March 19, 2009

The Irascible Mr. Lin, or These Uniforms ain't Uniform

Greetings from the Mainland!

Textbooks tend to fall into a number of categories. First, there are the textbooks that are 2500 pages long, are written in Size 4 font, and don't have a single picture. Everything about these books is intimidating. Let's call these "Millstones". Second, there are the textbooks that are 100 pages long, don't have more than 5 words per page, and have scads of glossy photos that don't really seem to have much to do with the subject at hand. They more closely resemble an issue of Newsweek than a textbook. Let's call these "Brochures". Third, there are the textbooks that we hope to see: thorough, yet concise; information rich, yet supplemented with a variety of visual learning aids; challenging, yet fun! Let's call these books "Shangri La".

When we began using the textbook for our Chinese lessons, my first impression was that the book was disjointed and unorganized.  Nothing really seemed to proceed in a logical order. Now, as we are some 4 or 5 lessons into the book, things are beginning to take on shape.  My appreciation for the book has grown, and I can see the 'method to the madness' (thank you Bill Shakespeare).
One of the main reasons I felt that the first lesson floundered was due to the overwhelming focus on introductions.  Of course, what else should a first lesson focus on?  Getting the "Hello, my Name is..." bit out of the way is obviously hugely important.  But it can get a bit tedious after a while to repeat eternally.  Making matters worse is the limited variety of names that are used throughout the exercises.  One of the principal characters in most of the dialogues is the eponymous Mr. Lin, or Lin Xiansheng.  (Family names precede titles in China; thus, I am Fu Xiansheng.)
Mr. Lin, Jessica and I both agree, is an old stick-in-the-mud, cantankerous and ornery, convinced that the younger generation is all a bunch of degenerate hooligans who've lost respect for the old ways.  He's the type who never deviates from his rigid routine of tea in the morning, followed by a game of Chinese chess with his cronies on the curbside.  He orders the same thing every time he goes out to eat.
Sure, we're reading between the lines a bit.  But the 'ordering the same thing' part is dead-on.  Consider the following exerpt from the textbook:
Lin Xiansheng: Do you have black tea?
Shopkeeper: We do.  Would you like a sandwich with that?
Lin Xiansheng: I don't want a sandwich, you filthy rascal.  Have you no dignity?  If I wanted a sandwich, I would have asked for one!  Now get me my tea, and make sure it's as black as midnight!
I may have added a bit in there.  Creative license, and all that.
But Mr. Lin has another, darker side.  Rumour has it that the reason he doesn't want a sandwich is because, as you know, sandwiches are at least 50% bread.  And bread is to Mr. Lin what potions were to Dr. Jekyll!  Consider the following sentence:
Wang Xiaojie:  Who gave Mr. Lin bread?
There are many ways to read this sentence.  If the emphasis is on who, then all is well.  But I suspect that the terrifying truth is that the emphasis is on bread.  The story continues as follows:
Wang Xiaojie:  Who gave Mr. Lin bread?  Didn't I tell you never to give him bread?  [A low growl comes from the back of the dimly-lit cage.]  Everybody run for your lives!

In other news, I've noticed before (and mentioned cursorily in a previous post) that Beijing has a definite affinity for uniformed individuals. You will find them just about everywhere: in front of banks, office buildings, malls, strolling the sidewalks, or peddling around on decrepit bicycles. It took me a while to realize that these are not all "officials", in the official sense of the word. Very few are police officers or military personnel. Most are hired by an individual company. Some are part of various neighbourhood committees in charge of cleaning, and so on, and some are there to collect parking fees.
This morning, I saw the entire staff of a restaurant lined up on the sidewalk out front. They were standing at attention, the men dressed in crisp white aprons and caps, a few with hair nets on. The waitresses all wore bright red uniforms with triangular caps perched on their heads. I wished I had a camera.

But the best thing about the uniforms is the total lack of uniformity.  Sure, common themes can be found in most, such as epaulettes, or peaked caps.  But sometimes you see green, sometimes blue, sometimes red.  Stars, bars or insignias.  Braids, sashes, cords, dangling whatnots that would only get in the way...
I apologize for the completely surreptitious quality of these photos, but I really was trying to sneak of a shot in most cases. It helps that the camera is embedded in my cell phone, but of course, people are not idiots, and will guess that I am not checking my messages at arms length with the phone pointed at them.

Notice the boots on the guard in the picture below? Quite a set of kicks.

The last photo is a better shot of the barracks-style housing I mentioned in an earlier posting.

1 comment:

derrydown said...

I remember the day when I discovered that all the high school foreign language books were the same. The same lost student wandered in search of the bibliotheque/biblioteca/bibliothek, nodded approvingly that the new girl was sympathique. etc., and repeatedly met with disaster on the ski slopes of every country -- "C'est dommage! Je me casse' ma jambe! Ach, Schade! Ich habe mein Bein gebrochen! Ay! Me he roto la pierna!

I came close to being that last hapless character when I sprained my ankle badly in Austria and had to inform the hospital staff that "Ich habe mein Fuss verletzt".