Sunday, November 29, 2015

Russians and Japanese

Got on the elevator with the two doglets. A skinny old guy (maybe mid-fifties) was already there, puffing away at a cigarette. He was quite friendly.
"What country are you from," he asked.
I said, as I always do, "China."
He laughed. "No, really!"
I responded: "Of course I'm Chinese. I can read Chinese, whereas you obviously can't." He laughed again.
Then I pointed to the very prominent sign which reads "Please do not smoke here" in perfectly good Chinese. I scolded him for being a Japanese in China, and I read each character out loud. 
(Calling a Chinese person Japanese is like calling Donald Trump a Mexican. YUUge insult!)
He laughed a big belly-laugh, and said "You're Russian?" 
I said yes, I'm Russian. Then the elevator door finally opened and let some fresh air in.

Friday, November 13, 2015

I believe every foreigner attempting to learn Chinese goes through four distinct phases with regard to the inevitable "Ni zhongwen shoude ting hao!" 你中文说的挺好! ("Your Chinese is so good!") 
These are: absurdity, appreciation, acceptance, and annoyance. 
1. Absurdity: You manage to utter a "Ni hao" ("hello") or a "zai jian" ("goodbye"). Or perhaps you manage to speak one or two number words without completely bungling them. "er-shi-ba kuai yuan ma?" ("Is this 28 yuan?") Not truly impressive, but some Chinese pretend that you're the US Ambassador to China.
"Ni zhongwen shouode ting hao!"
C'mon, man, you're just being too nice. I spoke five syllables without completely embarrassing myself, and you're giving me some sort of prize for that? Give me a break! I appreciate the kudos, but really... no!
2. Then there's Appreciation, which comes usually when you speak just enough Chinese that you're sort of full of yourself about it. This is an early stage. It comes when you can order food from a menu without ending up eating bugs, and ask for directions without winding up in the wrong city.
A call this "Appreciation," because this is the phase in which you're lapping it up. "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao." Yeah! It is kinda good! I worked damned hard to get to this point! Thanks for noticing! 
Of course, at this point you conveniently forget that the same people used to sing the praises of your Chinese language skills when all you could say was "Hello" and "Goodbye." Now you're singing your own praises: "Yes, I am fluent in Chinese!!!" When in fact you're really just minimally conversant. But really, who cares?
Stage 2 is partly illusory, but that's fine, because the high you get from Stage 2 is what propels you to reach Stage 3.
3. Then there's Acceptance, which comes when you really are basically fluent in the language, and "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao" is the equivalent of "blah-blah-blah." Great, thanks, but let's get on to whatever deal we're transacting here. This is a brief transitional stage on the way to Stage 4, Annoyance.
4. "Annoyance" comes when you're thoroughly over the pride of having grasped this crazy language, and you really just want to get down to business. Then the "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao" is just an interruption. 
This is also when you first start to focus on the implicit insult embedded in "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao." It contains an assumption that foreigners can't possibly speak Chinese.
Yeah, I've got a pinkish-white face, my belly is round, my nose is larger than yours, and I'm covered with monkey-like hair. Oh, and you probably think I smell like a sheep, because that's what most Chinese think about foreigners. Nonetheless, I am capable of speaking the language of China, The Middle Kingdom, the center of the universe. Please get over it, and talk to me like a normal human being!
The good thing is, they do. When you finally get to this point of understanding the language, you actually start to learn what Chinese people think. 
Most of the time, when they're speaking to you in English, they're giving you the "politically correct" version of their thoughts, or the "tell me what you think I want to hear" version.
But when you're sitting in the back seat of a taxi, and a student is babbling at you about politics and history and current society as if she couldn't quite gasp in enough air to say everything she wants to say, and you're understanding maybe 80% of her Chinese — you're still getting a whole lot more truth than you would get if you understood 100% of her English.
A friend of mine once said that English is the language of classes, and formal lectures, and therefore of "What we're supposed to say." And remember that, in China, you tell the professor only what you're supposed to say. There's none of this Mortimer Adler, University of Chicago, discussion-based method: it's pure obedience.
On the other hand, Chinese is the language that students and Chinese professionals speak while drinking too many beers and shooting the shit at the restaurant a mile away from the university. If we're going to criticize our own government and talk shit about contemporary Chinese culture, we're definitely going to do it in Chinese, not in English. If you want to know what we Chinese really think, you'd better know at least a little of our language.
Mine ain't great, but it's good enough that I've started to get a little bit of personal "vibe" from some of my Chinese acquaintances. I really need to work on it, though, because man, I'd really love to learn what they really think down at the root. It's fun when you start to actually be able to have conversations in this language!

The Monkey

Ma Lei went to the hospital this Wednesday, eleven days after her second in vitro implantation. We both were secretly thinking she probably was pregnant, and it turns out we were right.

She'd been having all kinds of abdominal pain, her skin had been breaking out, she was going to the bathroom with unusual frequency, and she was hungry at strange times. (That last isn't so far out of the normal for her. For a skinny thing, that woman can eat!) Anyway, we didn't talk about her various symptoms too much, because we didn't want to get our hopes up, but I'd been thinking for quite a while that her body was doing something. After we'd gotten the news, when I finally told her about my suspicions, I used the Chinese for "home renovation."

Her numbers were high. Very high. High enough to mean she is definitely not only pregnant, but very healthily so. Her doctor told her to stop taking some of the medicines that other patients have to take for three months.

Ma Lei is afraid those super-high numbers suggest she's having twins. Of course we'll be happy either way, but we would both much rather have a singleton.

As it happens, next year is the Year of the Monkey. This is fitting, since I've always referred to children as monkeys. If we indeed get two, we'll have enough to fill a small exhibit in the Hall of Monkeys at the Dalian Zoo.

I was thinking she's eleven days pregnant, but Ma Lei reminded me about the time her embryos spent in the incubator. In a sense, she's at 30+ days already! I guess that would make her due in July. The doctor actually told her the due date, but she was in shock and literally doesn't remember a single word said to her after that magical number 176. Even though we both rationally thought she was 80% likely to be pregnant, we'd managed to keep our emotional expectations low. The news hit us both like 120 volts.

Whatever else ails the Chinese healthcare system, reproductive health is considered to be a bright point. If there's nothing else the Chinese care about, it's having babies. This is an entirely private, non-governmental system, with many of the doctors trained overseas. They make good money, compared with their government-employee counterparts in the general-purpose hospitals. They're not innovators, but they are excellent practitioners. I've been consistently impressed with their professional level, throughout the process.

If this indeed is the last we have to see of the fertility clinic, I got off with quite a bargain. Ma Lei saved every receipt from every trip to the hospital, every medicine she had to inject herself with. Tonight, she brought out the stack for me to tally up the damage — and we were both pleasantly surprised. Converted from yuan to dollars at the current rate, it came to $5000. It could have cost as much as twice that, if her health hadn't been so good all the way through the process. Even at that, I think it wouldn't be bad, compared to what the same treatment would've cost in the US. Nevertheless, Ma Lei fully intends to present the monkey(s) with a bill at some point in the future. It's the Chinese way!

Now we're trying once again to keep our expectations low. We're well aware that the first three months are perilous.  However, her health has been off-the-charts good all the way through the process. She's promised not to lift anything heavier than an ankle-biting doglet, and to eat plenty of real food (the ramen noodles she loves so much relegated to snacks to fill her belly). We're going to do everything that's in our control to stack the odds in this (these?) babies' favor.

I know there's a lot we can't control, so there may be bad news any time. But just in case everything goes well, we've put ourselves on a waiting list for a cage for four in the Hall of Monkeys at the Dalian Zoo.

UPDATE: 26 April, 2016. Ma Lei has indeed been healthy throughout the first seven months of her pregnancy, and it looks as though we'll have a boy monkey in early July. Fingers still are crossed, of course, because there's never a sure thing until the little monkey is actually born. His name, by the way, is Roman Carl Garmong.