Sunday, July 20, 2008

Suite: No Hands (无手)

The library – an easy haven for a student after hours of Chinese class on chairs that uses your sweat to glue you to the seat. Air-conditioner, big tables, plenty of books, magazines, dictionaries and movies on Chinese history, culture and medicine, cold drinking water fountain, fellow classmates to remind you that you’re not the only one confused between synonyms – the library is an easy haven. But for all its amenities, it asks you to pay a price that Chinese cannot do without – a voice. Silently writing characters is important for memorization, but not practicing the recordings with your voice and reading the textbook only allows for visual understanding of a language that depends on tones. The library is a false haven.

Saturday, July 12th 2008

Tony and a group of IUP students suggest a trip to Panjiayuan (潘家园) for a change of scenery. After train-hopping at Xizhimen and a quick taxi trip, we end up in front of a huge outdoor market. Scrolls, calligraphy brushes, paper posters from the Lei Feng, monuments and miniature dolls of Mao Zedong, statues of Buddha, and antiques from the turn of the 20th century are organized in neatly filed rows throughout the market. Rows of merchants sit leaning on walls or big statues, or if they’re unfortunate to be on the sunny side of the row, madly swoop their fans across their faces. I approach one stall to find a motley of broken Buddhas, rusted Cultural Revolution hair clips for women, old bronze coins, and a stone dildo flanked by two miniature forms of goddesses that remind me of India. One long aisle in the back of the market features millions of books sprawled out on the ground, including plays about model CCP children and love lost for the glory of the Party and countless copies of The Outlaws of the Marsh and Dream of the Red Mansion. Unfortunately, this aisle has no roof, and sellers are forced to rest on small stools or a sturdy stack of books squeezed in metal closets that every seller has.

The same evening, I rush through subways to meet my friend Danni (丹妮) at a famous hutong (胡同,the northern way of saying alleyway) called 南楼鼓巷,or Nanlouguxiang. I get off at the wrong subway station, and ask countless passers-by, elderly people and police officers, running through narrow alleyways with classical courtyards saved from bulldozing. Old men crouch together in front of small stores yelling at each other – the accent was too strong for me to figure out the conversation’s main points. Children run in the opposite direction, kicking a soccer ball amongst themselves and against the walls of the alleyway. Finally, I find 丹妮, and together we browse through the hutong, lined with restaurants, tea shops and specialty stores geared for tourists. Over dinner, Danni reveals that she is an intern at the Olympic Rowing competition site, and hints that she can get me a seat at the finals for a ticket price of about four dollars. As an Olympics intern, she gets to wear the red uniform. Volunteers wear blue, judges wear gray – I’m still trying to figure out who can wear green, yellow and orange.

Friday, July 18th 2008

The midterm is today. The weeks of not having tests to prepare have allowed me to relax and just read poems from the Tang Dynasty and listen to random radio broadcasts about classical music, the dangers of walking with flip-flops and love stories. A couple hours after I am finished with the test, I talk with all of my teachers to discuss mistakes I’ve made on the test and possible improvements to my study methods to make greater leaps of progress.

After the test, I meet with Zhou Laoshi, my first-year Chinese professor, and Dean Marichal Gentry, the Dean of Student Affairs at Yale. Fortunately, the rainy weather broadcast is wrong, and we enjoy a humid but still pleasant afternoon walking around the royal playground of the past dynasties. The scene isn’t different from last year – hundreds of people and local elderly circle Kunming Lake to glimpse at Empress Dowager Cixi’s stony vision of the Chinese navy (in the background, right). To avoid the tourist crowds, Professor Zhou buys us tickets to ride a boat to Suzhou Jie. Suzhou Jie reminds me of Venice, but with a broader waterway, more trees, stone bridges and oriental architecture that do not float. We wander into a store covered with Guilin fabrics. Dean Gentry buys an orange cloth with two dancers, reminiscent of African tribal dances - pity he couldn’t bargain for it.

In the evening, we meet the Light Fellows at the Duke Chinese program and IUP, Yale alumni in China and Yale-China Teaching Fellows at an amazing roast duck restaurant. The Duke Light Fellows have tests every Friday…I’ve forgotten that I had to endure the same torture while at the Harvard program.
I won’t see Professor Zhou or Dean Gentry for an entire year – while I am curious what China will be like after the Olympics, I wonder what I’ll be like after a year in China, what Yale will be like in a year. It’s more than a year away, but I wonder if I’ll be ready for the culture shock that Kelly talked about.

At Sanlitun, I lounge on a rooftop bar with Jason, a classmate, and a few of his friends from the States. Upon asking him what China will be like after the Olympics, he responds in similar confusion, “Thinking what China will be like after the Olympics is like thinking what life will be like after having sex with Madonna.”

Saturday July 19th, 2008
IUP hosts its second field trip to 798, the modern art “factory” of Beijing. The area was originally a weapons factory zone built using money from East Germany, but eventually factory owners rented the area for artist seeking studio and exhibition space. While there are still some active factories, it has become more economical for owners to rent out space to the artists than to manufacture products.

I never really learned how to appreciate art, but 798’s art seems to have two paradoxical purposes – to criticize China and to praise China. Some exhibitions clearly try to preserve classical art techniques, but juxtapose Western motifs like Salvador Dali’s melting clocks with calligraphy. Other exhibitions express frustration towards the government. One painting features a few Chinese men with similar shirts that have a logo modeled like Tiananmen Square, but their smiles are horribly exaggerated, simply fake. The only common thread throughout all the works is confusion – everyone knows the country is developing, but nobody knows where the country is headed. Repeating the title of a famous Chinese history book, everyone seems confused where to search for modern China.
The only exhibition that really stood out and related to my thoughts on China “The Dustproof Cloth” by Yao Lu. Yao uses dustproof cloth manipulated by computer art editing programs to form poetic images of beautiful green mountains that remind one of an ancient mystical China, but upon closer inspection, the green dustproof cloth covers mounds of shoveled dirt and disaster sties – it covers the ugliness. The mountains, mounds of dust and theft, is Yao’s symbol of contemporary China.

I met with Danni in the evening to go to 王府井, or Wangfujing, to enjoy the street food. Wangfujing is like the Times Square of Beijing - lots of lights, huge TVs covering building walls, lots of people. At one point, the TV played the Chinese Olympic cheer. All of a sudden, the children around me clapped and cheered in unison along with the commercial. Even the adults around me muttered the cheer under their mouths. After wandering around the huge bookstore and specialty stores around the plaza, we went to the street food stalls. I had legs of octopus, lotus rice, and strange balls filled with fish, sticks of candied grapes, and coconut milk. According to one of my teachers, eating scorpions is beneficial for skin quality. I don’t know about the scientific proof behind that relation, but the scorpions were delicious. They tasted like potatoes. Jason says that Xian has better street food – I wonder if I’ll have an opportunity to go there in the future. The scorpions are supposed to be better there. The seahorses looked at me with these pathetic eyes, so I skipped them for today.

Since I bought a bicycle in China, I’ve been practicing to ride without touching the handles. After nearly crashing into speeding cars, actually crashing into a couple pedestrians and replacing one ripped tire after a nasty crash into a tree, I can now comfortably bike without hands. My experiences and reflections in China can be, I think, summarized by my bike. While talking with Dean Gentry, I realized how confused I still was about what I wanted to study at Yale and do later in life. I’m done with my premedical studies and MCAT, but I’m not sure if I want to pursue medicine. Throughout sophomore year, studying Chinese was an escape, a source of procrastination, from studying organic chemistry and physics. But here, all I do is study Chinese. As Dean Gentry summarizes, “You can think of the path you’re biking on as your Chinese education. In the beginning, you’re getting used to the environment, your studies, so it’s completely understandable that you hang on tight to your plans, to the handles. Everyday, the people who you come across encourage you to try their jobs, to try new experiences. As the let go of what you’ve considered as your life plan, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable, so you’ll force yourself to refocus on your original studies, on your original path – you’ll hold the handles. But as you grow confident in your ability to communicate and relate with the people around you, you let go of your own plans – you let the bike curve as the front wheel curves about. However, you’re still moving on one path – Chinese. No matter what job you pursue, in China you have your Chinese education as your foundation, your path.”

Biking back to my dorm late at night, I see nobody in the street, so I let go of the handles. I’m still uncomfortable if the wheel turns too much, and to be honest, I’m still not sure what to do with this language that I’m dedicating a year to, but at least I’m experiencing and learning something new everyday.

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1 Comment:

Fern said...

on the way to work, i saw a guy that looked exactly like you. it nearly freaked me out, because i knew you were supposed to be in china. lol. i almost called out your name!

i never would have imagined that scorpions tasted like potatoes. i am sorry to say that i will probably never be adventurous enough to try them. >.<

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