November 25, 2006

Warmth and friendliness

Despite the stressful trip into Kathmandu, there were some highlights during the day that would never have happened if we had a simple, straightforward, easy taxi ride into the city.

I spent a lot of time sitting by the side of the road guarding luggage, as Jonathan went off to find the next ride towards Kathmandu. Despite being anxious about the situation, it felt luxurious to be sitting in the grass, warm and feeling the sun on my face. It was a welcome change after the cold and skin cracking dryness of high altitude. I gazed at the mango and banana trees dotting the valley and marvelled at the precise terracing of the rice fields, while chickens pecked and goats chewed on grass besides me.

Groups of women walked by in beautiful flowing saris, kids in school uniforms, and men in traditional round cloth hats frequented the small roadside shops across the road. I discovered that Nepali men commonly walk holding each others’ hands – as natural for them as it would be stange in the US.

I found that the Nepali are curious but polite people. Passerbys would stare at me, but once I caught them looking they would quickly look away. I would call out “Namaste!”, and instantly a slightly sheepish smile would break out, and “Namaste” would be warmly returned. I imagine they don’t see foreign women stuck alone on the side of the road with a pile of 8 bags in front of them very often. (Or maybe they do, given the number of transportation strikes!)

A teenage boy who was selling bolts of cloth saw me, and started to pester me for money and candy, etc. He was harmless, but a little annoying when he wouldn’t go away. A circle of old women sitting on their balcony, with whom I had made friends with earlier by waving and shouting “Namaste!”, started in concert to lecture him from above. Ah, the village elders. Some things don’t need any translation – the effect on the boy was immediate. He rolled his eyes (but when only faced towards me), and slunk away.

Our first meal in Nepal was delicious – doubly so since we hadn’t eaten for 8 hours since leaving the Chinese border in the morning. We sat at a roadside restaurant and ordered the Nepali Set Meal to share, which came with curry vegetables, rice, a green stewed vegetable, lentil soup (dal) and some sort of salad, each in its own little copper dish. Jonathan and I shared food as our usual custom, eating off of one plate, sampling this and that. We devoured the meal, since we weren’t sure whether at any point we’d have to be ready to get on the next mode of transportation to Kathmandu.

We had a few minutes to kill after the meal, and flipped through the Lonely Planet Nepal, reading the highlighted “Dos and Don’ts” concerning Nepali etiquette. Number 1, the Number 1 item listed went something like ” Do not share food or utensils. This is considered to ritually contaminate the food”. We looked at each other and thought back to our unintended complete and utter trampling on this cultural norm.

Oops. Hope the restaurant guys are used to crazy foreigners…

November 19, 2006

Kodari to Kathmandu

We were expecting a fleet of taxis to greet us as we finished crossing the border into Nepal. Touts would be shouting “You go to Kathmandu?”, as they competed to get tourists as they exited the visa office. As our trusty Lonely Planet states, we should pay about 1500 rupees ($20) for a four hour ride to Kathmandu, the capital.

What we found were no taxis, a snaking line of 20 Landrovers holding irate French tourists, and complete confusion.

Dozens of enormous trucks were parked diagonally across the only road leading to the city. No one really understood what was going on, and there was some speculation that it was Maoist tactic. The Maoists are a political group that use guerilla tactics to try gain power in the Nepali government. While they generally leave tourists alone, except for charging “fees” when encountered on treks and on the road, they have resorted to kidnappings, general strikes and bombings to get what they want. Later on, we found out that it was actually a trucker’s strike, to put pressure on the government to control the Maoists, who had beat up a truck driver the day before who had refused to pay extortion.

Quick on his feet, Jonathan quickly grasped the situation – that if we didn’t get out of there fast, and ahead of all the other tourists, we could be at the border town for days. We picked up a Nepali named Krishna, who spoke some English, and who promised to help us get to Kathmandu by whatever means possible for a mere 4000 rupees. We walked around to the other side of the roadblock, and Jonathan and Krishna went off to find minivan drivers or any transport that showed up to try to get a ride while I guarded the luggage.

Our first ride was only 8 km down the road before we came to another roadblock. We dutifully got off the minivan, crammed with 20 Nepalis, and walked around the roadblock. Again, Jonathan set off with Krishna to haggle another ride.

In total, we found that the roadblocks were placed every 20-30km or so. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Jonathan was a complete hero, negotiating hard, finding any sort of transportation, trying to get us safely to Kathmandu as fast as possible. We didn’t know whether the situation would get more dangerous, whether there would even be any more transportation after each roadblock, or there would be government retaliation. All we did know is we didn’t want to be stranded in a rural mountain town in Nepal if and when it happened.

We wathced one roadblock go up literally 5 minutes afer we arrived. We saw the truck park across the road diagonally, and people rushing out to furiously trying to talk to the truck driver. Store owners began closing down the metal gates to their storefronts with an air of resignation. Bus loads of people walked wearily into town as buses reached the block and were turned back to where they came from.

I saw an old man giving a piggy back ride to an even older woman slumped across his back, with her bandaged bare feet dangling. As annoying and inconvenient the strike was for us, it really brought home that it could be a matter of life and death for others.

It was unsettling to drive in the dark on twisty downhill hairpin roads. On our longest leg of the journey, Jonathan sat in the back of the open air truck with 12 Nepali men, while I got the comfortable seat inside the cab. We passed a place just waiting to form a road block around 7pm, with 20 trucks lined up on one side of the road. We were waved through, hearing that they wouldn’t start blocking until tomorrow morning.

It was terrifying not to know who to trust – we passed a sketchy Maoist checkpoint, consisting of a bunch of scrawny yet overly macho teenagers wearing red bandanas, where the driver paid something and we were allowed to go on our way. The next stop had “Police” on it, some negotiation ensued, but then we were passed through after inspection. We were both on constant high alert, worried they would detect us tourists.

Just as we got comfortable, we were all booted off half an hour outside the city, and packed ourselves onto a crammed public city bus. The sun had long set, and we were in complete and utter darkness. The bus lights weren’t working, and random strangers whipped out their cell phones to provide minimal light as we got ourselves to the back of the bus and tried to guard our luggage.

After that, the bus dropped us off on the outskirts of Kathamndu, and we hailed a taxi for the final leg to the Kathmandu Guest House. It was almost alticlimactic, but a great relief to finally be there.

In all, we took 6 separate rides, consisting of a jeep, a minivan, public bus #1, open air truck, public bus #2 and taxi to get the 100 km or so to Kathamandu. Nine hours and 7000 rupees later, we were lucky to have made it – the “official” strike was actually scheduled for tomorrow…

Suddenly Saris

The steep descent into the Kathmandu valley from the Tibetan border is one of the most dramatic changes in landscape, people and culture I’ve ever seen.

As we meandered from the heights of Everest in its rocky and barren browness, and down through the cloud layer, I could feel life taking hold again. Leafy green plants apperared, accented by tiny brightly colored wildflowers. Water became abundant, with gushing waterfalls and raging rivers, and the company of trees made me want to cheer. How lonely and desolate the land was on the high mountain plains!

And yet, with nature and life at its lushest, we then descended into the unfortunate byproducts of “civilization”. We came to rest at Zhongmu, the last Chinese town on the border with Nepal. It is literally a one road town – the terrain is so steep that the roadway is the only street in town. Buildings rise straight up from the street, and the road is only wide enough for one and a half vehicles.

This makes traffic a snarl for miles leading to the border town, with goats, herds of sheep, yaks, shepards, motorcycles, taxis, Landrovers and tourist buses and dozens of Chinese trucks carrying cargo clogging the road. There was so much exhaust, and the cacaphony of horns! We stood in the light rain trying hard to not get run over, and wondering what the heck happened in the last few hours.

Then, immediately after crossing into Nepal, it was if we had stepped into yet another world. The weather went from cool and clammy to hot and steamy. Gone were the stiff Chinese officials and Tibetans in their subdued clothing. Suddenly brightly colored and patterened saris (traditional Indian garment) were everywhere, and the people looked more Indian than Chinese. Restaurants hawked dal bhat, curries and Nepali set meals. Bananas and mangoes were on sale, and layers upon layers of terraced fields of wheat hugged the sloping mountain sides.

The change was so dramatic, and so rapid that I (almost) wanted to go back and drive it again.

November 9, 2006

Mail delivery to 17,200 ft

(Photos to come!)

Superlatives attached to any ordinary object make it instantly a “must see” in a guide book.

Boring items such as a post office, a mountain and a monastery become really cool when they are the World’s Highest Post Office, Mountain and Monastery!

We had a spectacular view of Mt Everest, and 3 other snow capped peaks, with their summits poking through the cloud layer. It was really quite beautiful from afar, with what appeared to be wisps of snow blowing off the very summit of Everest. It looked serene from where we stood -though the guides were quick to point out that there are over 120 dead bodies on mountain, the consequences of failed summit attempts.

A few miles from Everest Base Camp (EBC), Rongphu Monastery stands as the highest monastery in the world at 16,300 ft. My first and very gut reaction was “These people must be nuts!” I imagine that they must be snowed in for months in the winter, unreachable to the world and bitterly cold, making a Boston winter seem like a walk in the park. However, unlike the other monasteries we visited, they did have a huge satellite dish in the courtyard…perhaps HBO makes the long winters pass?

We trekked the 5 miles from the monastery to EBC , situated at 17,200 ft. We had been stuck sitting for the last 3 days in a Land Cruiser, and were excited to get some excercise, and thus decided to forgo the donkey cart ride to the top. It was hard work walking up at altitude (having spent the last night at only 12,800 ft) but well worth it. The landscape was mostly barren and brown and rocky, punctuated occasionally by a gushing stream, some deer and birds. I was surprised by the presence of wildlife at such altitude, and yet at the lack of even lichen on the bare brown rocks.

We arrived base camp, and passed the world’s highest post office, making me wonder what poor Chinese civil servant got outposted there. The view was spectacular. We rested for 5 minutes in some of the tents that comprise Base camp (quite cozy, large walk-in tents where you can have tea and spend the night) and turned immediately around to make sure we got back to the monastery before the sun set. At the end of the 10 mile walk, we were exhausted, and ecstatic to have some hot tea and to dig into the bowl of ubiquitous Tibetan soup noodles.

While we were not expecting the Four Seasons, the “accomadations” were the most “basic” (read as code word for “total crap”) we’ve seen yet. For a whopping 240 Yuan ($30) we got 3 twin beds, no water (running or otherwise), no heat, and an outdoor “bathroom”, the worst I’ve ever seen.

I have now drawn a line. Once upon a time I was irritated when there was no toilet paper. Now, I discovered I require only one thing in a bathroom – a hole .

The women’s “bathroom” was a concrete enclosure with a tin roof and a concrete floor. That was it. There was shit piled up everywhere, and the entire surface was wet, with a few crumpled tissues scattered about. Jonathan happily informed me that the men’s side had not one but two holes in the floor. Did someone screw up where they put the holes? Or maybe just where they put up the dividing wall? The mind boggles…and who has to clean up that biohazard of a mess?

On advice from a French biker, we hung up blankets from the third bed across the windows to keep the wind out. I wore long underwear, socks, a hat and two sweaters to bed, and waited for the one electric bulb (which we paid extra for) to go out at 11:30pm (there was no control, and no way to unscrew the @#!@ bulb). We spent an odd, fitful night sleeping, booby trapping the door (which had no lock) with some crinkly plastic bags which would give us warning if someone tried to enter in the middle of the night. With our extra insulation, we managed to keep the room at around 40 degrees.

So, in addition to the “World’s Highest” mountain, post office and monastery, and some of the “World’s Most Beautiful Views”, I can also say I experienced the “World’s Most Ridiculous/Pointless Bathroom”.

Somehow, I doubt that it’ll make the guidebooks…

Goats, sheep, and yak, oh my!

(Photos to come!)

In our 5 day overland trip from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal, we got a real feel for rural agricultual Tibetan life outside the big cities.

There are certainly more goats, sheep and yak than there are Tibetans. Our Landcruiser flew down the dirt and rocky roads, slowed only occasionally by small rivers, a checkpoint or two, and by running into herds of sheep and goat, at which point we merely slowed down a little and honked our way through the mass of animals. Having become acquainted with yak milk, butter and cheese in town, we finally saw the huge animals themselves, bearing yokes and plowing the fields.

Many people were in the fields bundling hay for the winter. We had gotten out on the side of the road because Jonathan wanted to take pictures, and we were invited to watch, as the farmers lifted some hay from a large pile in the middle, shook the forkful in the wind to allow the small fragments to blow away, then added the larger pieces to another stack. The farmer motioned to Jonathan to ask if he would like to try, and being Jonathan, he enthusiastically dug in, though there was a small moment of consternation as half the hay he had lifted flew off the pitchfork, off into the wind and on himself. After settling back into the car, his hair was still covered in small flecks of hay – I couldn’t believe I’d married a hayseed. :)

We passed many neat, rectangular Tibetan houses with their four corner turrets and prayer flags huddled together in valleys, surrounded by farmland. Survival and agriculture at 14,00 ft looked hard, and I can only imagine how cold and long the winters must be. While there are some electric lines running through the countryside, it is minimal at best. Life looks like it proceeds much as it has for the last hundred years.

Children of all ages are visible everywhere, running around, strapped to mother’s backs or walking to school. It made me think of how age stratified American society is…I could go for months without seeing anyone under 21, certainly not at work, and not even in the neighborhoods in Newton, where children are carefully chauffeured from one activity to another. Equally, it would be strange to see 70 year olds hanging around on a street corner, sitting on plastic stools and playing cards or chess. It struck me as nice to have that integration, that we’ve lost something without that connectedness between generations.

Despite the great distances between one street towns, we saw all sorts of people in motion, walking, riding motorcycles, sitting on donkey pulled carts, or piled onto the back of a flatbed, pulled by what looked like a lawn mower engine on two wheels. I felt more than a little bad as we passed them on these dirt roads, leaving them in a cloud of dust.

The pace of modernity…

October 31, 2006

Speedy Pilgrims of Tibet

Standing still in the current of chanting Buddist pilgrims, people continued to flow around me as I tried to take in the scene. We were in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in front of its holiest place, the Johkang Temple.

The Johkang dates to the 7th century, an imposing white and maroon stucco structure. It appears little has changed since then. 20 foot tall incense burners billow out plumes of smoke from burning herbal offerings, and colorful prayer flag columns reach even higher into the sky. Pilgrims of all sorts, from frail solitary figures to entire families tugging toddlers briskly march clockwise around the Temple, while chanting mantras, counting rosaries, spinning small prayer wheels in their hand, and constantly moving. It is a flurry of color and sound and movement, against a background of an unbroken row of stalls, with merchants hawking prayer flags, yak butter, beads, scrolls, wood carvings, and more. (Check out Jonathan’s great photos)

The truly dedicated prostrated themselves around the entire quarter mile long kora that surrounds the Temple, standing, bowing, then sliding along the ground one body length to stand and repeat. Some of the pilgrims have special pads for their hands, a block of wood with a piece of metal attached on one side, to slide smoothly along the paved street.

The pilgrims struck me as extremely busy – or as people with a bit of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Everything had to be touched, in the correct order, while chanting the correct mantra. Each Buddist deity inside the Temple had to be bowed to, presented with yak butter to fuel the candles, and given a small donation of cash. There are half yuan and 1 yuan notes everywhere, stuffed at the feet of buddist statues, in their hands, in glass collection boxes, and slipped onto window cases in front of the deities. And with some Temples having dozens of internal chapels housing specific deities, the pilgrims quickly did what they needed to do and moved on in a matter of seconds, while the tourists stood still, admiring the artistry.

The Buddist monks and nuns were a treat to see in their traditional saffron and yellow robes, yet sporting Nike knit hats and chatting on cell phones. We were told that monks (especially at the better known temples) received a stipend for their work, and although not allowed to have worldly possesions, cell phones were somehow completely acceptable. Maybe they’re chatting with their girlfriends – evidently not all monks need to be celibate. :)

Tibetan Buddism was strangely reminsicent to me of South American Catholicism, with its pilgrims, elaborate and ornate holy shrines and idols, patron saints and gods, hierarchical clergy, sets prayers and rosary beads.

We discovered (although it shouldn’t have been surprising) that no pictures of the Dalai Lama are allowed in Tibet by the Chinese government. I found it odd that one of the very few things I knew about Tibetan Buddism was what the Dalai Lama looked like, and yet many of the monks did not. I didn’t understand the harsh impact of this simple act until I learned that portraits of lesser Lamas were allowed, and were displayed prominently next to the Buddist statues that the Lamas were supposed to be reincarnations of. Not knowing what the present reincarnation of the leader of the Tibetan Buddists symbolically seems to say that there is no head, no leader. Buttons with the picture of the Dalai Lama and flags of Tibet were freely available in Nepal, but the border crossing from Nepal to Tibet is one of the most well guarded and tightly regulated in all of China.

The Chinese presence here is made very clear, a sharp contrast of language, of culture, and of time. While the Barkhor and the Johkang Temple remain mostly unchanged for the last 1000 years, the rest of Lhasa looks exactly like a newly developped Chinese city, with its white tiled buildings, neon signs, traffic lights and restaurants. The ultra modern concrete “Liberation of the people” monument in the center of the city stands in stark contrast across the street from the 7th century Potala Palace, the traditional seat of the Dalai Lamas.

I am glad that we were able to see this point in Tibet’s history – clearly change is afoot, with the opening up to tourism and the completion of the new train direct from Beijing. The Chinese tourists who are here stand out. They are clearly the most affluent in an increasingly wealthy population, dressed either in suits or jeans, fleeces and high heeled boots, toting HUGE lenses and mini video cameras. The Tibetans we encountered, whether pilgrims or Lhasa city dwellers, were astoundingly tolerant of photos and tourists. Let’s hope that they can hold out against what will sure to be an onslaught of new Chinese migrants and tourists.

October 28, 2006

Xi’an Terracotta warriors

Talk about a massive ego…

The army of terracotta warriors guarding the tomb of the first Emperor of China have stood in battle ready formation for over 2000 years. It remained undiscovered in the Xi’an countryside until the 1970’s, reportedly because the Emperor had all the artisians involved with the construction of his tomb killed.

All of which got me to thinking… What kind of objects could I be buried with, that 2000 years later when my grave is “discovered”, would people say, “Oh my God, that is sooo amazing!” ? I mean, really, even given unlimited wealth (ala Bill Gates), what could one do to top this? Buried with jewels and riches? So done. Buried with your concumbines? Hardly novel. Buried underneath an enormous pyramid? Practically cliche…

But an entire stone army…very cool.

The scale of the project is almost unbelievable. There is a large diarama mapping the area excavation and the surrounding countryside. The actual tomb of the Emperor Qin is 1.5 km to the east of the terracotta warriors. Since they have unearthed some terracotta warriors only 200 meters from the tomb, it is likely that there are guards all the way to the tomb itself. A mindblowing use of human sweat and resources, of thousands of hand forged bronze weapons, complete with copper chariots drawn by stone horses, including bridles and reins.

Besides the sheer numbers of statues created, each individual life sized terracotta warrior is amazing in detail. They are so life like, each with unique facial expressions, hairdos, armor and hand gestures that I felt sure that when I looked away, they would move. The silence that settled when large tour groups moved on was eerie.

Likewise, the scale of the archeological dig to unearth these warriors is as impressive. What really struck me was the condition they found the warriors, sometimes fragmented into hundreds of tiny pieces. Various displays around the pit showed the warriors in states of repair, and the painstaking work of reconstruction.

What I didn’t know before was that they haven’t even scratched the surface on excavation. Half of Pit 1, the largest one where most of the pictures are taken, remains under tarps, and x-ray imaging has even revealed more pits.

What a way to go!

October 10, 2006

Beijing New East Culinary School

Uniting two of my passions, cooking and learning, into a single activity (namely a cooking class) is one of the most wonderful ways I can think of to spend my time.

I’ve been really interested in finding out about what foods were typical of the northern region of China. Being the imperial capital of China for the last 500 years, I thought that there must be a very distinct style and dishes that were typical of the city. This was the home of the dowager empress Cixi, who was infamous for having over 100 dishes prepared every night that were never eaten, simply to satisfy her eyes.

I found a culinary tour of Beijing online, which included a translator and driver. I thought it would be much like the other cooking classes I had taken, where 8-10 people show up, you cook at individual stations while a teacher in the front does the demonstrations.

Upon being picked up by our guide, I discovered that Jonathan and I were the only 2 people in the “class”. We pulled up to the Beijing New East Culinary School, and was met by the manager of the school. We were led on a brief tour of the school, passing through an open courtyard where 40 students were practicing their chopping skills.

I will never forget the unsynchronized thwacking of 40 cleavers on wood blocks.

We took a peek inside one of the teaching classrooms, where at least 50 students each stood by a wok and prep station, cooking up a storm. By this time, we had gathered a crowd of students, mostly young men, openly staring at us and wondering who we were. I began to understand why, as we were ushered into a room where 4 chefs in full European chefs uniform complete with white toques were standing there waiting to receive us. They had set up a table with 2 plates and chopsticks in the middle of the room, and behind us were a few rows of chairs. As we entered the room, the entire back of the room, which is glass, was gathered with curious students. Who were these two?

The master chef Xu Yongli was personally doing the demonstration, with 3 of his sous chefs. Along with that was the manager who accompanied us in, the translator and driver, and another administrator who was videotaping us. All for my cooking class!

A sous chef turned and wrote the names of the dishes that they would be preparing on the blackboard. It was worst Chinese handwriting I’ve ever tried to read, really resembling chicken scratch. I was a little disappointed when I found out it would be Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour pork, and Steamed Fish. I was assured that these were typical Chinese dishes. Oh well…while I was hoping for more regional food, I was sure I would learn things nonetheless. (I’ve since found out that Beijing really lives and dies by its street snacks).

I got a blow by blow tutorial from the master chef, with (barely adequate) translation from our tour guide, who was clearly not a cook. When I said that to her, she enthusiastically said “No, but I like to eat!”.

While I am familiar with the basics of Chinese cooking, I learned a lot on how to prepare and present fish, to increase surface area of meat for frying, and how to use some new condiments. One distinct difference between Cantonse cooking is the use of vinegar. I watched as he stir fried the chicken, double flash fried the pork and steamed the fish. They do have incredible fire, as the stoves are powered by propane tanks in the corner. The wok gets HOT! Not one of those sissy Viking stoves…

As I was intently watching the chef, Jonathan was intently taking pictures. When the chef was finished preparing the meal, he asked if we would like to try to prepare the sweet and sour pork. Jonathan had no interest, so I stepped behind the counter.

This was quite a bit more intimidating than I was expecting. The master chef is watching me, along with his three sous chefs, the guide, the driver, the two managers and Jonathan with his giant lens. There is a row of curious students crowded in the doorway. He hands me his cleaver and I get to work.

It was alot of fun as I learned how to properly hold a cleaver, tenderized and sliced pork, dredged it in a mixture of cornstarch and “custard powder”, got criticized on my prep of the pepper (too big!) and double fried the meat. I watched his technique for putting ketchup into the wok directly, and made a passable sweet and sour sauce.

The chef was very polite, as we sat down to a huge meal containing both his and my sweet and sour pork. He sampled mine and said “Good!” Nice try, but not even close – my pork cubes lacked the crispy exterior of his, due to my cutting them too big, and the sauce was a bit ketchupy, but overall not too bad.

There was definetly a moment there which reminded me of my father. I asked the chef how he knew the oil was ready for frying – expecting him to say something like “I intently watched for the size of the bubbles”, or whatever.

He just chuckled at the translator, and replied “you just know”.

The Photographer

Tagging along on Jonathan’s photographic tour of the Beijing hutongs with the professional photographer Mr. Stone made me realize that there are core characteristics that all photographers share.

Mr. Stone was quick, and energetic. He was charming and could sweet talk strangers into smiles and into welcoming photos. He had a complete disregard for rules, blithely pushing aside doors marked “Private, No entry” and strolling into people’s courtyards. He had no hesitation about manipulating his environment for his photo – move some bikes out of the way, position me to block some uneven light, open some doors, hold up wires in the way. Being a funny guy, he even mimed trying to push a van out of the way of his picture!

It was fascinating to watch him work, creating shadows using a towel, or using light (attached to a briefcase sized battery pack) to create the effect he wanted. He carried a towel with him so he could squat, sit, lay on his belly or on his back, all to get the right shot. Need a ladder to get closer up to a roof tile? Just use the ones that are there!

I have seen all these characteristics in Jonathan, but had no name to put to them. Now I have one – Photographer. My reaction was much like when I met other Entrepreneurs in YEO – oh my god, there are more of them?!

About 3 hours into our tour, Mr. Stone glances at me, and says “My wife doesn’t like going on photo trips with me either.” :)
But I can’t complain too much – the upside is that I will have wonderful photos to remember our travels.

October 9, 2006

Why can’t you speak??

In the classic science fiction novel “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, all it takes to acquire new knowledge is to go to a clinic and have it directly uploaded into your brain.

Sadly, listening to Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese Lesson 4 while lying in bed is nowhere near as efficient.

Although I speak fluent Cantonese, trying to understand Mandarin is tougher than I was expecting. It is hard when everyone I encounter already expects me to be able to speak. After all, if I am Chinese, then it follows that I must speak Mandarin. When I stand frozen like a deer in headlights because I have absolutely no idea what was just said to me, the expression goes from confusion to suspicion.

It is even worse if I get out (rather smoothly if I do say so myself) the phrase I learned in my tapes “I don’t speak mandarin. I can speak guangdong hua (cantonese)”. At this point, it is really confusing, since it has been almost 10 years since Hong Kong has been handed back to China, and with Mandarin as the primary language of instruction, there isn’t anyone who lives there who doesn’t also speak Mandarin.

The killer thing is that Jonathan (who can say hello, thank you and no thank you, and is more naturally outgoing) gets radiant smiles when he attempts anything at all in mandarin, something it seems few foreigners try.

And when he can’t get his point across, they look at me, as if to say “Could you please speak up and rescue me from having to decipher this person?”

So, I revert to pointing, and speaking in Cantonese, hoping that some of the cognates will be recognizable. It’s a bit like speaking Spanish to a French person. Although the written language is almost identical (Hong Kong and Taiwan hold out using unsimplified characters), I am only learning characters now, chugging away at learning to read via flashcards. With about 200 characters under my belt (a working vocabulary requires about 2000), I can figure out only the most basic things, read some road signs, tell the differences between hotels and restaurants. Although this will prevent me from looking at a menu and not ordering beef when I want chicken, whether I am getting gelatinous chicken, chicken feet or chicken gizzards is a bit beyond me at this point.

So much to learn! Hopefully being in China for a month will help me solidify what I already know, and undoubtedly will teach me more than I bargained for…:)

« Previous PageNext Page »