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Myths, Language, and Other Walls Between China and the World
???—jiu ling hòu, n.: The generation China calls post-90s. Sometimes called the Net Generation, Me Generation, or Strawberry Generation for its members’ inability to “eat bitter.”
When Philip, my Chinese godfather, heard I was planning to take the train to Shenzhen, he wrote me a note.* This was not the first note he’d written me. After we first met, he wrote to say he had marked my birthday on his calendar. Weeks later he wrote to remind me to get a flu shot. Soon he sent another note, this time to suggest that I ought to more seriously consider the merits of bok choy as a source of vitamins to supplement my student diet. He once wrote me a beautiful note that said he would be honored if I met his grandson.
This latest note, however, was a warning about Shenzhen, the Chinese metropolis across the border from Hong Kong. I had told him I planned to travel to Shenzhen alone later that day. Philip cautioned me against three things. The first two were pickpockets and counterfeit goods, which might complicate my return to Hong Kong from China. The third was this:
You must not pick up any hookers from the street. Not only are you running the risk of catching a disease and being robbed, they are also likely to steal your internal organs.
Philip, Your Chinese Godfather
I ended up in Hong Kong by something of a fluke. Columbia University has strict requirements around language proficiency that determine to which countries you may go to study. Hong Kong was a linguistic loophole. Because I had taken a semester of Mandarin during my freshman year, I was eligible to apply to the University of Hong Kong. At the time I’d never been to Asia. Despite my bad experience with Mandarin—I spent more time on that one class than I did on all my others and still got my worst grade in college—I wanted to see the place where everyone told me the future was happening.
But within weeks of arriving I had begun to find Hong Kong disappointingly manageable, something like a showroom for the rest of China. Hong Kong had been a British colony for more than a century before it was legally returned to China in 1997. People spoke English. Many were proud of their Westernization. Before I went, everyone had told me that the future was in China, but all my professors in Hong Kong seemed to be saying that Hong Kong was not China.
Just across the border was Shenzhen, the real China. The city had once been a collection of fishing villages, thirty thousand people living at the mouth of the Pearl River delta. During Mao’s rule, the area was deliberately left undeveloped as a buffer zone between Communist China and then-capitalist Hong Kong. During the 1960s, the middle of Mao’s rule, Philip’s family risked death to slip past the border patrol into Hong Kong’s New Territories and make a better life for themselves in the Pearl of the Orient, as Hong Kong was known. Philip was only a boy.
Two years after Mao died in 1976, China opened its doors to the world and its money. My economics professor at the University of Hong Kong put it this way: “Shenzhen’s Special Economic Zone became the testing ground for all of China’s economic experiments. Most of them worked.” Shenzhen’s population swelled to twelve million, four hundred times what it had been a few decades earlier. The area was transformed from a southern backwater into the fourth-largest urban economy in China and twenty-third largest in the world, earning the nickname the Overnight City. The joke went that Shenzhen University does not have a history department; the city only looked forward. Although I had great respect for Philip, I was not going to be deterred from seeing China’s boom city.
The train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen looked like a typical subway line—plastic seats and metal handrails. The people in suits were doing their daily commute across the border. The man next to me held two big cartons of milk in a bag on his lap. He told me that because mainland milk was poisoned, people would pay top dollar for Hong Kong dairy. The woman sitting across from me motioned to her child to stop staring. I waved, the girl laughed, and an hour passed.
When we arrived, we were separated into lines for foreigners, mainlanders, and Hong Kongers, who still need a visa to get into the mainland. I was stamped through and swept out into Shenzhen Luohu Railway Station, which sees eight million border crossers a year.
As soon as I walked out through the doors of the customhouse, I was slammed by a deluge of noise. Salespeople hawking everything from fruit to suits to consultations on international shipping logistics to factory space by the square meter rushed travelers at the doorway. A handful of dedicated “milk dealers” immediately swallowed the man who had sat next to me; then he rushed out of the pack with a few bills scrunched in his hand. The churn of life was dizzying. I saw signs in English, and tried asking for directions in English, but no one spoke it, unlike in Hong Kong. I tried calling the hostel I had booked, but my phone didn’t work in the mainland. I tried to buy a Coke so I could sit and get my bearings, but after what seemed a promising exchange, I received a box of twenty on-the-go tissue packs instead.
The worst part was that I couldn’t shake Philip’s warnings. I became convinced that the sea of people—the woman with a big wicker basket of oranges, the cab drivers motioning toward their backseats, the middle-aged women beckoning me into their watch stores—were prostitutes in disguise conniving to steal my internal organs.
I sat in the plaza outside the train station for an hour before deciding not to turn back. A classmate had written the address of the hostel in Chinese for me, and I handed the slip of paper to a cab driver. He puzzled at the characters in Traditional Chinese, not the Simplified Chinese used in the mainland. After some consultation with a few other cabbies, he said, “Very good!” and motioned me into his cab. I began to worry when he kept repeating “very good” every time I asked him a question. After half an hour in the cab I had done some calculations: at this speed I would suffer only a broken arm if I jumped out onto the freeway. An arm would heal. Kidneys do not grow back.
Three hours later, I sat at a table in an artists’ compound on the edge of town with three students, two guys and a woman, from Shenzhen University. I had arrived in an artists’ district safe and sound. The area was hip and modern, a combination of Brooklyn and Seoul. These students had noticed me as I was eating alone in a restaurant and had invited me to join them. They wore bomber jackets, peacoats, and tight jeans. One of the guys was wearing a hat backward and had a tattoo on his wrist. It said FREEDOM. The other guy and the young woman were a couple. They sat close, her hand on his arm, his on her knee.
Communicating was difficult. Before they asked a question in English, they would confer with each other for several minutes. I spoke no meaningful Chinese beyond “I don’t want.” We didn’t get very far—a brief discussion about movies—and mostly just ate in a strangely happy silence. All the while they played host, putting the choicest pieces of food on my plate in place of conversation. They insisted on treating when the meal ended. With the dignity of a diplomat one student managed to tell me, “You’re a guest in our country.” We went our separate ways with a wave and a smile. That was it. No pickpockets, no swindlers, no prostitutes. I left Shenzhen certain that China was not like the descriptions people had given me, but I also felt ill equipped to understand what the differences were.
During my time at Hong Kong University, six months at the beginning of 2011, I went to Mainland China several times, doing my best to get deeper into China. I went with a robotics team to Shenzhen’s computer centers and marveled at the technological fluency of the fourteen-year-olds who were gutting and stripping computers in minutes as they sat at folding tables heaped with motherboards and circuitry. I walked through Internet bars with rows of teenagers and twenty-year-olds click-click-click-clicking wordlessly through alternative realities for hours on end. I took tours of factories that manufacture electronic cigarettes as a “quality control specialist” (my friend’s cousin sold them in the UK and asked us to put on suits and tour his suppliers) and sat in on a start-up meeting run by twenty-year-olds looking to change the world. What did they talk about when they were alone? How would growing up in a city like Shenzhen mold you? What did these kids—my peers—dream of?
Seeing more of China didn’t make me understand it better; it only created more mysteries to solve. It was clear that the China I was experiencing wasn’t the China I had been told about. Real China seemed to move behind a wall, and I was seeing only its shadows. The Great Wall, Shanghai’s skyline, Suzhou’s meandering canals, and even Shenzhen’s Luohu station—in all these places I felt like I was looking at a postcard of China, something fascinating but paper thin. As both an empire and a modern culture, one of China’s most distinguishing features was its insularity from the world. However inefficient the Great Wall was at repelling enemies, it was an apt metaphor for China’s attitude toward the outside: keep out.
After I returned to the United States, I found that China’s reputation at home was worse than it was in Hong Kong. When I would ask someone, “What do you know about Chinese people?” I’d hear a smattering of headlines, a description of Chinese people as a Maserati-driving, dog-eating people who live in empty, underpopulated cities but who need to be shoved from behind to fit into crammed subways. They’re poor child laborers who also buy more clothes from Kate Spade and Michael Kors than anyone else in the world. The contradictions carried a whiff of Philip’s Shenzen warning, but I didn’t know how to set the Americans straight. I became determined to go back and dig into China’s mysteries.
After I graduated from college in 2012, I left New York for China armed with the address of a hostel and the phone number for a language program. I did not speak the language and I didn’t know anyone or have a job. My plan was to try to get through that wall.
* * *
In 2008, China beamed a new image of itself to the world. It was the first time many people had seen China outside kung fu movies, Chinese restaurants, or National Geographic specials. It was China’s coming-out party as a modern nation, and it began with 2,008 Chinese drummers lined up on the floor of one of the world’s most impressive stadiums, engineered to look like an enormous bird’s nest of steel and iron. All were dressed in identical pale yellow Chinese silk ensembles. In front of each was the same ornate iron drum. Suspended cameras panned across the rows of drummers, a sweep of hard, neat lines. In perfect unison, the drummers began to pound their complex rhythm. People moving in such hive-minded coordination was both beautiful and chilling.
This was the first act of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Many international reporters and pundits would agree: given the scale, technology, coordination, and complexity of the stage—at one point fifty-eight actors defied gravity as they ran horizontally on a globe several stories high—it was probably the greatest show ever performed in human history. That image of immaculate synchronicity has affected how many people across the globe still think about China: a unified, homogeneous, tightly choreographed glide into the future.
The opening ceremony expressed a Chinese ideal, the blurring of the individual within the whole. Such displays rarely have a protagonist or a hero. Rather, the beauty is in the harmony of all the actors; the hero is the balance of the whole. “This is our new country,” China was telling the world, “a balanced and unified nation striding in lockstep toward its future.”
The reality is different. A century ago the father of modern China and its leader after China’s last emperor abdicated in 1911, Sun Yat-sen, described China as a “sheet of loose sand”: ???? (“Yi pán san sha”).* Millennia of rule by emperors had ended. The country had slipped into disorder. Sun Yat-sen led China’s rocky transition from ancient empire to modern government. Under his tutelage both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong would emerge as leaders and then fatefully diverge. Chiang would lead China after Sun but never gain full control. After World War II, Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists would divide the country through a civil war, with the winner set to determine China’s future. Against imposing odds and with incredible feats of will, Mao’s Communists won. “Chairman Mao,” as he would be immortalized, would found today’s People’s Republic of China in 1949. Both Chinese and foreign historians regard as Chairman Mao’s greatest undertaking his attempt to transform Sun’s sheet of loose sand into one solid country.
Today China remains fragmented. More than 95 percent of the population lives on only two-fifths of all its land.† China has more than six hundred billionaires but one of the widest wealth gaps in the world.1 The east coast cities and the metropolises clustered around the Pearl River delta, with Shenzhen at its head, developed fast, while the center and Western reaches of the country are pushing, and being pulled, to catch up. Different dialects still cause divisions across different regions of China, particularly among older generations.
China has about four hundred million people who were born between 1984 and 2002—the millennials. But in China they’re not called millennials: China divides its generations by decades—post-50s (those born in 1950–59), post-60s, and so on.2
Those plain vanilla labels give no hint of the vastly different experiences of these generations. The post-50s generation began just a year after China’s civil war ended and Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. This made that generation the first born in the modern nation-state of China. The tail end of that generation and the first born into the post-60s generation entered a world of deprivation: From 1958 to 1961, China’s Great Leap Forward saw many tens of millions die of starvation. As the 1960s continued, China’s push to modernize failed, and Mao plunged China into the Cultural revolution, which venerated the peasant farmer above other social classes and created a cult of personality around the Chairman. It was simultaneously anti-intellectual, anti-modern, and anti-historical; much of China’s traditional and historic books and buildings, as well as the best minds of the generation, were laid to waste during the Cultural Revolution.
Here marks a major pivot in modern China’s development. The first members of the post-80s generation were born in a particularly radical moment for China: In 1978 China threw its doors wide open to invite foreign direct investment and put China’s manufacturing boom in motion. At about the same time, China inaugurated its one-child policy, an effort to curtail China’s burgeoning population by decreeing that couples could have only one child (the policy eventually included forced abortions and sterilizations).
Then came the post-90s. The student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 urged a more democratic government for China and were violently put down. Sensing a moment of national identity crisis, China changed its national education program to reframe Chinese identity for this generation, moving away from Mao and his “accomplishments,” emphasizing China’s historic might as a country and culture, and defining internal weakness and outside aggression as the reason for China’s downfall in modernity. Then, in 1992, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic boom, planted a tree in Shenzhen as a symbol of the growth he intended to bring to the region.
A decade and a half of growth turned the fishing village into a multimillion-person manufacturing mega city, and the poor, backward country into a modernizing power poised for the world stage. China regarded the Beijing Olympics of 2008 as the country’s formal debut as a modern power and culture. By 2011, more than half of China’s population lived in cities, and by 2015, more than half of the country’s gross domestic production was derived from services, not manufacturing.3
The generation-naming system isn’t perfect, but it is how China understands itself and why its generations are so different. The young people I describe here were born into a country brimming with ambition and aspiration. Now, the post-90 and post-2000 generations are part of the world’s middle class, the first modern Chinese generations less preoccupied with needs and more involved with wants, in particular, “Who do we want to be?” Their generations will define what being Chinese in the modern world means.
* * *
Like my Chinese godfather, my last roommate in China took an English name. He chose Tom. Tom was born in 1993, three years after I was born. We had very different upbringings. By then the protests and vicious government response at Tiananmen Square had subsided. China was in the midst of a different type of revolution, this time about refrigeration. China’s 1.1 billion people had only thirty million refrigerators.4 Tom was not part of that privileged minority. “We were a normal household, not one of those rich households,” Tom’s mother told me. Tom was born in a city, but three-quarters of his generation was born in rural China.5 That same year, the first McDonald’s opened in China, in Shenzen, nowhere near Tom’s native Sichuan Province. An uncle who had gone to work at a factory in Shenzhen tried eating there and, when he told his family back home about his meal, described the taste of a Big Mac as “confusing.”
Tom’s family was poor, far poorer than most people in the world: China’s average annual income per capita was then about $375, less than in Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Lesotho; just a touch more than that in India, and a far cry from America’s nearly $23,000. The two Asian giants, China and India, one Communist, the other democratic, are often compared within China. During that tree-planting trip to Shenzhen, Deng Xiaoping proclaimed, “Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious.”6 This was a signal to Tom’s parents and grandparents that private industry had been decriminalized. Deng’s words sounded like a directive, and Tom’s family pushed to attain upward mobility. His grandparents and teachers tried hard to learn Mandarin in addition to their local dialect. His older cousin tested among the top five students in the city in English, so she moved to Shanghai to look for a job with a foreign company. She was the talk of the neighborhood.
Views of the outside world were scarce. Home televisions were few. There was no access to the Internet (twenty million American adults had Internet access by 1996).7 Tom vaguely remembers how, when he was three, everyone gathered in a public hall to watch China win sixteen gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. It was the first live broadcast from America he’d ever seen. His parents watched in awe and told him, “Look, son, that is the greatest country on Earth.” When Tom was young, he didn’t know anyone who had one of the 5.5 million cars in the country. Bicycles of nearly identical make and model, the ubiquitous Flying Pigeon, swarmed city streets. Almost everyone was skinny. Getting visas to travel abroad was nearly impossible. Most embassies, including China’s, assumed Chinese families would try to emigrate illegally if they could. Tom’s family simply couldn’t afford to travel. Once, when Tom was five years old, he waited in line for three hours to eat fried chicken at the first KFC in a neighboring city. It was the first Western food he had ever tasted. The mashed potatoes were a marvelous texture—not quite tofu, not quite rice porridge, but buttery and smooth. It was also the first time he’d ever tasted butter, and it gave him the runs for days.
Tom learned that other countries used to call China “the sick man of Asia.” In his history books he read about the Century of Humiliation (1839–1949) and how China, once the strongest, wealthiest empire in the world, grew weak at the hands of its own Qing government (1644–1911). In China’s weakened state, Western colonial powers divided China’s major cities among themselves, using them as trade ports for tea and silk, crippled the populace with the illegal trade of opium, and made the Chinese second-class citizens in their own land. He read that the small island nation of Japan had occupied China and held it hostage from 1937 to 1945. The Japanese raped Chinese women and tested biological weapons on Chinese peasants. Tom’s country was too weak to stop them.8
Fast-forward to Tom’s high school years. China’s GDP per capita had swelled to ten times what it was when he was a child. By then Chinese individuals’ wealth was triple that of their counterparts in India, China’s old economic rival. Tom’s family could afford to eat out all the time—and they did. Now, young Chinese eat three times as much pork as they did when they were small children. Caloric intake had fully doubled since Tom’s grandparents were teens, which explains why they’re so short—their growth had been stunted by malnutrition—and also why Tom’s school now cautioned him and his younger classmates about obesity in gym class.9 When he was fifteen, Tom cheered as he watched the Beijing Olympics and his country racked up fifty-one gold medals, fifteen more than the United States. His parents couldn’t believe it. Tom thought, Why not?
A decade later, China was at the center of every global conversation. Tom and his friends saw that when China’s economy creaks, the world’s groans. As empowering as the global narrative was, national competition kept them preoccupied. Tom was studying for a graduate degree. He was one of 7.5 million students to graduate from college when he did—China now graduates the most college students of any country in the world—and if Tom wanted to have a chance to get a good job, he had to pursue an advanced degree.
In his twenty-odd years of life, Tom has watched his country’s economic reality transform from poverty to global power. Chinese travelers constitute the biggest outbound tourism market in the world, and all nations vie for the business of Chinese tourists.10 When South Africa changed its visa laws to make it difficult for Chinese to enter, the South African tourism community protested. They wanted the business.11 China sends students abroad in droves, and they are being welcomed by universities with open arms. Tom’s friends send him pictures from their classrooms in England. One picture showed a professor’s presentation: “China: The Economic Miracle.” However, his friends still believe that Westerners regard China with suspicion. China has become the biggest car market in the world and has enough rich people that it is on the brink of becoming the largest luxury car market in the world.12 The Flying Pigeon bicycle is now fashionable—some sell for thousands of dollars. China is poised to become the largest movie market in the world, so Chinese no longer have to put up with films that depict them as coolies with queues or actors in leading roles who speak broken English.13 Many movies made in Hollywood are suddenly setting scenes in Shanghai or hiring Chinese actors. The way Tom and his generation view themselves, and are viewed by the world, is evolving.
Older Chinese, who still view themselves and their country as inferior to the United States and many Western powers, find it simply inconceivable that China is a member of the Group of Twenty, the international forum of government leaders and central bankers from the twenty biggest economies. Now, the world is focused on the great power relationship between the United States and China, a notion that is simply not believable to older Chinese. But to Tom, China’s inclusion is simply logical. In 2014, Alibaba, China’s tech and e-commerce giant, reaped the richest initial public offering (IPO) in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. By then China’s GDP per capita was twenty times more than when Tom was a child and six times more than India’s.
Young Chinese see their country as the underdog of the modern era, a narrative heavily reinforced by China’s education system. From many people’s perspective, it is one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of storytelling, the great, true story of the fighter that everyone said couldn’t make it—too weak, too overpopulated, too old, too slow, too outdated, too sickly, too far behind. They were bullied, beat up, sabotaged. And now, against the odds and opposition, China has risen to power.
* * *
Every Chinese student learns this saying early in life: “Diligence is the path up the mountain of knowledge; hard work is the boat on the endless sea of learning.”*
The line is also apt for those trying to approach China, its people, and its language. To hear someone speak Chinese is to recognize their diligence, how far they have trudged up the mountain of knowledge. Outsiders can learn about a country’s economics and politics in translation. They cannot know a person and a people without also knowing their language.
Tom’s generation grew up studying English for about ten years—China has three hundred million English speakers, whereas the United States has only one million Chinese speakers. He and his generation grew up watching Western movies and TV shows, reading Western books, paying attention to Western celebrities, and cheering the West’s sports stars. His favorite movie is The Matrix, and he can quote Barney from the TV show How I Met Your Mother. He doesn’t have access to Facebook, but more people in China use the Chinese social app WeChat than there are people in the European Union. Despite the great firewall, the Chinese Internet regulations that censor the content Chinese may see, Tom believes he still has a much better view of the world than the world has of China.
Language lies at the core of that discrepancy. The world’s lack of understanding of China is in large part the result of its decision to build literal and figurative walls around the country and its culture. When China began to trade with other nations, it was illegal for Chinese citizens to teach foreigners their language. To do so was punishable by death.*
The DNA of Chinese culture is baked into the language. In the 1910s and 1920s, a faction within China who wanted to do away with the pillars of Chinese culture, specifically Confucianism, which they saw as hindering China’s ascension into modernity, advocated for the abolishment of the Chinese language. Qian Xuantong, a professor of literature at what was then National Peking University, advised a contemporary in 1918: “If you want to abolish Confucianism, you must first abolish the Chinese [written] language.”14 Because they could not disentangle the language and the culture, Qian and other academics advocated elimination of the language. Some advocated the adoption of Esperanto. They failed. Today China’s national language is Mandarin, which the FBI classifies as one of the five most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.
When I moved to China in 2012, my first goal was to learn the language. I am far from a linguist. I had unsuccessfully attempted to learn Latin and French at different points in my life, so I spent time researching the best ways to “acquire,” as I learned the pros term it, a language. When I got to China, anything I had to do, I did in Chinese, from changing the language settings of my phone and computer systems to awkward, unsuccessful dates. I downloaded Anki, a spaced repetition system of flashcards,* then Pleco, an invaluable phone app that I still use daily, and got to work making flashcards of complete sentences.
I progressed in phases. One day my landlord, a thirty-year-old woman, applauded my progress and told me, “You speak so cute!” That afternoon I was in a coffee shop and asked the server, a university student, about her day. Her response? “Wow! Your Chinese is so cute!” A few days later a Chinese coworker patted me on the back after I had used the word for lifetime instead of the word for cup. She said, “Your Chinese is really coming along! You speak so cute!”
The last time someone had described me as cute, I had not yet hit puberty. I mentioned this to my neighbor. He laughed and told me, “Oh, it is because you talk like a baby.”
Studying then took on more urgency as I worked to reduce the distance between my Chinese personality and my American one. My neighbor’s comment also reminded me that when my Chinese friends spoke English with me, they, too, were having difficulty representing their true selves.
My victories came in tiny increments. At the beginning my goal was only to distinguish exactly where my landlord’s sentences stopped and started. Then I wanted to be able to explain the measurements of my bed to a saleswoman so I could buy sheets of the correct size. A month later my goal was to describe the rent I was willing to pay for an apartment and where I wanted to live: inexpensive, and near Suzhou’s famous canals. Then I started to travel, and that’s when I learned from a young Chinese man, Guo, and his friends that China’s walls had not only kept people out but also kept people in.
Guo and I met on an overnight train headed south. He was nineteen and headed back to his university after vacationing in Suzhou. China’s sleeper cars have cubbies of six beds. Guo and his friends had the three bunks opposite my row. They stared at me with curiosity. No other foreigners were in our train car. Finally, Guo asked in halting English, “Can you speak Chinese?”
China’s matrix of railroads spreads across the country, more than forty-six thousand miles of steel track. Of those, more than twelve thousand miles are suitable for bullet trains, which means China has more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined.15 You can get almost anywhere in the country by train, and during that first year I did. I had realized that I could learn the language anywhere, so I would work for a month or two teaching English at a night school or tutoring prospective Chinese study-abroad students for the SATs, then take a break from my assignments to travel the vast country for weeks until my money ran low. Then I’d come back and start the cycle again. That first year I spent more than two hundred hours on buses and trains.
As the days flew by, I would talk mostly with other young people. We were drawn to one another. It was like peering through a hole in China’s wall and finding someone on the other side staring back.
Like the train rumbling through the night, my conversation with Guo bumped along in fits and starts. People walking to the hot water spigot at the end of the car to boil instant noodles or refill tea thermoses lingered and listened. Parents and children poked their heads out of their bunks to see what the commotion was all about. Little Li, the fifteen-year-old high school student who had the bunk below mine, said in Chinese, “They think it is funny to hear a foreigner speak our language.”
Everyone had questions about America. Guo asked, “Does everyone eat just bread and hamburgers?” A dozen pairs of eyes zeroed in on my reaction.
My first thought was a firm no: American food is extremely complex! We are a melting pot of cultures, and our diverse cuisine reflects that.
After mulling it over, I replied, “I mean, sort of.” It was difficult to deny entirely, but it also was impossible to respond in full with my broken Chinese. “Pizza, too,” I added.
Turning to one another, they laughed and nodded. Just as they’d suspected.
“In California do you see lots of movie stars?”
“No,” I replied, “there are no movie stars where I am from.”
Guo’s friend on the top bunk jumped in. “Actually, yes, there are. Most movie stars live in Hollywood, which is in California.” He said Hollywood in English for added flare.
I explained that I am from Northern California, not Southern California. “It takes six hours to drive from my home to Hollywood,” I managed to say. They looked disappointed.
The person in the middle bunk quickly brightened and asked, “Do you live close to Hotel California?”
The crowd waited in silence as I stalled. How to explain that the Eagles’ 1976 pop hit is not about a hotel at all but the spiritual emptiness of the glitz and glam of LA?
“Maybe? I’m not sure. I don’t know that hotel from the song. Maybe it doesn’t exist.”
Guo looked skeptical. “Hotel California” had become a massive karaoke hit in China. How could I not know where the hotel is located?
“Does every home have a shouqiang?” The question came from someone standing behind Guo. All eyes widened. The crowd leaned in expectantly. I swallowed hard.
Little Li laughed and rolled his eyes.
“Shouqiang,” Guo repeated, encouraging me with a nod. Then he took my hand and, spreading out my fingers, started to trace the first character on my palm: ?, shou. The first character I recognized. It means “hand.” I held up my hand and Guo nodded enthusiastically. He continued to trace. The next character was more complex, ?, qiang. I had no clue.
A child sitting on his mother’s lap held up his little fist, index finger extended. “Pew, pew, pew!” he said, as his hand recoiled with each sound.
Shouqiang means “handgun.” Only hunters are allowed to have guns in China. Until recently police could not carry guns. The idea that just anyone could have a gun was too far-fetched for my friend to imagine, but they had seen our action movies. To Chinese news outlets, stories about American gun violence are as perverse and exotic as stories about Chinese dog-eating festivals are to Western news outlets.
“We see it in the news. People kill each other all the time!” Guo said, shaking his head. “You Americans are really crazy.” The crowd shook their heads in agreement and slowly dispersed to their bunks.
Nearly all Chinese learn about the United States through media, which everyone consumes in bulk. And so the vast majority of people in China perceive Americans as burger-eating fat folks with guns and groovy tunes.
* * *
Chinese tones are particularly difficult for Westerners to learn. The concept of pitching your voice to change the fundamental meaning of a word—not from a statement to a question but from horse to mother—is unknown in the romance languages. A well-known Chinese poem, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” by Yuen Ren Chao (1892–1982), illustrates the difficulty. Here is an excerpt:
Shishi shishi Shi Shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi.
Shi shishi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi Shi Shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shishi.
This masterpiece is aptly titled “Shi Shi shi shi shi.” The entire poem consists of ninety-two characters, each and every one of which is pronounced shi. By using different tones to say “shi,” the indistinguishable Shi Shi shi shi shi becomes Shi Shì shí shi shi, which can then be understood as ?????, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den.” The challenge for Westerners studying spoken Mandarin really boils down to making a lion-eating poet emerge from a chain of shis.
Mistakes with tones can make Mandarin indecipherable. A friend of mine from Costa Rica, Jon, was living in China and once walked into a convenience store to buy a gauze face mask. It was a bad-air day in the freezing city of Harbin, and the temperature—thirty degrees below freezing—only made the air worse. Jon’s Chinese was, by his own admission, bad. He thought he was asking the storeowner for a mask but did so in toneless Chinese. The storeowner’s face grew pale and his eyes widened as he searched Jonathan’s face for some hidden meaning. My friend nodded his head eagerly and pointed to his mouth, repeating the request.
That was enough. The shop owner rushed from behind the counter and shooed Jonathan out of his store, slamming the door behind him. The shop owner’s reaction was understandable. Instead of asking for a face mask, Jonathan had just asked for a specific sexual favor.
Spoken Chinese is difficult, but the written language is even more complex. The Asia Society estimates that full Chinese literacy requires knowledge of three to four thousand characters. Native literacy requires familiarity with more than ten thousand characters.16 Those distinct symbols can then be arranged and rearranged to form thousands of words.
If you understand the twenty-six symbols that represent one or several sounds in English, you can pronounce just about any word in the English language. With Chinese, if you don’t recognize one character, reading it aloud from the page is impossible. Chinese is a logographic language; every symbol or character represents a word or has an intrinsic meaning. The character ?, pronounced dài, my last name in Chinese, is not just a sound. Dài means something on its own—“to respect.”
In the United States people often ask whether I speak Mandarin or Cantonese. China actually has five major groupings of dialects, two of which are Mandarin and Cantonese. From 1849 until the late twentieth century, almost every Chinese emigrating from China to the United States was likely to speak Cantonese, the language of the Guangdong region, formerly known as Canton. Many immigrants even came from Shenzhen. They lived close to Hong Kong’s Victorian Harbor and in an area of the country devastated by floods and famine in the 1840s. The natural disasters prompted the first emigrants to leave to participate in the Gold Rush in the United States and made peasants who remained in that area of China sympathetic to the Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1850. By the time the rebellion ended fourteen years later, southeastern China was in ruins and twenty million people had died. Survivors left if they could. Thus a disproportionate number of people of Chinese descent living abroad speak Cantonese. In reality, there are thirteen Mandarin speakers for every Cantonese speaker, and most Cantonese speakers are now made to speak both.17
China’s post-90s generation is the first to be predominantly fluent in Mandarin, in large part thanks to TV, Internet, and learning in school. Still, only 70 percent of the entire population speaks Mandarin, leaving four hundred million people, mostly older, able to communicate only with people from their own region.
In 1956, mainland China switched from traditional Chinese characters to a simplified system. But Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau still use traditional characters. If a Hong Kong restaurant’s menu is in traditional characters, some of my Chinese friends cannot read all of it.
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While it’s impossible to understand China if you don’t speak Chinese, knowing the language does not mean you automatically understand China.
My first real Chinese friend was Huan Huan. We had similar interests, hobbies, and curiosities, and we enjoyed good banter in Chinese. Until I met him, most of my Chinese friendships had formed around our differences. The young Chinese I had met during my first year in China were interested in me as a foreigner. I was interested in them as Chinese. Huan Huan was different. He was the first friend I made after my Chinese language skills caught up with my personality, and he invited me to visit him at his family’s home village for Chinese New Year.
As I waited for the bus that would carry me to Huan Huan’s village—a twelve-hour trip—I juggled gifts of whiskey, tea, and candied meats from Chengdu. The Chinese custom is to bring local delicacies as a gift. But because modern life has scattered Chinese to different cities and regions, they bring back the specialties of their new home to share with family and neighbors. As a foreigner, two bottles of Irish whiskey qualified as my local delicacy. That night Huan Huan and his family held a large dinner for neighbors and friends at their house. At the table were Huan Huan’s parents, uncles, and his “little brother”—really just a cousin, because, like many Chinese of his generation, Huan Huan was an only child. I worked at being a model guest, paying especially close attention to my pleases and thank yous.
At some point during the meal, I realized Huan Huan was looking increasingly agitated. After I thanked his mother for more rice, Huan Huan finally called me outside for a private chat.
“Are you uncomfortable in there?”
“No, very comfortable.”
“Is the food to your liking? Is everyone being respectful?”
“Yes, of course. The food is all excellent.” It was delicious.
“Then, goddamnit,” he said, “you’ve got to stop saying thank you. Our guests are taking it the wrong way. I told them we were brothers. They think I’ve pulled in a random foreigner off the street to flaunt my life in a big city.”
Manners don’t translate well from Chinese to English and vice versa. Chinese does not have a word for please. The closest to please is qing. The word suggests more of an invitation or a request than an expression of cordialness. “Welcome, Mr. Dychtwald, qing follow me to the boardroom.”
Like please, thank you can be unintentionally off-putting. China’s is a culture of treated meals, of buying things for other people, and of having things bought for you. The buying is an expression of familiarity and affection. “Among friends, there is no need for thank you,” Huan Huan would reprimand me as he paid for our roadside barbecue and beers. “You thank strangers for kindnesses; they are expected of friends.”
My Chinese friends are quick to point out that in Chinese etiquette, actions speak louder than words. To compliment Huan Huan’s mother’s food, I ate more of it. Everyone noticed. She glowed, wordlessly. If you really want to thank someone for their generosity, repay that person in kind. Huan Huan taught me the silent language of the give and take of relationships in China.
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My time in China formed like a wall of the Grand Canyon, layer stacked upon layer of individual experiences that added color and texture to the whole. I can most easily think about those layers through the bits of language I was learning at the time.
The foundation, or bottom layer, was the discussion of American eating habits and guns on the overnight train. Above that was a layer about drinking etiquette—whom to toast first, how to toast properly. One layer higher was why you say please and thank you to strangers, not to friends. A few layers up were the experiences of learning about the Chinese concept of friendship and the importance of sibling-like relationships to a generation of only children. Shimmering between the dusty layers of everyday life was the pursuit of freedom, evidenced by the tattoos on the wrists, backs, and legs of people across the country. Tempering that freedom was responsibility and tradition—I watched a just-married Chinese couple kneel on stage before their parents to be acknowledged as new members of the family. In a country with no recent history of religion, this was the only formal sealing of the matrimonial bond. Above that layer was death, a layer that I can’t remember or even use the vocabulary I learned—huohùa (cremation)—without thinking of my friend Wei Wei, who was made to watch her grandfather’s body enter the furnace at a government-mandated cremation center. That layer was gray like the soot on the pants of Wei Wei’s little sister that came from burning offerings to their grandfather’s spirit throughout the night. The next layer was a Buddhist scholar’s explanation of the difference between everyday Chinese life and Buddhism while we watched a sky burial—a corpse left on a mountaintop to be picked clean by vultures. Unlike China’s current materialistic life of addition—new phones, new cars, new houses—Buddhism is about the process of subtraction, he said. Streaking across the different layers was a vein of quartz that represents an understanding of where modern Confucianism is breaking down and where it continues to bind China together.
The night before I was to fly back to the States from Chengdu, which had become a home for me in China, I stayed up drinking baijiu (a sorghum alcohol, typically one hundred proof or more) with Tom. At this point almost all my friends were Chinese, as were my current and previous roommates, people I considered my brothers and sisters, people to whom I would reach out or who would reach out to me at important moments. The reward for the hard work of learning the language was rich friendships with people like Tom.
That night he and I spoke a mixture of Mandarin and Sichuanese dialect as the booze settled in. We talked about the difficulty of trying to span cultures, of presenting China to the world, of the nearly impossible challenge of trying to speak for another culture that has a voice but whose message needs to be translated for a global audience.
Tom said, “In China, we have a tradition of ????” (“páng guan zhe qing”). The Chinese idiom means “the observer sees clearly.”
“China does a terrible job of presenting ourselves to the world. With the image of China in Europe, America, and the West, we just look like brainwashed young people, 1984-style governance, hair in queues…” His voice trailed off.
“Look, man,” he continued, placing his glass on the table. “As long as you don’t make all of us out to be organ-stealing prostitutes, we’re making progress.”
Copyright © 2018 by Zak Dychtwald