Friday, April 21, 2006

New post from the holiday below but first a few random musings.

Whilst on holiday and since then, I've had a chance to gnaw my way through a reasonable stack of books, many of which I'll discuss in more detail when I'm finished with recounting the holiday itself. However, now that I'm back I'm reading a great book called River Town: Two years on the Yangtze, by an American author and now Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, Peter Hessler.

In '96 as a Peace Corps volunteer Peter went to work as an English teacher in a city on the Yangtze where he was one of the first Westerners ever to live in the city. As a constant object of fascination, derision and general confusion for the locals he writes about the bewildering, eye-opening and touching experiences he has in the two years he lived there. It's a very well written account of what was clearly an infinitely bigger culture shock than coming to live in a relatively Westernised Beijing where, in the right places, white faces are far from unusual. The number of faux pas he makes are, I hope, far in excess of those I've been making, simply because the people that I work with are pretty used to Western ideas (even though I'm the first Westerner in the department) and I think they give me a pretty decent amount of breathing space when it comes to making blunders. Anyway, I highly recommend this as a great intro to mid 90s small city Chinese life and customs from the point of view of a struggling American.

Saying that, I did make a blunder a few days ago which has been intriguing. I bought back from my holiday a small present for a member of the department to thank them for allowing me the time away. I took this present to give to the person, chatted for a while and then offered the gift. They refused, saying that I should give it to someone else. I insisted that they take it and again, they said that it would be better going to another. I thought that I shouldn't push the matter any further so withdrew the gift, said goodbye and left, a little puzzled.

Chatting later with an Asian friend I mentioned what had happened and, in the politest possible terms, they told me that I'd done wrong and it was always custom to either accept a gift without saying anything at all or to refuse. Protocol dictates that if this is the case you insist forcefully until the gift is accepted.

I figured I could still cut my losses so returned later in the day and insisted that the gift be accepted which it was, first time. I don't feel embarrassed by this as (perhaps naively) as a well traveled person, I presume that they understood what my thoughts were and I wasn't being intentionally rude but I shall certainly know for next time that even if someone seems reticent to receive a gift, they onus is on the giver to make sure it's finally accepted.

Linking in somewhat with my Steinbeck obsession, in the epilogue to The Log from the Sea of Cortez, there's a section all about Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck's best friend and the character that Doc (Sweet Thursday, Cannary Row) is based on. Steinbeck says that one of the reason that Ed was such a popular guy was not his generosity but the fact that he accepted gifts with such skill. It was a pleasure for anyone to give any small present to him and this humble acceptance drew people to him and made them feel immediately that Ed felt warmly towards them. This, rather opposite attitude to the Chinese way of giving and receiving presents is an intriguing personality trait that I hadn't thought about before but makes a lot of sense.

OK, plug put in that line of thought, tap turned on on a new one:

As Chinese characters blur in and out of focus I come to a couple of strange conclusions...

As I was doing some Chinese practice last night I surprised myself as I was reading some text purely in pinyin, the Romanised form of the written language. When you write pinyin, the intonation is written as a series of angled strokes above the relevant letters. For instance, the word 'shi' with a / above the i can mean (along with many other things) the number ten, while 'shi' with a \ above the i can mean 'is'. In this case I remember the intonation for these simple words but many I struggle with finding that though I know the letters, the tones get jumbled as I trudge slowly from one word to the next. Reading in Pinyin last night I was getting confused between words which differ only in their tonality and the realisation that struck me was that I now find it easier to read Chinese characters fluently than I do reading pinyin. I wouldn't have expected that after just a few months but it's surprising how quickly one begins to adapt to the characters. The point is that I can read Chinese characters without knowing how to say the words in Chinese, they are simply a direct code to English.

My second conclusion goes completely against everything I've just said above. Last night was the first time I've studied pinyin for a while and in just half an hour of reading I'd already learnt and memorised seven or eight words. This just doesn't happen with the characters, which, though more firmly set in the memory once they've been thoroughly replicated on my many scraps of paper, simply need so much more time and effort than just learning the pinyin.

As my time here is limited I wonder whether I should do what most short term expats do here and concentrate more on building my vocabulary and confidence with speaking than learning how to read and write the language. Essentially my aim is to be able to have a reasonable conversation with someone in Chinese on a subject which is a little deeper than where we live, what we do, how old we are, etc. which is my current limit. I feel that this aim will be more reachable by concentrating (though not uniquely) on the speaking and putting the characters into a still important second place.

If I were having lessons every day I would without a doubt continue on the path I'm currently on but at one lesson a week (often disrupted by life in general) I feel I must prioritise.

Anyway, I have an English lesson to plan for Monday. They want to know about life in England so I've now prepared a slide show of pictures from the English countryside to city cathedrals and nights out on the town complete with drunken revelry. This may surprise a group of people for whom going to bars is an alien concept. I look forward to finding out!

P.S I am doing some work at the moment, really guv.

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