Sunday, October 9, 2011

一个没有英语的星期

First

Hanna invited me to her hometown, Shuangyashan (双鸭山, literally "Twin Duck Mountain"). Knowing that I hadn't had a vacation since Spring Festival, back in February, and that all I wanted to do was read and write, she said I needed to get away from Kaifaqu. She just went ahead and bought the tickets even though she was worried I'd be uncomfortable on the long train ride there.

"Well, how long's the ride?" I asked.

"Around twenty hours," she said.

No problem, but my words did nothing to lessen her worry, especially after she couldn't get any tickets for the cars with beds. I said I'd be fine.

"One other thing," I told her. "I don't want to speak English at all during this trip."

"OK, no problem."

Travel Times

(times approximate)

there
light rail from Kaifaqu to downtown Dalian: half an hour
train from downtown to Jiamusi: twenty hours
bus from Jiamusi to Shuangyashan: two hours

back
bus from Shuangyashan to Harbin: six hours
train from Harbin to downtown Dalian: ten hours (it was supposed to be nine)
bus from downtown to Kaifaqu: forty minutes

The First Couple Days: Speaking Only Chinese and Sitting on the Train

On the first, Hanna—who I had to call by her Chinese name, 陈茜 (Chén Qiàn)—and I met early and had breakfast before stocking up for the long train ride. This first day without English was really bizarre. I'd never been so aware of words taking form in my mind as I was that day. Forcing myself to speak only Mandarin, my thoughts became extremely loud in English. I could hardly keep up with all the ideas for stories and poems coming at me. I had the thought I'm not in my mouth, at which I laughed aloud and couldn't explain to a questioning Hanna.

When we finally got on the train, the people seated nearby kept staring as we talked. They'd ask Hanna a question about me, and she'd tell them, "{Ask him.}" Everybody on the train thought I was Russian.

We talked for hours, slowly because of my busted Chinese, and the train filled. Some passengers had bought standing-only tickets, and they had to occupy the aisles. Their presence made it difficult but certainly not impossible for the hourly cart that would come through, pushed by an employee selling junk food and beer. No, difficult isn't the right word, because if the passengers didn't get out of the way, he just pushed his cart into them. Harder's probably a better word, yeah. And this sight became worse once night came and the non-seat-having passengers, tired, finally sat on the floor, their heads resting against the sides of others' seats. The man with the cart shouted, "{I'm coming! I'm coming!}" waking them harshly. Also, every so often a man with a broom came to sweep up all the crap people were throwing on the floor. A third man would push a trash can down the aisle every once in a while, but most of the trash went on the floor. As uncomfortable as we were having to sleep sitting up, we both agreed it was better than not having a seat.

When we finally arrived at Hanna's parents' house, we were greeted by many family members, among them her three-year-old daughter, Eileen, who, over the next week, would be the person I'd be talking to the most. We ate, and of course the baijiu was brought out, that most disgusting of alcoholic drinks (perhaps second only to Korean's makgeolli). Though this baijiu was in fact red, the first time I've seen it anything but clear, and was hailed by Hanna's brother-in-law, who claimed it had grapes in it, it was still disgusting.

Possible tangent but important: Invariably, whenever I drink baijiu, which is, believe me, as rare as I can get away with, an English-speaking Chinese person will translate it as "white wine." While the first character, 白 (bái), certainly means "white," the second character, 酒 (jiǔ), means "alcohol," not "wine"—little tip for you. Baijiu is not, and this bears repeating, is not made from grapes and doesn't taste anything like wine. If you have to drink it—and if you live in northeast China, you probably will have to—drink it slowly, not to stave off drunkenness (because you'll probably be getting drunk if you have to drink in this region) but to avoid the awful taste.

Worn out (and me now a little buzzed), Hanna and I were shown to her former grandparents' apartment, where she, her father, and her daughter crashed in one room and I crashed in another.

Speaking Another Language Is Better Than Whispering

Over the next week, we ate, drank, and played with Eileen. I barely spent any money because Hanna's family kept taking us out to eat or cooking us dinner. At many of the meals, the men drank alcohol. As I alluded to above, northeast China, Dongbei, has a big drinking culture. It's not that you have to drink, I hear, but if you don't drink, people don't think you're honest. Now, I don't know how reliable that information is. It's something a lot of people say. I don't know if you'll actually be thought of as dishonest. I do know, however, that you're pretty much expected to drink if others are and that if you can drink a lot, people will generally tell you how impressed they are with you. The meaning of a lot, though, is pretty low. In my experience, people have said I had drunk a lot after only three bottles. Granted, the bottles are bigger than the twenty-ouncers back in the States, but still, these ain't the biggest containers of alcohol in the world. It's hard to know, then, whether people actually think you've drunk a lot, or are just saying that. What's clear is that drinking's important, and you'll see folks drinking at 9 in the morning, say, which isn't weird, and they serve beer on the trains when the breakfast cart, which is the same as the dinner cart, is being pushed around.

One night Hanna's father, a quiet man, and I got drunk and talked over dinner. Hanna was in another room. She'd been kind of translating for us. It wasn't that I was speaking English, but they had a little bit of a hard time understanding my Chinese, and I had a hard time understanding their dialect. Their /sh/s came out a /s/, and there was a lot more retroflexion than I was used to. And, hell, let's be honest: as this trip proved, I simply don't know as many Chinese words as I'd like. But so Hanna was in another room, and her dad asked me a question. When I didn't understand, his wife jumped in, speaking a lot faster. "{Slow down,}" he told her. "{He'll understand if we speak slowly.}" She got closer and louder, as though I couldn't hear, but was still too fast. It took us ten minutes for me to understand that he was asking me whether America had coal mines. I knew all the words he was saying, but because there was no introduction to the topic, I didn't know the context. This problem occurred a lot.

Right before another dinner, Hanna said loudly, in front of her family, "If I want to say something and don't want them to understand, I can speak English." When we sat down, she was across the table from me, with four family members on each side separating us. I almost used the English-as-a-secret-language trick when her brother-in-law, out of nowhere, pointed to a drawing on the wall of our private room.

"{Do you know who that is?}" he asked me.

"{Yeah. It's Mao,}" I said, purposely leaving off the title though I knew it to be at least a little impolite. "{He's in our books.}"

"{Chairman Mao,}" he corrected me. He said something I didn't understand about George Washington.

I had seen the drawing when I first entered the room. My first thought was Sit down, Mao, and shut up, you dead fuck. I don't like dictators at the dinner table.

Eileen











Because she had trouble remembering my name, she just called me her 干爸爸 (gānbàba, literally "dry father"). When we picked her up from kindergarten and a teacher wondered who the foreigner was, Eileen said, "{My dry father.}" Before we arrived in Shuangyashan, Hanna had told Eileen I'd take her to KFC, her favorite restaurant (yes, yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken—I know). All week she asked me when we'd go. She was the only person I understood just about completely, and we spent a lot of time playing together.

Mother Tongue

I was going to speak only Chinese for nine days, but Hanna wanted me to speak English on the eighth day, once we got on the bus to Harbin. "I like your mother tongue," she said.

On the way back, we had beds on the train and slept through the overnight ride much more comfortably.

Read on the Way to, in, and on the Way Back from Shuangyashan

the last hundredish pages of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
the first two hundredish pages of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood

3 comments:

  1. 干爸爸 is akin to our "godfather" or, as here, "honorary uncle."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Except thoughts aren't in English or Chinese.

    ReplyDelete
  3. There's so much I left out of this story.

    ReplyDelete