In which I share a bit about the dark filing cabinet of my mind


I hope you’re all having a lovely holiday season. We had a nice, quiet Christmas that involved spending most of the day in our pajamas, skyping with our families, spending time with friends, and having a fancy meal at a nice hotel. I was supposed to be working on a research project now, but the internet has crashed and doesn’t seem willing to cooperate anytime soon. I’m writing in good old Word from the comfort of my home office (a.k.a. sitting on the couch wrapped up in a blanket) with a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas pudding that a friend brought me from Hong Kong.

Our Little Tree on Christmas Day

Unfortunately, Amaury caught the bug I had last week, so he’s been home in bed the last couple days. On the bright side, Amaury caught the bug I had last week, so he has had two much-needed days off work to recuperate and spend time with his wife at home. The weather is relatively cold here, and we finally attempted to turn on the heating. Despite some rumbling sounds from the A/C units, looks like we’re out of luck, but 29 floors up it doesn’t get too cold.

We’ve had quite a few technical difficulties lately. My poor, old iPhone finally died of exhaustion a few weeks ago, so I’ve been muddling along with a friend’s extra phone. To avoid buying a buggy Chinese phone, I ordered a relatively cheap phone from Amazon… that didn’t exactly want to work in China. Before we arrived, we took all kinds of precautions to protect our electronics and allow us to access Western sites from here. Six months later, I’d forgotten about all that, so had a frustrating few days of connectivity problems. I finally have a working phone, and it doesn’t spontaneously shut itself down… yet!

I’ve been putting a lot of time into my research gig lately, trying to bring in some extra income to save for our April wedding. Now that I’m on a couple teams, I have more opportunities to earn money and get to know other researchers. It’s a bit difficult sometimes doing work that requires the internet for a company on a vastly different time zone, but it’s given me purpose and a paycheck along with an ever-growing supply of fun facts to share at parties. People from all over the world submit questions to the researcher base and then we answer them in one sitting by researching and then writing up an essay/research brief/spreadsheet.

A few friends have asked me what type of questions are submitted. Yesterday, I saw one asking about what Otto Von Bismark liked to eat, and last week someone asked about how many car accidents are caused by Christmas tree debris each year. They vary widely. Yesterday I compiled a list of companies that are experts in the NASA FUN3D program and Pleiades supercomputer; the day before I analyzed the Japanese traditional and Western-style furniture markets. Did you know that despite the continued popularity of traditional furnishings, Ikea is actually the second largest furniture company in Japan? Apparently, they tried to enter the country in the 1970’s and failed miserably, but changing demographics and preferences have made pre-fab, Western-style furniture more appealing to Japanese consumers and since 1991 it’s been very successful… But I digress.

And of course, I’ve been continuing my Chinese studies. Learning Chinese is an exercise in small triumphs. As of next month, I’ll have been learning Chinese for a year. I’ve hit an interesting milestone recently. I realized that for everyday situations, I may not know exactly the right thing to say, but I can construct reasonable sentences that get me where I need to go. Here’s a really straightforward example: today I wanted to know the WiFi password in a coffee shop. Ideally, I would have asked “What is the WiFi password?” but I don’t know the word “password.” Instead, I said “Wo yao yong WiFi…” (“I want to use the Wifi…” Note: WiFi also isn’t Chinese, but everyone says it so I feel like it’s ok), which of course led the helpful barista to explain where the password was on my receipt. Ok… so not super advanced sentences, but linguistically I think it takes a lot to arrange and construct sentences in this kind of way. To quickly determine what you can and can’t say. It requires not thinking in English, which took me many years to learn how… not to do.

Although I know relatively little Chinese, Chinese is the only thing in my head when I speak it, so if I don’t know a word, I hit a blank. This blank feels like a dark hole of emptiness in the filing cabinet that I picture the foreign language part of my brain to be. I picture my English language center to be a huge library with annexes and a well-organized, online catalog. Meanwhile, my romance languages are all jumbled up in a messy filing cabinet in a back office, and Chinese has fallen out into a jumbled heap on the floor.

One day I think I’d like to go back to school and study linguistics… it’s so fascinating how our brains handle language. I have no scholarly sources to back this conjecture up, but I think many beginning language learners starting their first language struggle because they haven’t learned to leave the English library and head into the scruffy back office files. Once you only work from the filing cabinet, it’s easier to arrange sentences out of words you do know, because you have less conflicting information competing for attention.

Ironically, my lack of vocabulary occasionally works to my advantage when haggling. In the markets here, it’s generally understood that you can “jiang jia” (“bargain”). My haggling vocabulary is actually pretty good now, because shopping comes up a lot in my classes as a useful “survival Chinese” topic. However, usually negotiations take a turn where the seller outlines for me all the wonderful aspects of their product, and how clearly it’s worth more than I offered. Since that tends to involve more complex vocabulary, I generally miss all of it, so instead, I just stand there with a blank expression going “hmm, hmm” and shaking my head. Luckily my incompetence tends to come across as disinterest- this foreign lady will not be fazed by all the fancy, complex features!- and then I usually end up getting a lower price.

Plus, wow do the small triumphs feel good sometimes! Recently we got a taxi in front of a hotel. We told the hotel employee flagging taxis where we wanted to go in Chinese. When we got in the cab, the driver looked expectantly at him, but the employee said “they speak Chinese” and let us give the directions. I think for every 10 miscommunications and miss-steps in Chinese, we get 1 shining moment like that. I think that’s a pretty good ratio.

Lately the air pollution, traffic, swarms of people, motorbikes on pedestrian paths, ever-presence of MSG, poor quality meat and veg, lack of Mexican food, surveillance, smelly toxic fumes at work sites, children peeing in malls (inside on the ground, it happens more than you would think), loud hacking and spitting, chicken dishes that always have the bones and gristle left in, lack of free napkins at restaurants, men with Beijing bikinis, taxi-drivers who never stop for you, internet issues…, all of those first-world problems, have been weighing on me quite a bit. But six months in, I have fallen so in love with this city, warts and all.

This past Sunday, a friend invited us to go to dinner in Xiao Bei, an area of the city called “Little Africa” due to the large number of African people who live and work there. A group of us met downstairs at our building to take the metro together. We debated which lines would be best and least full. We pushed our way through the crowds, waited patiently on the escalator that is always full of standing people, and caught the first train. When we changed, my friend and I were separated from the group, but the trains come every 3 minutes even on the weekends, so we just hopped on the next one. We chatted about our recent trips in South East Asia and wondered whether the new Disneyland in Shanghai is any good.

Reunited with the group at the Xiao Bei stop, we wandered into a well-lit market filled with people. We commented on how much more diverse this area is compared to our downtown location where foreigners are a rare sight. We saw people from all over the world and a lot of Africans shopping in the small stores selling everything from stylish hats to appliances to doors to games to fake flowers in ornate, plastic containers. An old woman accosted us with a small, electric massager telling us to buy it as she touched each of our backs. “Bu yao! Bu yao!” (“don’t want”), we each told her.

Our group of 11 entered a small restaurant with simple furniture and a large grill on the first floor. We headed upstairs and all crammed into a booth. Our friend lived in Togo a few years ago and was craving West African food. “It’s all good, but I recommend the fish and the chicken.” In China, one person usually orders large plates for the table to share family-style- how quickly you get accustomed to things like that. We waited for our friend to order, but then he instructed us to each get our own. We ordered deliciously-charred whole fish, grilled chicken, Jollof rice, fufu (a carb-heavy, white, cakey thing that you dip into delicious sauce), plantains, and beer. One adventurous friend ordered the goat stew. Amaury had commented earlier that day that West African food was probably the closest thing to Dominican food we’d find in Guangzhou, and he was right. It didn’t take much to pretend that we were in his mom’s kitchen eating rice and plantains.

After stuffing ourselves with all the deliciousness and paying $7 each, we headed back out to the market. We meandered through the small streets and old apartment buildings to get back to the metro. This time we all stayed together, and I even got a seat. Walking out of our stop we passed the flower man I sometimes buy lilies from sitting on the stairs. I stopped, haggled with him, and got a couple bunches for $2. We caught up with the group at a large intersection where a huge crowd was waiting for the light to turn. Cars, buses, electric bikes, bicycles, rickshaws, and a few hand-pulled carts always fill up that intersection, driving every which way and only loosely following the traffic lights. The mass of traffic was no match for the hoard of people though, that crossed en masse slightly before the little blinking person switched from red to green.

Heading back into our building we piled into the elevator where Amaury and I were the first to leave. Then, the others headed up to their respective apartments on the 30th, 34th, and 39th floors. As we got into our home, I said, “Wow that was a great evening, I really love living in Guangzhou!” Amaury commented, “You should write about tonight in your next post.” So I did.

Wishing you all a wonderful New Years Eve and 2017! Let’s all work to make this next year brighter and kinder than this past one.

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