bubble has swollen up so huge as to swallow up all the other bubbles. The definition of an American is a human being with an American passport. The same could be said for most nations on earth. So to be an American is to be everyone, or to be no one at all, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it is a claustrophobic and at the same time isolating sensation. Above all else, it is an uncomfortable sensation. But it is one that must be lived with. That, in the end, will be the direction of things.

The Chinese are a long way away from that realization. Their bubble may have been opened to McDonald's and Apple and General Electric, but very little else has been allowed in. Exports are flying out of the bubble, but very little else is allowed out. My fear is that the more Chinese the Chinese become, the less they will feel the need to contribute to the conversation the rest of the world is having. And for better or worse, that conversation is happening in English. So perhaps my job is important, after all. But my students have never been expected to learn English. They have been mandated to memorize it. And it is my fear that the conversation the rest of the world is having - wherever that conversation takes us - is going to be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or ignored by the Chinese. By the young, China-loving college students - my students - who will inherit this country. I often worry about them. I often worry that I let them slip through my fingers. But then I pour myself a cold one and think, no: those kids slipped through a lot of fingers before they got to you.

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