April 02, 2009

Boston is the Beijing of the West

Greetings from the Mainland!
In some ways, Beijing reminds me of Boston.  But it bothers me when people say that such-and-such a place is the so-and-so of the East.  For example, Phnom Penh was, in the days of French Indochina, referred to as the Paris of the Orient.  Pyongyang, believe it or not, was referred to as the Jerusalem of the East.  The Chinese city of Suzhou is called the Venice of the Orient.  And so on...
My beef, so to speak, is not that we're making comparisons between cities (refer to post title).  It's that we're calling the unknown (East) a replica or a mirror of the known (West).  The comparison between Venice and Suzhou is a good one, actually.  Both are crisscrossed by numberless canals, both boast beautiful architecture.  Both are very old, with pasts that disappear into legend.  It's kind of silly, however, when we say that Lhasa is the Dallas of the Orient, or Louangphrabang is the Steinbach of the East.
How do we feel about a reversal?  New York is the Tokyo of the West - an imitation of sorts, only a shadow of the glorious magnificence that is the seat of Japanese power.  Doesn't seem quite right.  Comparing cities with Paris is easy.  All you need are a few tree-lined boulevards that zero in on an arch of some sort.  But making comparisons with Kuala Lumpur?  Not so easy.  I wonder how much of it has to do with the simple fact that, while we know quite a bit about Paris or London or San Francisco, most of us know jack-squat (yes, I said jack-squat) about most cities in the "Orient".
Anyhow, back to today's content.  Boston is the Beijing of the West.  It's true.  For any of you who have ever travelled to New England, you will know that Boston offers some of the worst drivers in the world.  Folks there drive their automobiles with the recklessness of young African elephants that have just grown tusks.  Beijingers don't really fare much better.  Crossing the street is putting your life on the line.  Crosswalks are somewhat irrelevant, and a pedestrian must not expect any courtesy.

 For example, I witnessed as a taxi and a bus simultaneously whipped past an old, cane-reliant woman, one to the left and one to the right.  She was halfway across the crosswalk, and I think she nearly died with fright.  If only Lei Feng, the legendary Chinese do-gooder, had been around to escort her.
In some ways, it's an adventure.  But when you've waited at a light for 10 minutes to cross, but a jillion taxis keep swerving around you on all sides, the charm wears thin.  I keep looking around for the RCMP officer that would roundly bust their proverbial chops back in Winnipeg.  Lei Feng might do it too.
There are other commonalities between Beijing and Boston.  Consider tea, for example.  It's completely possible that the tea that was tossed into Boston harbour, in that unforgettable display of nascent nationalism, was grown on a hillside somewhere in the Middle Kingdom.  (Probably not, unfortunately.  Given the time period, it probably came from India or Ceylon, but if you can't tell, I'm grabbing at any straw I can to draw connections.)

But the real meat and potatoes of my argument comes in here.  Chinese is really a hodgepodge of languages in a common family.  The language that is most used, however, is Standard Mandarin, which is theoretically also the language used here in the capital.  I only say theoretically because there are people from all over China here in Beijing, each using their own dialect.  Some of the differences between dialects are small, and some are quite big.
However, even those Beijingers who speak what would be called Standard Mandarin, have idiosyncrasies of their own.  They add a strong retroflex 'r' to the ends of certain words.  For those of you who don't know what a retroflex is (I counted myself among this crowd until only a few months ago), the simple answer is that your tongue is placed in such a way that it adds a strong nasal quality to whatever consonant it's used with.
In the diagram above, you can see how the tongue (that hideous red thing) is touching the roof of the mouth.  Try putting your tongue to the roof of your mouth, pulling it back as far as you can (towards that dangly bit at the back of your throat), and then saying "Germany".  You'll probably sound a bit more Chinese if you do.
So folks in Beijing add a retroflex R to the end of a lot of words that don't have one in Standard Mandarin.  The interesting thing is that the character for whatever word they're saying remains the same (if it is written down, that is), and the character   is added after it.  For example, the words gong yuan mean public park.  But if you say, "I'm going to the gong yuan", a Beijinger will say, "Ah, I love the gong yuanr".  (It's not pronounced yuan-er, but rather yu-ar.  The 'n' seems to disappear right up their nose.)

Boston, on the other hand, doesn't seem to realize that some words end in R.  Car = cah, for example, and water = watah.  Alexandah, go get the fiah extinguishah!  I'm curious to know what would happen if you put a bunch of Chinese students in an English school with teachers from Boston, or vice versa.
I've just come to a realization.  Here I am, at the end of my post, and I now see that I've just undone my argument.  With the exception of the drivers, Boston is the Un-Beijing of the West.  If you dug a hole in Boston, you would eventually come out somewhere in Beijing, astonished to hear this mysterious sound... RRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!
One final comment.  I stumbled across the beautiful specimen below, and just had to add it in.  Just think of it as an appendix to the "Bonny Bins of Beijing" post.
Warning: May be Poisonous


Dustin said...

Dangerous? That looks like a 1up to me! :)

The Freys said...

Definitely! Just be sure to get it before it falls down the hole forever!