Saturday, January 26, 2013

Having been in an intensive language-immersion course for two years now (called Marry a Chinese Woman Who Doesn't Speak English — I highly recommend it), I seldom get the tones wrong in my Chinese pronunciation. The other day, however, I flubbed.

Ma Lei's father had asked us to pick up some cigars for a fairly wealthy friend of his, in exchange for a bunch of money. The word for "smoke" is yan, spoken in a high flat tone — much the same as singing a high note in English. The word for "salt," unfortunately, is also yan, spoken in a rising tone like a question. ("Do you want some salt?" That same sort of tone.)

Ma Lei had asked me about the cigars earlier in the morning, and mid-afternoon we happened to be running some errands near a smoke shop. I asked if she wanted to go check out the yan, but I said it like "salt," not like "smoke."

"Salt shop?!" She asked incredulously. "America has salt shops?!"

"Dui," I said: "Yes. America has many different flavors of salt . Some are expensive, and some are cheap. You told me that your dad wants us to buy some expensive salt."

"I told you no such thing," she responded. "Did you have some sort of crazy dream about salt?" (I kid you not, that's exactly what she asked me.)

"No, it wasn't a dream! We already went and bought your brother expensive salt to give his boss. Your dad wanted the same sort of salt. Did you forget?!"

"No," she said. "Why the hell would I want to go to a salt shop?! Let's just go to the beach."

Later, she reminded me that her father had asked us to buy cigars, and I was re-flummoxed. "We were right next door to a cigar shop," I challenged, "and you told me you didn't want any." She thought, and thought, and thought, and finally remembered: "No, you dumbass, you told me it was a salt shop!"

My bad! Not all yans are created equal.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Contradictions and the smell of a restaurant's back door

While walking past the back door of a restaurant, Ma Lei noted the combined smell of rotted produce, grease, and dirty dishes that is common to the back doors of restaurants. "Ayamaya!" She said, "America has smells like that, too?!"

What amused me about this was not the funny look on her face, nor the very expressive Chinese "ayamaya," but her background assumption that America — the entire country — would be devoid of restaurant-backdoor-smell.

I find that many Chinese people are prone to such sweeping generalizations. They meet one American who's nice, and they assume all Americans are nice; they meet one who's a schmuck and assume all are schmucks. I have a few possible explanations for why this is:

1) Chinese culture historically aspired to absolute sameness from everyone, so perhaps it comes naturally for the Chinese to assume that everyone and everything from a given culture is the same. And in fact, in many ways China is remarkably uniform (much of it, indeed, smelling like the back door of a restaurant).

2) The Chinese education does not demand analytical weighing of different or conflicting elements of the same whole. On the contrary, whichever part of history, or literature, or any other subject is presented by the teacher is considered to be the whole of it, and asking about anything else is both a waste of time (since it's not on the test) and an insult to the teacher.

3) Chinese philosophy was not founded on the dialectic method and, most importantly, the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction.

If a Westerner holds two contradictory ideas, such as "all Americans are nice," and "Americans all shoot each other with guns," he will likely recognize that there is a contradiction. If the issue is important to him, he will search for an explanation. At the very least, he will want to resolve the issue into a more nuanced viewpoint: "in respect X, but in another respect Y."

Most of my Chinese friends and students do not follow this approach. Rather, they tend to hold two mutually-exclusive ideas as coequals, to be applied pragmatically according to the circumstances of the moment. When the facts seem to warrant it, or when it's convenient to do so, one applies "all Americans are nice." Tomorrow or the next day, on the other hand, "all Americans are violent."

This may partly explain the huge, rapid swings that characterize much of Chinese history. In 1978, communism is the ideal. In 1979, "to get rich is glorious." Both stand as equally true and equally universal, but they will be applied according to the moment.

Westerners do this too, of course, especially where issues of religion are concerned. ("I am my brother's keeper" — where "my brother" is taken to include everyone in need — yet "to each his own" and "better dead than Red.") Nor do all Chinese people think in stereotypes: Ma Lei in particular has a wonderfully supple mind. Yet there is a strong tendency for Chinese people to think in ways that Westerns find to be flattened-out.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


They say that infants who are raised in a single-language household quickly begin to lose the ability to discriminate among phonemes that are not differentiated within their home language, well before the age of one. For instance, a Chinese student of mine had a terrible time distinguishing between "hit," "hate," and "heat" — not only in her pronunciation, but even in oral comprehension. Those three vowel sounds are not differentiated in the Chinese language, so she could barely hear the difference.

I am beginning to be persuaded that the same phenomenon applies to differentiating flavors of food.

Ma Lei shocked me yesterday, by complaining that the food in America all tastes the same. If I were asked to ascribe just one quality to American food, it would be "diversity." Just since she and I have been here, we've eaten: pizza, Tex-Mex, California-style Mexican, Italian food, Midwestern-style meat and potatoes, Thai food and — yes — even Chinese. And yet Ma Lei thinks everything but the Chinese food tastes the same.

I should emphasize that Ma Lei is no philistine, where food is concerned. In fact, she has one of the most discerning palates I know. If we go to a restaurant — a Chinese restaurant — and like one of their dishes, she can take a few bites, ponder carefully what is in it, and recreate it almost exactly the next day. Her discernment among Chinese flavors is uncanny, yet she thinks the food we've eaten in America is all the same.

I pushed her to explain why, and she gave just one example. When Americans go to the grocery store for pork, we have a range of cuts that are all basically the same: grainy, fleshy white meat with essentially the same flavor. Where is the pig's snout? The ears? The tail? The entrails? How about the tendons, which the Chinese boil down to make a delicious dense, meaty gelatin? None of those things can be found at the supermarkets we've been to.

Her point could be easily expanded-upon, because Americans don't have many of the different meats that are common in China. Donkey meat can be tender and lightly gamey, and goes great in Chinese jiaozi (hand-filled dumplings akin to the wontons you may have had in soup). Dog — yes, dog! — has a rich and complex flavor I attribute to the fact that dogs are omnivorous.

On the other hand, all that diversity of foods is prepared by methods that vary little. Steam-cook. Stir-fry with spicy sauce. Stir-fry with soy-based sauce. Coat with flour and stir-fry. Change the spices up a little bit, but not very much. Everything cooked in corn oil, with a side of dull, starchy white rice. I love the food, but it does get boring.

Americans living in China think everything tastes the same, because the ways in which the Chinese diet varies are not recapitulated in our own native diet. We don't differentiate clearly and easily among the flavors of pig snout, ear, and tail, because those aren't part of the American diet. In a telling expression, many Americans think everything that isn't beef, pork or chicken "tastes like chicken." It wouldn't taste like chicken, if we regularly ate things like snake or donkey.

On the other hand, to a Chinese person the difference between spaghetti with beef marinara sauce, and beef enchiladas with jalepeno red sauce, is not particularly significant. Both are beef with starch and tomato sauce, with spices that are Other to their Chinese spices.

I dearly wish my Chinese were up to the job of making such philosophical points, because I think Ma Lei would enjoy our food a lot more if she had a different attitude. She's not a closed-minded person, or she wouldn't have married a yangguizi. But her enjoyment of America has been diminished by her boredom with our food.