Confessions of a Tingbudonged Foreigner

By Bryan • china, personal • 30 Oct 2005

I originally wrote this to file away in my hard drive along with some other personal notes I’ve complied over the years. I don’t know why I’m publicly posting it. Maybe because I’m slightly proud of it (yay…I can still somewhat write!). Probably because a goal of this blog was to chronicle my life, here, and whatever that might entail.

Warning…you may or may not want to read this. Some of it’s pretty private. Might be a different Bryan you encounter, but I’m hoping it is the same one you already know. And please, I’m not looking for ‘oh, are you OK? I’m perfectly fine.

Literally, no one understands me here. Defeat after defeat, after defeat….even ordering green tea presents its own unique challenges. I’m finding that despite my best efforts at attempting to learn this language, I am stuck. After two months of study, I do not seem to have improved much upon what I have previously known. The only improvements appear to have materialized in the form of my reading skills. I can read and somewhat understand the texts that are given too me, yet reproduction of those characters orally remains elusive. Initially, I thought I had a talent for listening, a knack, one could say, that my fellow classmates lacked. I could easily pick up the initials and finals associated with pinyin, and their corresponding tonal intonations. But recently, it is like I have stepped of the deep end without being taught how to tread water. I’m sinking fast. Each listening unit has me scratching my head. The dialogues have gone from 0 to 100 faster than I can say Mao Zhedong. This change is almost like black and white. I’m quite scared. I’ll be purchasing the tapes that complement the text and a cheap walkman, in an effort to catch up with my understanding.

I had initially hoped that listening would be passive, that it would have to be something that I would have to study, like one would study characters. As a language teacher, I know that listening is the foundation of learning any language, but I naively placed faith that the two listening classes a week would be enough. So I now have to dedicate adequate time to understanding the listening texts. This places added strain on my already difficult study schedule. I have classes from 8-12 every weekday, followed by an hour long lunch and a half hour bus ride. Monday’s to Wednesdays, I’m negotiating middle school students from 1:30 to 3:30…Thursdays and Fridays till 4:00. After than I’m off on the bus back to my apartment where I chill for an hour or two before dinner, sometimes doing some housework or catching up on net related things. Dinner is usually on the street or in a hole-in-wall restaurant…sometimes I cave in and head to McDonalds when my day has been shitty. It’s not because I particularly like the food there, or agree with the fast food concept, it is just that it is 100% BS free, and easy to order. A lot of my favorite street food isn’t available to after 9pm anyway. 7ish I’m back home, or in a tea bar where I usually study to about 11-12ish before hitting the sack. I usually visit with my friends Friday night. I work Saturday night from 6-9 at this rather sketchy English School that has more than once caused me some grief. It is across the road from my apartment, so my presence is only out of convenience. Many English schools are scattered around Nanjing, requiring lengthy travel time, something which really isn’t efficient time management. I’m very disappointed with myself for accepting crap from them. I talk the talk about being tough with schools to newbs, but I sill let some of them jerk me around. It’s embarrassing, really. I suppose it’s a fear that the confrontation will damage the relationship and somewhat reinforces the stereotype of the greedy foreigner. We get paid piles here in comparison to our Chinese counterparts, and while such salaries are merely simple supply and demand, it is often very difficult to convey that without feeling guilty. I voiced my annoyance at schedule changes tonight, but didn’t feel very good about it. I have too much of a conscious I suppose. Am I too nice?

Sometimes I’ll meet up with friends during the week, but I usually feel quite guilty about wasting a night, when I really need to be studying. Characters missed one night will spell disaster for the next morning’s class. It’s quite competitive, as my classmates don’t work, instead having all afternoon and night to work on their Chinese. Most are Korean, a few Vietnamese and Japanese. Many are wives of Korean and Japanese business men, whose companies finance their studies as part of an anti-idless program. Most of the younger people studying are hard working but there are several for which it is fairly obvious that they are there on their parents bill and couldn’t give a shit about their performance (so, I’m not the worst in the class!).

Studying right now is a mixed bag…I’m trying different approaches, but generally speaking, 90% of my dedicated study time each night focuses on learning the characters taught that day, or previous days. I’m usually a unit behind the rest of the class. It takes me a long time to learn my characters. Memorizing strokes for 20 characters will probably take all night. Upon which after one learns the required characters, there are a pile of grammar and sentence exercises to be completed. Unfortunately, I rarely get around to this…getting the characters done is a big enough accomplishment, yet along being able to use the consistently. Like I’ve mentioned before, recognizing is not a huge problem, but writing is. After writing character five or six times, I’ll have it memorized, for reading purposes, but I will be unable to recall how to write it. A huge emphasis is placed on writing characters at school, and as any Chinese language student will tell you, learning to write characters is extremely inefficient. It requires an in proportionate amount of time to memorize the stroke order of a character…time that could better be spent on improving listening. Such is the Catch-22 I’m facing. I’m required to write characters, yet overall, I feel like my progression as a language student is suffering because of it. I enjoy writing characters, the Chinese character is a beautiful little entity, but I feel like I’m dumping water into a bottomless pit. I can write pinyin, which in turn, enables me to write characters on the computer with ease. Right now, (pardon the pun), I’m more concerned regarding my listening skills, than writing, yet school requirements demand good writing skills. I’ve noticed that sometimes I am understood, yet I am unable to continue the conversation because my listening is appalling.

I’m writing this in a tea bar, where I was initially planning on working on my characters for Monday, yet the disaster over ordering simple green tea has destroyed the initiative, and I don’t really have any inclination to hit the books tonight. My three attempts at explaining I wanted to drink green tea (我要喝缕茶; wo yao he lu cha) had the waitress scurring away in search of an English speaker. I managed to grab her before she could embarrass me more and blurted out that black tea was fine (with assistance from a menu) which she understood. It is odd how small items like that will eliminate an otherwise cheery mood.

It’s Halloween, actually. There’s this big party over at the John Hopkins Center. Don’t really have any inclination to go to that either. I was out last night, which was a good night at one of ‘pubish’ establishments with cheap Qingdao beer.

It’s a rare occasion for me to talk about women, let alone writing about them, or do it publically! but that is also something occupying my mind recently. For the first time in a very long time, I’m becoming interested in acquiring a significant other, just not really sure in regards to what type. Despite the stereotype of China as a white man’s paradise, I don’t find this topic any easy here than it was in Canada. Obtaining a local lady is something I’ve thought about a lot, largely because of the pure benefits incurred in terms of language and culture learning (you are very honourable, aren’t you Bryan?) Numerous are very attractive and I’ve come to understand that many also have much to say, insights and opinions of which have generally surprised and caught my attention. Many of them are very smart and resourceful, having to put up with BS in this country that many of us cannot even contemplate. An equal number are spoiled childish kids. For me, dating a local is difficult, largely because of my requirements for a relationship, which is difficult to fulfill unless their command of English (or my command of Chinese) is excellent. I cannot commit to a relationship unless I feel that I truly know the person. I will not be a foreign trophy, nor will I be the object of a foreign fetish. I’ve come across both. Casual dating with locals is something which is more of my interest, yet such situations rarely exist. I know many smart, attractive students in China, yet as a student, their time is limited, as are their finances (I will not be a wallet). Financially sound and independent women are extremely difficult to find, let alone approach. Being an asshole would definitely make such things much easier, yet it is something that I’m not. I have too much respect for the people of China and the crap that they have to endure everyday, that it would be impossible for me to treat them as such. Everyone’s experience is different, this is mine. “Have fun Bryan, don’t worry!” Only if you are not an asshole.

The other option lies within the foreigner circle. The women to be found there are cool, smart and well, western. Many I consider to my my ‘type’, if there is such a word. Feel free to call me a jerk, but I just cannot see any benefit though…I want to learn Chinese, and my free time is limited. I would be speaking too much English, which is conductive to a relationship, yet disastrous for language learning. Nanjing is also a small boat, in which social workings can be disrupted easily, as relationships begin largely within friends. I like my life simple, and free of as much complexity as possible. Dealing with such inconsistencies within a circle of friends has the potential of being stressful. I also don’t inherently trust many women in China, both foreign and local, this being largely a product of several past experiences and doesn’t fare well in an situation such as Nanjing.

A large proportion of socializing between foreigners is conducted within a night club environment, due largely to the lack of an established pub culture. I’ve developed a craving for dancing, yet my affliction for night clubs probably ends with exploring the dance floor with my friends. I do not like engaging conversation in a night club, mainly for the obvious reason that I cannot understand a word being said, nor conversely, can the other party understand my ramblings. I adore a good conversation, something which cannot be achieved in such an atmosphere. In addition to the obvious, and perhaps my primary issue is my recently observed phenomenon of the night clubber. People are different in such surroundings, substantially different, than they would be outside. I cannot gauge a person in a night club. I have absolutely no idea of who they really are. The person in the club and the person outside of the club are completely different individuals. It probably does not seem like a big issue, yet because the majority of socializing between foreigners, especially between people who are unfamiliar with one another, occurs in a night club ambiance in which I find it difficult to engage genuine conversations, and as such, I have lost several opportunities due to my inability to operate under such conditions. I just can’t do it that way.

I don’t consume dairy products in China, aside from the odd yogurt and ice cream (does that count?). The milk here is atrocious. For a few weeks I was feeling very empty headed, and recalled a friend of mine (who studied Chinese medicine) commenting that the phenomenon of empty headedness is actually a product of calcium deficiency. Apparently one requires 1000-1500mg of calcium each day, something which (even with a multi-vitamin) I knew I was not getting. So I stocked up on Calcium supplements. I’m much sharper now. I think I’ll try ginkgo next.

While this probably appears as digressional ramblings, maybe even border line depressional (I’m just pissed that the fuwuyuan didn’t understand my request for green tea), I am indeed still enjoying my time here. My earnings from teaching enable me to enjoy a relatively high level of existence, even though most of my salary is dedicated to bills and travel savings. Travel is cheap, and I’m 100% comfortable roaming around this country. I love it. I am hoping to have enough to enjoy my Spring Vacation in the New Year. Maybe Vietnam and I’m also eyeballing a 13,000ft mountain in Shanxi province. Yet the awkwardness of the Chinese payment system injects an aura of uncertainty which can cloud my financial planning. While teaching keeps me eating I don’t really enjoy it. I find it incredibly boring, redundant and feel very useless as a person. It really does not matter if I am there, or if I am not there. I suppose it is the lack of a “I am making a difference” feeling. Strangely enough, I did feel like I was making somewhat of a difference doing techie grunt work in the bush…because I knew that my recommendations were being acted upon, and that what I said in my reports was helping in ensuring that the forest would grow well, and that biodiversity and such will be maintained. I believed in the work. Call me arrogant, but I also believed that my work was better than many of the other companies doing similar contracts, I felt like I knew the forest dynamics better. I could step in a clearcut and know within 5 minutes what needed to be done. That feeling doesn’t exist here, nor does any pride. I’m just a tool, used by the school to lure in unsuspecting students who pay exhorborent fees to be ‘taught’ English by a native speaker. I’ve also never enjoyed the feeling that this is what my degree earned me…a job in which I am lumped together with people with a quarter of my education and knowledge. People who never took the time to go to school or work their asses off for that piece of scrap…yet are able to do the same job as me. I respect Nanjing in the sense that it the teachers here are quality, people like myself….yet I know that there is white trash spread all across the shores of Big Red, engaging in my ‘profession’.

I still believe in learning Chinese. Will it be useful? I’m not sure…I not longer discuss in serious depth why I’m studying with anyone, especially my friends from Canada. I’ve actually snapped at people who inquire. I have no career plans. I don’t know where I’m going. I like to keep things like that to myself. I’ve got three sets of friends getting married this coming year. Married! What’s happening? What am I doing!?
I still believe in learning Chinese because the world is globalizing fast. Fifteen years ago, language requirements for a job were more of a bonus requirement hoped for by a company looking for a perfect employee, now it is almost as important as a degree. It is a measuring stick, I suppose. Something that will may not make you any better than another prospective employee, but it will make you different. It is a gamble I still believe will pay off. I have to believe it will pay off…there are no second chances in the 21st century…one cannot change their jobs like they used to, requirements are too high, years of training, experience and education, too high to start from scratch. Years need to be spend building relationships in an industry, working the ladder, making friends. Might even be too late for me. What I fear most though is that my studies will devolve into a useless attempt at gaining something which I have no right to. I remember in my fourth year of university I attempted mathematics. I’ve always performed poorly in that subject, but I was determined to give it a shot again and I dived in with a good attitude and high expectations…I failed miserably. I’m afraid that the same might happen with Chinese. I was never good at language study, and it is more likely than not, I will be defeated in my second attempt at learning a second tongue, much in the same way I was destroyed by my attempts at math. I have to hack this out…I have to write the HSK and get a decent score.

Did I just say that I’m not bitter? Probably difficult to believe that! I’m cool.

I absolutely love Chinese tea bars…next too standing idling in the 86’ers listening to the snow fall, they are the chillest, most relaxed and slow environments I’ve experienced. I drop a lot of coin and do much of my studying in joints like this. I can plug my notebook in and hang out all night. Writing characters can be boring, and distractions come easily in my apartment, mostly in the form of the internet and dvds. The presence of other people also, for some reasons, increases my ability to study. I’ve been writing for almost three hours straight…I’ve compiled almost 3000 words. This is the first time I’ve ever done a keyboard marathon of such Olympic proportions about essentially nothing.

I just reread my opening few sentences. I’m going to change something. I initially wrote that I haven’t learned anything. I’ve learned piles. I’ve learned heaps of Chinese; I know I can hold crappy conversations with people. I did it yesterday with my cab driver. We talked about our families (it’s probably a pretty good indication of the sheer difficulty of this language, when I can do that, and be understood, but cannot order green tea). These defeats, these setbacks…they are all just part of why I am here. Man, you know…I wouldn’t have written this if I hadn’t been tingbudonged by my waitress.

I’m going to finish my tea, and then fall asleep on this couch chuckling about the chinglish written on my tea cup “Wish you have a welfare and happiness”.

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One Response

  1. Sue

    I think your teacup is supposed to read ‘wish you health wealth and happiness!! Maybe if you say it fast enough?

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