August 31, 2010

Remembering the Mainland

Jess here:

Today I woke up with feelings of joyful anticipation for the day, something I haven't felt for a while. Here's why:
1) My doctor changed my anti-nausea meds to something stronger, which means that I can now eat breakfast without throwing up and enjoy the rest of my meals without that horrible pervading feeling of nausea. Food is such a wonderful thing!
2) We're moving to a permanent address in a few days!
3) We get to go watch my brother-in-law play baseball tonight. I played baseball for many years and was about to join a recreational team in Beijing before we left.
4) I did not wake up with a splitting headache for the first time in days

In the last while, we've had the sensation of getting a little "China starved". Here is the evidence (how many more lists can I make?):
1) I am currently in the process of simultaneously reading three Chinese biographies (with another ten or so lined up),
2) We've been searching Youtube and Youku (the Chinese version of Youtube) for Chinese music videos, and
3) We have watched two Chinese movies in the last week.

Each one of these things has, in its own way evoked very clear and real memories of China in me. These are the kind of memories that have taste, smell and sound attached to them. The ones that you can almost relive they feel so real. Sometimes I physically have to stop reading my books, because they are so real to me.

Much as I hated the Chinese music videos while I was there, they now remind me of grocery shopping or riding the bus. That in turn makes me remember everything that I enjoyed about riding the bus. I know, I know, read far enough back on this blog and you'll remember everything I hated about the bus. Nonetheless, there were things that I loved too.

For example, I loved sitting on the bus and watching the elderly people. They all have so much character, so much independence and yet demand so much respect (I think). I would find myself staring at them and wondering about their lives. I also enjoyed it when the other passengers on the bus would assume that I didn't understand them and talk about me when I was right there. Thinking about riding the bus makes me think of the ticket woman who yells loudly in everyone's ears (picture). Then there is the man/men that every bus has (no matter what time of day) that smells like a brewery. Or there is the young boyfriend that drapes himself so heavily on his girlfriend's shoulder in a "cutesy" way, that I begin to feel very sorry for the girlfriend who has to slouch off to the side in order to compensate. Then there were the horrible men's fashion shows that were always playing on the TV. See example above to the left!

Watching Chinese movies with English subtitles is also an interesting experience now. They were not that widely available in Beijing (what's the use when everyone speaks Chinese?), but now that we have access to Youtube again, we can watch them. If we watch without subtitles, we are generally able to get the basic plot, but we end up missing a lot of the details. Movie Chinese tends to be very short and abrupt, or colloquial if you will. However, watching with subtitles is simultaneously educational ("Oh, did you hear the way that he said that? I never would have though of saying it that way!"), and yet distracting ("Weird, the translation totally missed part of what she said").

As to our own Chinese ability, we have not found ourselves forgetting it just yet. It seems to be sticking pretty good. We have attended a Chinese church on a number of occasions and instead of scratching our heads searching for words, it all comes pouring out in a joyful flood. We have also been skyping with some of our friends back in Beijing. James and I have decided that Chinese is our official "hospital language". When you find yourself spending a lot of time in crowded people places (as waiting rooms tend to be), it is very convenient to speak a language that most people don't understand. Of course, we have also learned the hard way that there are enough Chinese people around randomly that we probably shouldn't be cracking too many dirty jokes with each other!

As useful as having a hospital language can be, it does also have the effect of driving home the fact that we no longer NEED to know Chinese. Now it is a quaint, but sort of strange and useless tool that we have in our belts. It is easy to forget that this tool used to the most valuable one we had and that it was one that we carefully sharpened every day. When I was recovering from my biopsy last month, the nurses all thought that it was very cute that we were speaking Chinese together (almost as if we were wearing matching Hello Kitty backpacks). In Canada, speaking Chinese is cute and a little bit impressive, but in China it is just necessary. Nonetheless, we put too much time and energy into it to ignore it now. We have determined that we will attend the Chinese church weekly and try to bring home Chinese exchange students from the University (we’ll let them go eventually).

Funny story. The other night we were driving around near our old University and at a certain intersection we had to wait for a group of Chinese students to cross the street. They were walking extremely slowly, and James, forgetting that his window was open, yelled in the voice of a Beijing man who has been smoking for 40 years, "Kuai yidianr ba!" (Hurry up will ya!). One young man looked at us in astonishment and nearly tripped over his feet to hear a skinhead Canadian yelling at him to hurry up in Chinese (Beijing accent no less). I burst out laughing and gave the guy a broad smile, just to let him know that he wasn't crazy.

Recently we also had to go to the Manitoba Health office to get our health insurance issues taken care off. The couple in front of us in line was an elderly Chinese couple and they were speaking together in Mandarin. When they got to the counter, James and I were of course eavesdropping. Between the somewhat impatient clerk and the limited English of the woman, there was much miscommunication going on and the frustrations were mounting. You may ask yourselves why we did not quickly stand up and yell "I speak Chinese!" but there were a number of reasons why we did not. One was that the office security was very sensitive about the privacy of each individual case. The other was that we did not want to embarrass the woman. She was doing well enough to get by and we didn't want to show disrespect for her by diminishing her ability to speak English in front of a crowd of people. However, as soon as we got to the counter and mentioned to the employee that we could understand, he told us we should have come up and helped him out!

We have actually randomly passed a number of Chinese conversations on the street here in Winnipeg. The funny thing about it is that it is exactly like hearing snatches of an English conversation on the sidewalk. The topic is usually mundane and not very interesting. "That bill is due next month". “The Doctor said you should see him in two weeks”. “You know I hate salad”. But here is Winnipeg it sometimes comes as a shock to realize that without trying to, we just heard a Chinese conversation and understood it.

Another element of my reliving China experience is that I have still been contributing to some of the MCC work that I was involved in. As I work on my computer, doing my familiar tasks and duties, I find vivid images entering my mind. People, places, traveling, hotels, the food, the stories, so much! It's so tangible I could grab it! Somedays it is very hard not to let all of those thoughts and memories end with an abrupt, "Well I guess I'll never do that again".

While traveling James and I often found ourselves in situations where we had to attend banquets and eat tons and tons of food or risk insulting people. At the beginning this was hard to handle, especially when every meal was some big to-do and our gastrointestinal tracts felt like solid tubes of chilis and meat (in James' case, often raw meat). Oft times the meat was unsettlingly unrecognizable, but then there were the other times that it was extremely recognizable (served in the natural beauty of its whole animal form).
It was not uncommon to come home with an unpleasant case of watery bowels and an overwhelming desire to eat vegetables and fruit. Now we bemoan the fact that it took us a full six months or so to become accustomed the to spicy/burn-your-mouth-and-all-of-your-sphincters meat fests that these occasions were. It feels like we wasted six precious months of not fully appreciating food that we now love! This picture is a really representation of how food there would be for maybe eight people. The dishes would be stacked on each other multiple times and we would all attack them simultaneously with our chopsticks. Not very sanitary, but very satisfying!

Oh I suppose I'm just being melodramatic. Give me centre stage and I'll delivery a soliloquy to make your heart sob!


1 comment:

Katherine said...

Dearest Jessica,sometimes when I read your blog, I felt like that you are still living in China, because what you wrote about China, about Chinese people are so real and vivid. I miss you so much, I wish when Xiaobai and I went to Canada, we could cook Chinese food for you guys, like Gongbaojiding, hongshaorou :)