09 September 2007
Subject: Loud Incoherency, Silent Understanding


Haloo Dearies!

Take Note!! Website: mollybee.org/china.html -- less cumbrous url, additional pictures, and improved bald spots. * Now with extra balding! *

So salutations from China! Heh, it never gets old... I wake up and I'm /still/ in China. I've been here three weeks now, and the only reason I actually believe that is because I have been watching the scab heal up on my knee. I burned myself on a campfire ember just before I left Colorado, summer in the mountains, clear starry nights, and loves of my life. Way back in a month called "August" which was the month of my most recent rebirth.

Not only can I hold my head up and look around, but also I can walk by myself now, without clinging to things too much. I'm eating solid foods, of course, and am already toilet trained! It's pretty exciting to become my own person again, but I really need to work on my speech impediment. I'm focusing on picking up speech patterns with intensive listening sessions ("conversations") which invariably lead me, with much pressing desire, to figure out how to express an idea ("converse").

Phone conversations are the hardest because I don't have the benefit of gesture, facial cues, or wild ad-hoc theatrical mini-productions in pantomime. Yet somehow, I have successfully communicated through appropriately-timed grunts, strategic use of limited vocabulary, and creative grammatical departures. "WEI, NI HAU! UU-UU-UUU-UUU-UUH... DUE. ... DUE. UUU-UUU-UUUH. WA XIANG YAO ZUO CHIFAN NALI. HAU, BUHAU? UUH. UUH. HAU. ... GALI-FEN. ... ZHIDAO, WA ZHIDAO. ... WOU-- CAI SHI DIEN-DIEN, uhh TIAN-TIAN? IDIEN-DIEN. Okay, umm... HAU. ZAIJIAN!" (Loudly, of course, as apparently that's how Chinese is at it's most optimal for comprehension). I was trying to tell my neighbor that yes I was at home, I wanted to eat, that I was cooking a dish for them, with curry, that I would be down, in five or ten little bits of time, uummkay, bye! *face-palm* *elbow-ear* Awkward, but understood.

[This is wild-- I have to interject that I just typed this with each hand on a different keyboard. OH! I got a laptop from the school (finally), so my quality of life has greatly improved, if also gotten heavier.]

My neighbors are excellent teachers. We drink tea and play cards and just interact, talking as intelligibly to one another as we can. They have amazing patience with my babble, and the little girl neighbors help me understand characters in their magazines. I learned the past tense the other day by asking Lichi the words for today from tomorrow, and yesterday from today, pointing to three cards in a row on the table. Tomorrow, I eat, today I eat, yesterday...? I /ate/! Chi guo-le. What a relief to know to add "guo-le" to any verb!

One of the neighbor's relatives is deaf and mute. He comes over on occasion and we sit to play Chinese poker. Words don't stand in the way of our communication, so I tell him that he doesn't hear, speak, and that I don't understand hearing, speaking, so we are two of the same. He agrees. He thanks me for pouring tea with two finger taps on the table-- the way everyone wordlessly gives thanks for pouring. He plays the game by slapping his cards down and pointing animatedly, as I do. He taught me how to count with hand signs, the way everyone quotes prices in the marketplace. At the end of the evening, with all of our communication, it's hard to believe we haven't said a single word to each other.

In contrast, I obviously have much more difficulty when people depend on their words to convey meaning. Walking along the beach, other beach-goers have approached and asked me things out of context, I have no idea what. Once, a woman, dismayed by my lack of response, unhanded me of my bag, looked through it, and gave it back shaking her head. Not as strange as the boy who walked up to me, fiddling with his cell phone, and asked if he could have me. Do you mean to ask me if you can /have/ me? Nod of assent. BU HUE! No, you cannot have me! I relate the stories to Lichi and we laugh, snickering with sounds from our respective socio-linguistic repertoires.

You know the ocean is right outside my window, yes? There are only four lanes of road and a sidewalk separating our building from the sandy beach. We are in a channel of seawater protected from the open ocean by several islands and Taiwan, which we can see across the way. The water laps the shore with small, frequent, short, sharp waves. Too short. The thunder I often hear towards evening time is also too short and sharp; it doesn't reverberate the way it does in the Colorado mountains or on the California coast. I mentioned it to Mitch and he said, yeah, he also thought it was strange thunder when he first heard it. But then he learned that it was Chinese government cannons being shot off every day towards Taiwan to remind them who's really still in charge. I asked a friend if that was true, and she said it might be dynamiting in the hillsides, because that's the cause of a similar sound near her house. I'm wavering between explanations, but Mitch is going to go ahead and believe the most humorous one.

Hey, I got a fancy magnetic bus pass and put money on it. Now I really feel invested and more confidently [just had another stunningly impossible phone conversation with Lichi] a part of the daily scene here. I took a taxi home by myself last week, but I forgot house keys, so I had to wrangle directions with another driver, back to the nightclub. I then successfully returned home, again, as if just to prove to myself that my understandability wasn't a fluke. It's so freeing of a lot of fears to realize that I can go anywhere on this island, get lost, do whatever, and always hop in a cab and reset my location to "domicile".

Many of you have asked about the food here. How typically Chinese of you! Food is so central to entertainment here. It's not uncommon to be urged to eat several dinners in the same night. BBQ-kebabs are popular here, but maybe that's not a local style. Mitch and I eat out a lot, Korean, Shezuan, Hong Kong, last night we had hot-pot... so it's hard to speak about a definitive Xiamen cuisine. The foods we had on Gulangyu were sea creatures we pointed to while they were still hyperventilating in buckets. Generally, though, the dishes tend to be slightly spiced and somewhat sweetened.

At school, we eat in the cafeteria. In response to Mitch's hunger at lunchtime, Robert asked, "Aw, man, how can you /do/ that to yourself?" Apparently, someone doesn't approve of the salty-brown dishes served in the crapeteria. I think it's pretty good fare, now that I've learned how to choose edible dishes. A nice meal might consist of separate little plates of: cooked green things in a salt bath, tomato chunks sprinkled with sugar, stewed eggplant peppered with animal bits in a salted brown oil, rotary-phone-dial-shaped slices of lotus root cooked al dente with salty tidbits of flesh, whole prawns cooked head-feet-tail intact, and the daily staple of rice. I really do think it's quite tasty! Though my body and palate are not fans of all the heavy salts... Mono-Sodium Glutamate, Tri-Sodium Sodomite or whatever chemicals they have going on back there.

I don't mean to dissuade any of my vegetarian friends who want to come and visit me, but there're little bits of meat hidden in most dishes here. Although not overwhelmingly high in actual animal muscle protein, the diet is rife with incorporated creature parts. I once got a sweet roll of bread at breakfast with what looked like nuts or fruit on top, but when I bit into it, yeah, they were bits of animals of an undisclosed nature. And I don't get it about the duck heads. I mean, sure, I understand how people can enjoy eating a duck head. But a whole tray of duck heads?! Where's the rest of their carcasses?! That's what I'm wondering. Duck head, duck head, roly-poly duck head... I sing to myself as I stroll back towards my office.

I spend a fair number of our three-hour lunch breaks in the office, enjoying the silence of everyone else's absence. As I mentioned, it is customary here to JAB YOUR WORDS INTO THE AIR AS IF YOU DON'T TRUST THAT THE PHYSICS OF SOUND WILL HOLD UP THROUGH THE ENTIRETY OF YOUR OUTBURSTS! QUICK! SHOUT IT OUT BEFORE WAVE COMPRESSION STOPS WORKING! The first two weeks in the office were godawful-- in addition to the stress of loudness, people smoke like un-tended brushfires, and I never knew what was going on. I didn't get any direction from the head of the English department, and everyone else was playing with their computers. Computerless until now, I sat listlessly, with only the sound and smoke to guide my unfolding frustrations. Jesus Christ playing tiddley-winks with rabid squirrels in a hot air balloon!!!

But now that classes have started, I absolutely *love* my job. Such an unusual sentiment for me to have towards a paid occupation! I'm in love with all our students in the Oral English class Mitch and I teach. The 13 kids are senior level twos, meaning juniors in high school (11th grade), and are all enrolled in the burgeoning International Program Mitch is leading. Mitch also covers their English literature and creative writing, while Mr. Gao teaches grammar, and then they have other subjects like maths and sciences taught in Chinese. (The way it works in the schools here is that a group of students will stick together in the same homeroom throughout the day, and teachers rotate in and out). The students are sweet and respectful, interested in us and the subject, fun-loving, and willing to give this whole program a try. They are so bright; at first it was hard to look directly at them. Anyway, it's a great crew and I'm looking forward to a wonderful year guiding and teaching them.

Next week, I'll start some teacher-trainings for the primary school English teachers. I'll have three levels of ability and vocabulary needs, so I'll be making different lesson plans for them. With the five Oral English classes a week and a possible other six classes of first-graders, I'll probably have 14 classes a week, leaving me plenty of time for office hours and additional tutoring. Mr. Yu, who I've arbitrarily dubbed Wilson, has already made extensive use of my free time by sitting me down and asking me every question he had written in a book, just in case he ever have opportunity to quiz a native speaker.

I'm starting to learn people's names and recognize them around the school. Mary, sweet-voiced. Alyssa, braided pig-tails. Wang Dao, pianist extraordinaire. Morgan, who speaks of the rare and exquisite teas from his hometown on Wui Mountain. Stone tea. Does anyone know what the most expensive tea in China is? I'm still wikipedia-less over here and I don't trust commercial sources. Several people have remarked that the most expensive of teas go for one or two hundred thousand RMB per pound, though I haven't found evidence of this on the internet. Then again, why should I? Censorship be damned.

The most expensive tea I've had here was 1000 RMB per pound, and was a sample for the hopefully soon-to-be company Lotus Pond Tea. Keep your eyes peeled for that, especially in those of you in Boulder. The tea here is superb; I had no idea what tea should taste like until I had a proper tea brewing experience. It involves a little table-tray with a reservoir underneath, two pots, tiny doll-size cups, and a lot of hot splashing and over-pouring.

But I might be getting off-topic... where was I? Ah yes, so I'm still in China!

I wonder if I'm the only person in China who keeps a spice-bottle full of curry powder on her bedside table, on a dish with a little ear-pick-sized spoon. It's so strange how I crave The Spice, but my perspiration doesn't smell right without it. Now I know my secret! If you miss me, just eat curry, and you can produce your own Mollyfumes.

Yesterday, in the office, Mitch looked up from typing and asked across our cubicle partition, "Is there something equivalent to a spell-checker in Chinese?" I just laughed. Do I have to ask rhetorical questions about whether I need to explain that Chinese is based on meaningful characters?

Another great quote from a teacher yesterday: "Some of us are thinking that you are very beautiful," in response to "Yes, I want to lose weight," which was in response to "Why do you not eat rice today; do you want to lose weight?" which was in response to "Correct, I am not eating rice today," which was in response to "You're not eating rice today?"

As mentioned, last night we ate hot-pot. A round pot with a yin-yang shaped partition separating hot spicy broth from sweet delicately-spiced broth. We ordered cabbage, spinach, tofu, yams, fine mutton slices, "pork pills" and dumplings to drop in the broths to boil. HAU CHI! After stuffing ourselves, we walked over to a parlour to get massages. Not the kind with "happy endings," just normal foot and back massages. Best foot massage I've EVER gotten (and that's saying a lot). 50 RMB for the hour.

Speaking of 50 RMB (ouhh, maybe $8 American), that's the amount I currently have left. I've carefully metered out my remaining 140 RMB from last week, though Mitch picked up dinner the other day. I'm confident that I can live on this much money for another week if need be. Hopefully I'll get paid on Monday, but one never knows until what's said is done. Yesterday and today I cooked for myself-- vegetable soup with carrots, bok choy, ginger, onion, garlic, and ramen; side of cucumber and tomatoes... 6 RMB to the nice vegetable lady. Some grapes and dragons eyes... 5 RMB to the dark-eyed fruit lady. Dinner and breakfast and lunch and dinner the next day completely free of salt... priceless. Monday I should be back in the game with 50 times what I have now... and that's only a half-month's salary. There are definitely two life-styles to be lead here, but more on that next time.

Yours ever in personality bifurcations,
茉莉花
Mollyflower

P.S. The turtles are /definitely/ not imaginary: there are only seven fish left.