I had a dream – a nightmare, basically – in which various Chinese friends repeatedly told me to wear more clothes, drink hot water, and go to sleep earlier. Every problem I had – worries about not getting into grad school, missing stuff back in America, not understanding usage of the particle 了 – would go away if I would just dress warmer, drink 开水, and rest more. Then I woke up and realized that I live this nightmare every day. Bummer. But more importantly, does this count as dreaming in Chinese?
Class was cancelled today, so I made plans with a friend to go to Gulangyu. ZheMing is a guy from church that I met a few weeks ago during preparations for the ordination; he worked at the Gulangyu hospital for two years and wanted to show me some places he knew.
On the ferry ride over, we spotted a man in a Roman collar and tried to decide if he was a priest and if we should talk to him. It turned out that he was with a group from Zhejiang, the province north of us along the coast, who had come to Xiamen on a pilgrimage. (By the way, I was the one who figured this out, by reading their nametags. It still amazes me sometimes, that I can read Chinese!) We welcomed them to Xiamen, and then we turned around and there was YuanHong, a woman from church! I love the coziness of a small community, even more so when I unexpectedly find that coziness in a city of 2+ million people.
We first went to a small bar/coffee shop where where we had a breakfast of milktea and cake. From there we went to 逛逛 around the island, making stops to visit his former coworkers at the hospital, grab barbecue and sesame treats, etc. At one point my sandal broke; we walked about 5 minutes to a small alley where there were no less than four people with specialized sewing machines awaiting our business. This is one of the things I love about China!
We talked a lot while walking. One interesting conversation concerned his description of the perfect life. You’ve heard the joke:
In Heaven, the police are British, the cooks are French, the engineers are German, the administrators are Swiss, and the lovers are Italian. In Hell, the police are German, the cooks are British, the engineers are Italian, the administrators are French, and the lovers are Swiss.
Well, the Chinese version is:
- British salary
- American house
- Chinese food
- Russian wife
We had lunch in a tiny restaurant on a cool antique/food street. The menu included 五香肉 (a special Xiamen meat dish), an omelet with oysters, and – of course – gelatinized worms. I’m really making progress on the worm front; I ate two or three pieces just fine! Teacher said it takes three times before you like it, which means I’m only one more meal away from becoming a tried-and-true Fujianren.
We went back to the bar after a while so ZheMing could take a nap (seriously; 午睡, basically ‘siesta’, is a big deal deal here). I forsook the nap in favor of a conversation with 老班, the owner of the bar. We started out talking about marriage and divorce, then moved on to politics and government. He had only good things to say about his government, praising the way Hu Jintao (personally) keeps all 1.3 billion Chinese clothed and fed – as opposed to the American government, which only has to take care of 300 million. He also drew unfavorable comparisons between the handling of the Wenchuan earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.
I found the conversation very interesting. It’s one thing to hear about how the average Chinese is willing to sacrifice freedom and autonomy for economic growth and security, and another to converse with someone who dismisses your concerns about holding the government responsible as irrelevant because everyone has a job and food to eat. It’s one thing to hear people complain about there being “too many of them”, but another – quite shocking – thing to watch someone justify the controlled society they live in because “there’s too many of us, and things would get crazy if we had too much freedom”. Is there any sadder phrase than “necessary evil”?
The overwhelming impression I was left with was the total complacency of this man, and my feeling of fear and horror in reaction. Sometimes Americans can be polarized, overly aggressive and outspoken, and unwilling to compromise. But, given a choice between this extreme passion and the complacency I often witness here in China, I realize that I would take the passion. Complacency is a compromise, an acceptance of 还可以 (fine) right now instead of striving for 棒 (amazing) in the future. Is it ever acceptable? Even when we’re satisfied with our own lot in life, we should still strive for the betterment of others’!
As we continued walking, I asked ZheMing about his family and his childhood. He grew up Catholic; his mother and her parents are Catholic but his father converted some years ago from Buddhism. Here’s how he explained his father’s conversion: “I just reasoned with him. I told him that I’m Catholic and won’t be able to burn incense and scatter ashes on his grave after he dies, so it would just be better if he entered into the Church; then I could pray for him and offer Masses for him.” His father now goes to church more than his mother does.
In addition to his family, he seems to have a very definite sense of belonging to this church community. He referred several times to “Fr. Jiang and the sisters, who watched me grow up”. He had such wonderful things to say about Fr. Jiang, whose “homilies always have so much truth in them”, and which he apparently never reuses. I’ve definitely always had a sense of missing something when I don’t understand the homily, and I figured that he had something better to offer in Chinese than the rather generic English homilies he reads, but hearing his positive testimony made me aware of just what I’m losing out on.
Our last stop on the island was the church. He called Fr. Jiang, who let us in and invited us up for tea. I usually find Fr. Jiang nearly impossible to hear clearly (and thus to understand) in both English and Chinese, but I guess the environment was just right today because I had no problems. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to him, especially after the conversation I had just had with ZheMing. I got clear answers about his life – 73 years old, spent 20 years in a labor camp before being declared innocent and released, not ordained until 1994, learned English mainly by himself (and even worked for 13 years as an English teacher) and Latin at seminary – which made me even more appreciative of him and more sad at what I’ve been missing out on. I’ve resolved to go visit him a few more times before I leave, both as an opportunity to help him with his English and to learn from him whatever I can.
There was a party tonight at some friends’ place. It was my kind of party, the one that starts with guacamole, rolls on over into the refried beans and tortillas, and finishes up with sangria and maybe some tequila. Chatting with everyone along the way, of course. I was devastated to learn of more goodbyes approaching so rapidly, but it’s not like it’s a surprise that we’re all going to part ways at some point this summer. 没办法, all we can do is enjoy what we have while we have it!
Peace out, all.