Maria Holland

Mandarin: Not So Sweet After All

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2010 at 1:01 am

Emotions are fickle things. 

I reentered China at approximately 6 p.m. on Sunday evening, and spent a good half hour relishing the wave of Mandarin washing over me.

By 7 or so, I was beginning to remember some things that I’m not so terribly fond of about China. 

The conversation partners I had so easily found were asking me for the 6th time why I don’t have a Chinese boyfriend because I’m “so pretty”.  I was most certainly not pretty, after changing into pajamas for the long bus ride and feeling grimy despite doing my best to wash my face in the miniscule sink at Chungking Mansions.  It’s usually nice to get compliments anyway, but their implications were overpowered by the cigarette smoke (which I don’t remember smelling even once in Hong Kong) that they blew directly in my face with each leer.

I had some good conversations with a few of the nicer men, but had real difficulty communicating with some of them.  While they were all technically speaking Mandarin, some of their accents were quite heavy.  In addition to the lovely Southern habit of dropping the ‘h’ from ‘sh’, these guys also said ‘f’ instead of ‘h’ and ‘l’ instead of ‘n’ and ‘r’.  And then there was the guy who asked me if I’d been to “Baizhang” and had to explain that it was China’s capital before I understood what he was talking about . . . Accents are the bane of any language-learner’s existence, but there is definitely a simple pleasure to hear one Chinese person berate another for saying something wrong.  Ha!  I didn’t understand, but it was your fault. 

The cast of characters in the bus office was continually changing, men coming and men (always men) going.  One guy got into a [rather one-sided] conversation with me about Christianity.  As best as I could understand, he was comparing Christianity in China with Christianity in the rest of the world, and as far as I could understand he was saying that Christians in other countries identify themselves primarily with their nation instead of Christianity.  I was certainly not going to agree with his assertion, but – not wanting to mistake his meaning – instead claimed I didn’t understand.  (I didn’t; whether it was an issue of language or logic was unclear.)  But after watching my adeptly handle such challenging questions as “How old are you?” and “Which is better, China or America?”, this guy was not going to let me get off claiming anything less than complete fluency.  He looked at me with contempt and said, “I know  you understand.”  It wasn’t that hard to deal with his disappointment, especially because he shut up afterwards. 

Then a new guy came in, sat down, and asked where I was from.  My answer prompted an immediate response from him: “America sucks.  England too.”  I actually don’t hear (/understand) a lot of America-bashing over here, so I was a little taken aback.  But what came next was even more surprising – he brought up the president and, after some prompting, clarified that he meant Obama.  This was the first time I’d heard anything bad about Obama, so I was interested to hear his reasons.  (I thought it would have something to do with his race, as many Chinese are racist to some extent and invariably remark on his color.)  Unfortunately, this guy’s Mandarin was heavily accented, breakneck fast, and mumbled almost beyond comprehension.  I kept asking him to repeat himself and looking at the others for help deciphering his rant, but everyone in the room just looked visibly uncomfortable and tried to avoid my gaze.  The only word I picked up is “bin Laden”, but there was no mention or Iraq or war as far as I could tell, so I really don’t know what he was saying.  It really irritated me that he spoke for so long when I obviously didn’t understand.  If you have a problem with my country, that’s fine, but please speak proper 普通话 so I can understand you.  Instead, he just took the opportunity to soapbox in front of a Chinese audience and an American who can’t even say anything in response. 

Thus the hours passed.  Finally it was 8:30 (the scheduled departure time of our bus), and I began to gather my things.  I asked the men when we were heading out, and they asked me what the rush was?  They sat there, tea cups in hand and cigarettes between lips, in absolutely no hurry to be anywhere or do anything, and told me that I was too pretty to head back to Xiamen yet.  I laughed and said I would just walk home, but inside I was wondering if the time for joking had passed and the time for figuring out another way home had arrived.  Luckily, a woman came in around this time, and she too seemed vaguely concerned about returning to Xiamen sometime in the near future.

More hours passed.  Someone turned on the TV and we started watching the news.  The countdown to the Shanghai World Expo is at 20 days.  Protests continue in Thailand.  Opposition forces have taken control of Kyrgyzstan (another ridiculous country name I’ve learned in Chinese – 吉尔吉斯斯坦).  The president of Poland died in a plane crash over Russia.  (Only upon my return home did I find out that many top government officials died as well; now my heart is sad for that beautiful country.) 

Around 10, we walked across the station in the first leg of our journey.  We had been joined by some new passengers, including one young man who carried a woman’s bag the entire way for her.  The fact that this deserves mention in the journal indicates how uncommon common courtesy is in China . . . I remember thinking to myself how he had just earned 1,000 Potential Chinese Boyfriend points, as opposed to the stupid flattery and cigarette smoke of the men in the bus office (worth 0 points). 

After a van ride to take us to our bus, we were finally able to board.  Apparently we had a sleeper bus – my first time!  You may think you can’t fit many beds into a single bus, but that’s just because you’re not thinking like a Chinese.  There are three rows of beds along the length of the bus, and each one is stacked two high.  Each bed is exactly the width of me, with my arms by my side, and the aisles between are significantly narrower.  I think the lengths vary, because I was continually motioned towards different berths as the driver realized how ridiculously tall I am.  The head of each bed is raised, creating extra foot room for the passenger behind you.  I actually found it quite comfortable, especially considering I was expecting a seat.  The bed was probably more comfortable than a hard sleeper in a train, but train compartments offer space to sit up, eat, walk around, etc. while sleeper buses are exclusively for sleeping. 

And, of course, that is fine with me. 

  1. Man, the adventures one can have in China! A sleeper BUS!?!?

  2. You are too pretty to go back to Xiamen! And I want a sleeper bus too.

    Great blog!

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