This is my last week in China for the summer. So what did I learn besides that food with faces is always more fun? Read on to find out!
Learning Chinese as a foreigner is not as uncommon as it used to be, and there are language schools everywhere in Shanghai to prove it.
But I do still get surprised looks when I actually manage to speak a complete sentence. My favorite recent situation was in a crowded restroom where the concept of a line is still not respected. A woman kept stepping ahead of me, so I finally said: 我在你前面。(I am in front of you). She stepped back quickly, probably more from surprise than respect for my place in line.
Today I asked for a glass of water with a perfect third tone and was rewarded with a pleasantly surprised smile. Then all further interactions were in full speed Chinese. I managed to catch the key words and made it through!
Last night I was out with a Japanese friend who does not speak Chinese. No matter how many times I spoke in Chinese, the waitress still spoke to my friend (in Chinese), even when responding to my questions. All because she looks like she could speak Chinese and I look like I would never speak Chinese. Clearly the waitress had the wrong expectations (or hope?).
Trump would like it in China, they are so NOT politically correct. They will tell you how fat or thin you look as a greeting. Foreigners are required to register all movements with local police and are restricted from doing business in key areas. They will judge you by your skin with no shame. And in Chinese the word for black 黑 (hei) can be applied to anyone whose skin is not porcelain white.
To most of the strangers on the street I am like some kind of ghost. Many don't believe in ghosts, so they just don't see me. Others stare in fascination. I have started to stare back and sometimes try to engage, but often they seem to be frightened by my attempts to reach across the void and quickly turn away. At really local restaurants I sometimes get a wary glance and a single worn English menu pushed my way, clearly they hope that if they don't speak then I won't speak and all the awkwardness can be avoided. Sadly for them, the ghost speaks and they have to figure out through my muddled tones and stammering pace that I just want some soup dumplings.
The stereotype of hard working Chinese people may be changing with the latest generation but the stories I hear about the level of competition here is enough to make anyone pay attention to the teacher. The population is commonly said to be 1.4 billion (or 14 x 100 million “14亿” as the Chinese would say). But a better way to understand this is that The city of Shanghai has more people living in it than ALL of Australia (24 million, or 2 thousand 4 hundred x 10,000 in the Chinese style, “2千4百万”).
The recent stock market volatility has sent people running for new safe havens for their money, and so the wheels of change continue to turn faster than ever. Every time I walk a familiar street there is something new happening: new store, closed store, construction on bamboo scaffolding or perhaps a man in his bright red underwear keeping cool. I so wish I had a picture!
For people renowned for "saving face" they apparently have no shame in many ways. Men carry their girlfriend's bags; no matter how sparkly. And if they aren't carrying her bag they often have their own purses (or "murses" if that is still a valid term in the U.S.).
I see men riding on pink scooters and children's bikes that are far too small for them. Then there was a "trying to look tough" biker all in black with "FUCK" written on his pant leg, and a fluffy gray teddy bear riding behind him. Sex toys are sold at the checkout stand along with condoms and really gross looking meat on a stick.
Many people speak English but I don't think these people know what it really says on their butts. Is "Flying Suga Mint" better or worse than "Juicy"?
They also have no fear. Words cannot express the beauty and insanity of an intersection in Shanghai. Imagine bikes, cars, scooters, carts and vehicles of all shapes and sizes moving in all directions at various speeds and you have sort of an idea. You must look all ways at all times when crossing the street. I think the picture below captures a sense of the unimaginable. Yes, that man is carrying a large circular saw blade balanced just below his belly on a scooter with nothing to secure it AND he is attempting to cross against the red light, which he did successfully after I took this picture.
I have ridden on the back of a scooter that violated all the road rules, and come within inches of colliding with many other moving objects. I've used the rusty bike provided by my landlord that has slowly working breaks and ridden without a helmet into a pack of cyclists going in the the wrong direction while the fast moving vehicles behind me sped up to get around. All of this and yet rarely do I see an angry exchange. People cut you off, break the rules, stop short, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Yet everyone just weaves around them, like water around a boulder, eager to be on their way and not worried about enforcing a sense of social order in the context of traffic.
English speakers think Chinese speakers sound angry because English uses tone of voice to express emotion, while Chinese uses tones to express completely different meanings. The difference between "drinking straw" (吸管 xīguǎn) and “habit” (习惯 xíguàn) involves a questioning beginning with an angry ending to the word for habit. While a breathy start and a throaty, uncertain finish provides the sound for straw.
They speak fast and they sound furious. But like any language, when you spend enough time with it, the strange becomes intelligible.
Two months is not enough for me to be fluent, but I have achieved my goal of becoming comfortable speaking (if not always accurately) and I will take the level 4 (out of 6) Chinese placement exam before I leave.
Next time around perhaps I can become fully fast and furious with the language and not just on a bike.