Friday, February 27, 2009

Lust and Caution

When I was taking formal classes of Chinese as a second language, the approach to a new text of any sort was usually one of caution. It seems to me that it's because the use of 'strategies' in the classroom. It invariably involved a person by person recitation of the text, and since it's often hard (especially as a beginner) to get the reading right of a new Sinograph, there was a tense atmosphere during the process. Who was going to be the unlucky person who got dealt a new character that they didn't have the time to find out how to pronounce? Conversely, you felt lucky when you could recite a paragraph which consisted of no unknown words, or at least unknown pronounciations.

There's two big problems that result out of this pedagogy. Firstly, unfamiliar Sinographs become associated with tension and embarrasment. Some might argue that this will encourage people to 'know their shit' in order to avoid getting caught out, just like doing your homework well might have saved you from the cane. I disagree. In my own experience, when I had that mindset it meant that I'd avoid doing extra reading where possible, because the more I read the more foolish I felt. This of course meant that my reading didn't get much better, and so I felt even worse about it. (-This is a period from when I started learning Chinese in mid 2004 to some time towards the end of 2007 when I changed the way I thought about literacy-)

The second problem is that since the focus is purely on pronouncing properly, it is likely that people will pay less attention to what the actual meaning is of the text, and become more concerned with having the proper pinyin annotation. This arises in a false sense of what understanding really is, thinking that so long as all the characters are individually pronouncable then the flowers of imagery that grow out of comprehension will shoot-up with no further nurturing. What is more likely is that people will fail to see where the various words and phrases are seperate, and what they are really describing, since the concentration is consumed with not screwing up, rather than appreciating whatever is being read.

As a slight digression, I think this is why foreign learners of English often overestimate their reading level- they can pronounce all the words, and conflate ability to pronounce a word with understanding its meaning (apologies in advance to my Dad, who hates the word conflate). This was made clear to me recently reading Anthony Burgess' autobiography: I had no trouble mouthing any of the words, but often I found myself at a loss to specific meaning, and so had to consult a dictionary about once per page (Burgess writes with an archaic, though mellifluous, vocabulary).

My thinking changed, as is often the case, outside the classroom, when I was thinking more about film than about Chinese. In particular, I was reading the few English interviews with a personal hero of mine, Christopher Doyle. Out of curiosity I entered his Chinese name 杜可風 into Google (I believe this was the first Chinese web search that I ever did). Up came many, many more interviews and articles than existed in English. I clicked on the first. My reading ability was really bad at that stage, but using an online dictionary I persisted through the whole interview. In fact, persist isn't quite the right word. The dictionary was more like a spoon I was using to get honey out of a jar. You don't persist your way through a jar of honey. I wanted to know everything that was being said. If there was a phrase that I didn't know, and Christopher Doyle was saying it in Chinese, then I wasn't intimidated. I had to know it. Just like how I will finish off every last molecule of a creme-brule, I was interested in absorbing every single word or turn of phrase in that interview.

It's no surprise that the first topic I was ever able to speak articulately about in Chinese was the
lustful cinematography of Wong Kar-Wai's films. If we are, to use David Hawkes' felicitous expression, interested in more than just 'speaking to people on trains', then literacy is vital. And the best way to get there is through lust, not caution.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

Phil and I took the jieyun to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Station. I asked Phil’s aunt about what the difference between the ditie and the jieyun was, which I understood as mass transit system and subway, respectively, and which I can’t really distinguish in English. The ditie is the ditie, and the jieyun is the jieyun, she said. It’s a station which has interest for various people, since it also leads to the national library, and maybe that’s why there was often a busker of considerable talent in the hallways of the station.

It would have been about 7pm when we arrived, and it had just been raining lightly. It was an odd journey into Liberty Square, because we didn’t arrive head on, the way you would in a tourist commercial or the establishing-shot of a film. Rather, we came in from the side of one of the large imitation Qing structures, which didn’t reveal anything except groups of young people practicing synchronized hip-hop dancing with the backing of a boombox. I don’t remember seeing anything like that at the Forbidden City, though I could be wrong. Apart from these groups there were very few people around. Then we came before the glittering ocean of cement with the enormous marble-white gate off to the far left, and the gigantic steps leading up to a ghostly statue on the right. It was not particularly well-lit, but the neon coming from the surrounding skyscrapers illuminated the low-hanging remnants of rainclouds, such that it felt like an abandoned stadium. We walked slowly in the middle and Phil remarked that you’d think more people would come here, since it’s so quiet and the massive space lets you vent all that’s pent up. I agreed with him; I really felt much more relaxed and tranquil than I had at any time during the past couple of days. The way to the statue was flanked by the occasional lamp-post which at first I mistook for crucifixes. When we got up the long set of stairs the view was very good, though we didn’t get to see the statue up close. Just as we’d gotten to the top step- joking and taking our sweet time- the massive doors to the statue room began to swing closed, just like a scene from Indiana Jones. So we stood there looking around us, and took a photo for a Korean tourist.

What came next is something I don’t think I could have ever foreseen. We were walking back between the superstructures of the square, with the only other humans in sight being two or three couples walking down the darker sections, arms interlocked. We were, as I think I’ve established by now, really enjoying the feeling of the enormous open-space, and perhaps a little bit dizzy with the flood of relaxation. I say that because I really don’t know where the two junior-high kids came from who suddenly asked me if I had a minute to help them with some homework. I was immediately interested and was not suspicious like I normally might be. Instead of pretending to be interested in where I was from or asking to be my friend within seconds of meeting me, they were just open about what they were after. Sure, I said, I had a minute. Phil was born in Taiwan so I guess they didn’t think he’d be able to help them with an English assignment, although Phil probably speaks English better than I do. Lucky Phil. I got handed a print-out of English, which I thought was either poetry or lyrics, I couldn’t tell as I was unfamiliar with it. Then I got to the third page and saw the title “Last Christmas”. What an evil English teacher these young lads must have: they were tasked with cornering some foreigner and videoing a trio-performance of an a cappella rendition of Last Christmas. I don’t really like singing, though I have had some formal training and have sung in front of audiences before. I just can’t take it very seriously and treat it more like a comedy performance than anything else. So it was with this particular performance; it was too ridiculous to get embarrassed about, so after I had read over the lyrics and hummed out something resembling the song in my memory, Phil took up the lads’ camera and we sang the whole song in a tunnel lined with Japanese vending machines.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Infected Throat

My throat started causing me massive pain on Sunday afternoon, and it’s been getting worse since. I thought some gargle would have done the trick, but I also started getting feverish and aching all over, and sweating profusely. Walking up a hill required all the energy I had. So this afternoon I made a trip to the doctors and found out I have a throat infection. 10 days on a course of antibiotics will solve the problem, said the doctor. Not too bad I thought, but it was even better when I found out that symptoms should clear up after 2 days.

As I lurched out of the chemist I felt a burning need for fruit, since I was really thirsty and a little hungry but had no way of stomaching a cooked meal (it’s like something pinches my throat real bad each time I need to swallow something, it really hurts). I stocked up on pears, strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes at the Fruit n Veg, then decided I needed something like Gatorade to accompany the fruit (as you can see I am a bon-vivant).

There’s a store down the end of my street which I’d never been into, so on my way back I stopped by there. As I was browsing the various flavors of Gatorade- Blue Bolt, Fierce Grape, all very manly names- I heard the mellifluous tones of Northern accented Chinese emanating from the corner of the store (or rather, the corner of the corner-store, to be specific). It turned out to be the store owner and his wife. I waited until all the customers in the store had been served and then approached him, and had a really good chat in Chinese. His family emigrated from Tianjin, which is a city I’m really fond of, partly because there’s a lot of Xiangsheng performers from there, and I really love the accent. I told him this, and in return he remarked that I didn’t speak Standard Chinese, I spoke Beijing dialect. Flattery, to be sure, but it’s much better to hear than what people used to tell me: that I spoke like I was from Taiwan.

So, anyway, that’s all kind of why I haven’t finished the next post in my series on Taiwan yet (it will be about the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall).

Friday, February 06, 2009

Breakfast at Lao Ma’s

My friend and I would always eat out for breakfast, around 9.30-10am. Taibei doesn’t really seem to wake up much before that so it’s quite good for sleeping in, and in any case you’ll probably need the sleeping-in with all the late-night adventures that’ll take place. The attendance of my friend was particularly impressive, since he is still deceiving all of his relatives into thinking he is a vegetarian, so would first eat breakfast at his place, then meet me for a second breakfast less than half an hour later.

I guess the craving for meat is just that strong. And besides, I don’t blame him, because the breakfasts were truly delicious. Bacon pancakes, cheese pancakes, ham pancakes, all served with a sort of BBQ-sauce, and doujiang to wash it down with. In fact I’m getting hungry just thinking about it (though, it has been about 7 hours since I last ate).

Other times, if we missed the breakfasts (there was some serious sleeping-in taking place) we’d usually go for xiaolongtangbao soup dumplings, and possibly some noodles to go with (I like zhajiangmian, a Beijing dish which I theorize to be the basis for spaghetti bolognaise).

After breakfast we’d often stroll down a few stalls to the comic-store (more accurately a private comic-library) and read us some manga for an hour or two, before deciding what to do for the day…

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Homeless in Taiwan

One of the peculiarly charming things I first noticed in Taibei was the dogs roaming the streets, casually swaggering alongside bipedal pedestrians. These are not known as wild dogs; my friend told me the term is homeless dogs. They sleep on the stoops of storefronts, and wander around the alley. It seemed to me that some hospitable food-stalls fed some of the dogs, which is a nice thought.

There was, however, I cat whining in the backstreet outside my hotel window. Now that was annoying, and I would have appreciated my canine friends doing something to shut that cat up.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Possibly Controversial

I got back from Taiwan on Friday having slept about 5 hours out of the previous 48, so I’ve been catching up on sleep since. I plan to write about it in some depth in a series of posts, but I’d like to generalise first.

Taiwan, or rather Taipei, is the China that you know from strolling around China-town, when you try to imagine a whole city with narrow streets filled to the brim with people, lined by neon-signs and food-stalls. It is, at the same time, a trying impersonation of Japan in cuisine (Japanese food often seems to outnumber Chinese food), in cuteness (you will want to brick the fake-baby-voiced young women and soap-opera inflected young men) and in high-technology (home of the leading motherboard and video-card companies, which is awesome…in fact this is not so much an impersonation of Japan, come to think of it).

What I’m trying to say is, it’s a shua-shua hotpot of Orientalist cliché. But as I hope to explain, I don’t find that to be an entirely bad thing.