"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some lighter (but essential) lessons learned

CHARADES IS NOT WORTH THE EFFORT. Explaining myself to non-English speakers via “charades” continues to be ineffective. The one exception was ordering lunch the other day. I was trying to figure out what kind of meat I was being served, and proceeded to imitate a pig and a chicken in front of several vendors and customers on the street. It worked; my questions were answered. However, in the process, I imitated a pig and a chicken in front of several vendors and customers on the street…to the mocking (or just puzzled) laughter of many. So…overall…more to my detriment than benefit, it seems.

THEATRICS (IN THE RIGHT CONTEXT) ARE QUITE EFFECTIVE. Not for ordering lunch or finding milk or buying a belt. But if I’m teaching or performing, my "soul" and extravagance can captivate where my words cannot. At a recent karaoke party (far more popular here than in the U.S.), the students insisted that Matt the foreign teacher sing a song. I turned down the usual requests—“Hotel California,” “You are Not Alone,” “My Heart Will Go On”—and insisted instead on singing a Chinese song, which I would "translate." So I pseudo-translated, and improvised a song that moved thematically from candy to fruit to vegetables, with a long, passionate tag on the end about potatoes. And I got really into it. I’m sure they picked up a few of my words, and maybe just gave me the benefit of the doubt that what I was singing was legitimate content—even though I’d assume people in the U.S. would not find the humor, thinking instead that I was the joke rather than the content of my song. Anyway, I sold it.

BE READY FOR ANYTHING. This is a continual theme of life here, as information is often relayed at the last minute. Like being told yesterday that I would be in a ping-pong tournament that night—TOLD, not asked. It wasn’t a problem, just an amusing way of doing things. Flexibility is assumed here, whereas I think people in the U.S. generally would feel more entitled to a warning or at least would want to feel like they are more in control and have the freedom to accept or reject a request. This probably ties back into the contrasting values of American individualism and Chinese collectivism. Anyway…I actually beat a Chinese guy yesterday, and advanced to the next bracket, only to lose today in the 2nd round. So it goes. That first guy may have let me win.

GIRLS ARE FRIENDLY BUT FIERCE COMPETITORS. I’ve been watching my female students play intramural basketball. They’re not good, but they have fun. But they vacillate between moments of levity and outright feisty behavior. Every game usually yields a few scratches, bruises, and near-wrestling matches as “jump ball” calls are made frequently. It’s good entertainment.

I LIKE BEING THE HERO. Ann (Filipina teacher) was locked in her bedroom today. Because of classes and other, uh, “needs,” she preferred not to wait several hours until the locksmith could arrive. The second option was climbing onto the ledge outside the window (6th story) and moving to the neighboring window where I would guide her and pull her in. But I didn’t feel that great about suggesting someone climb out a window that high onto a questionable ledge. Option three was breaking the lock. So, a la Jason Bourne, I slammed my body into the door and broke it open, the hero of the damsel in distress. Can’t say I’d ever done that before. I’ll admit, I felt a bit manly (guess it doesn’t take much). Anyway...I hope I don't have to pay to fix the door.

MY PERSONAL "WHEN IN ROME" RULES MAY APPLY ONLY TO "FIRSTS." I recently tried—I cringe at some of your reactions as I write this—pig blood. It was served in a gelatin-like form, to be dipped in sauce. I initially declined, but decided to be adventurous. I argued that vampires eat blood, not people; Jesse politely corrected me: “vampires DRINK blood.” So because of his compelling argument, I tried it. Probably the last time I will eat pig blood.

SMOKING IMPROVES YOUR BASKETBALL ABILITIES. So, that’s not really a legitimate insight. I more mention this because I am amused and confused by the smoke breaks some students take while we play basketball. A water break I can understand. Am I the only one who sees a disconnect between simultaneously smoking a cigarette and playing sports? Smoking is more common here among male students and definitely “cooler” than it is in America among young people. I asked some of my female students about this, who told me that they don’t find it “cool” when a guy smokes. Maybe I should pass that memo along to the guys.

ATTEMPTING TO LEARN ANOTHER'S LANGUAGE IS A MARVELOUS GESTURE. Even the simplest attempts to speak Chinese are appreciated. It’s a natural point of connection, as I often find myself asking people for help, honoring them in a way by making them teachers and expressing my dependence on them. And, it’s fun; there is always a lot of positive laughter from both parties when such efforts are made. Related, we (foreign teachers) recently performed for another program, this time singing “Love” by Chris Tomlin, a song originally featuring a couple lines in an African (Ugandan?) language, which I translated into Chinese: “wo men xu yao ai,” or, roughly, “love is what we need.” I thought we really pulled it off, and I think the crowd loved our efforts toward singing in Chinese, even if they didn’t experience the full force of the lyrics. But I continue to grow fascinated by language in general. Chinese is a “tonal language” and so different from any of the European-originating languages…a far greater challenge than learning Spanish was for me. And I think I’ve only scratched the surface of how the meaning of a culture, a people, their values and traditions, and the nuances of their worldview are wrapped up in language. Maybe my true calling is linguistics. At the very least, it would be a good side hobby throughout my life.


Chris said...

Ooh... gelatinous pig's blood. The Judaisers of the early church would have had fun with that, no? Make's my "adventure" of eating fish brain in Hunan seem lame.

Sure enjoy your stories and insights. Keep 'em coming.

Chris <><

Barb said...

I love how you "take it all in," and are able to describe your adventures and feelings so eloquently.

Scrumpy said...

Matt, this post was so thoroughly entertaining! :)