I spent 7 hours at karaoke today with my labmates! A very traditional 4th of July activity, right?
I sang a lot of English songs – Telephone, Call Me Maybe, My Life Would Suck Without You, Rolling in the Deep (a request), I Will Always Love You, Domino, Thrift Shop. Then I wanted to introduce them to some country music, so I did Fastest Girl in Town by Miranda Lambert. It was so strange to watch that music video in Chinese, knowing that Chinese eyes were also watching it. There were guns . . .
I also sang Southern Comfort Zone by Brad Paisley and Carolina by James Taylor. We have a lot of wistful songs about home, don’t we? I almost did Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel, but I didn’t want my labmates to think I wanted to be somewhere else.
But Southern Comfort Zone really did seem very poignant today. I have walked the streets of Rome, and I have been to foreign lands. I definitely know what it’s like to talk and have nobody understand (like, that happened last week). I’ve been to some amazing places and had some incredible experiences, but I also love the comfort of home.
I also sang basically my entire repertoire of Chinese songs. It’s not a ton, as potential candidates have to meet several requirements – I have to like the song, it has to be within my range, and the words have to be relatively easy. I sang 人间、日不落、桃花朵朵开、and 改变自己, but it was 遇上你是我的缘 that everyone exclaimed over – I think it might be a Western song (either Xinjiang or Tibet) and no one was expecting me to sing it?
YiZhou sang in Korean, and apparently everyone can sing in Cantonese. (This is a major headache for me, as almost all karaoke lyrics are in Traditional Chinese characters already; when I’m both looking at and hearing words that are almost, but not quite, familiar to me in a second language, I just want to switch off my brain.) I further contributed to the language potpourri by singing Corre in Spanish, which I was pleasantly surprised to find when scanning through the songs.
The other 6 hours when I wasn’t singing, I watched my labmates and took notes of songs that I liked. There were an incredible number of sad songs – probably half of them had someone actively crying in the music video. The best example of this is 童话, in which music video a guy sings to his girlfriend as she dies of lung cancer, promising that they’ll live happily ever after like in a fairy tale. In the US, where it seems like getting people pumped up or dancing is the standard by which karaoke is judged, you don’t sing songs like this, but in China it’s a karaoke standard. My favorite guitar songs are mostly sad drinking a songs (a category in which country music excels), so this is right up my alley. It’s like I’ve finally found my people – the ones who will watch you sing sad song after sadder song without wondering if you’re suicidal.
When our time was up at 5pm, we went to dinner. We biked through Tsinghua’s campus to a 串 place near the West Gate. 串, or “chuar”, is basically like the Minnesota State Fair – everything skewered and cooked on a stick. We got chicken wings, lamb meat, cow tendon, and fried bread on sticks, plus a mysterious (but delicious) bowl of black noodles, roasted eggplant, and edamame.
I had told them I eat everything but 肠 (intestines) and bitter things. I hadn’t really foreseen them ordering tendon, but it was actually better than what I expected. (When I commented thus – perhaps I just said it was “good” – we ended up ordering more, haha.) Later, they asked why I don’t like intestine, and I said it was too chewy. Tendon can be, too, but this was prepared in a way that wasn’t so much. “Transversely isotropic”, GuoYang commented, in perfect English. That was exactly it – tendon, like muscle, is transversely isotropic, with different material properties in one direction than in the others (it’s quite strong in the fiber direction, but the fibers are only loosely connected to their neighbors). This tendon had been cut through the fibers, so the loose connections between the fibers came apart easily in my mouth, avoiding the dreaded interminable chewing of intestine. I started laughing when he said this, though, which made him think he had spoken incorrectly. No, I told him, that’s exactly how I would have explained it to friends back home (if they were nerdy in the same way that I am), but it’s so strange to have these guys produce perfect English technical vocabularly when 99% of our interaction is in Chinese. He later said the word “morphology” in a different conversation. I guess it’s like my vocab was when I was living on the farm – mostly based on a 500-word picture dictionary for children, plus construction terms like “weld”, “backhoe”, and “rivet gun”. You learn what you need to know!
I carry around a little notebook that I bought the first week, and throughout the day scribble down new words, notes for my journal, names, etc. They’ve all noticed it, because it usually comes out as a preface to a question I’m going to ask. During dinner I showed JiaWen all the words I’d written down in my notebook, from 特征值 (eigenvalue), which she taught me yesterday, all the way back to 微米 (micron) and 尿布 (diaper) from the visiting American professor. When we got to those, she said, I think your Chinese and his are pretty much the same level, right? I agreed with her, but commented on the different ways our language levels are perceived because he looks Asian and I don’t – his level was described as “一般” (average, or half), while they say mine is 非常不错 (extremely not bad) or something like that. A few of the guys leapt in to my defense, to say that I speak better than him. One of the things that makes Chinese easy to learn in China is the absolute, unconditional encouragement you get from Chinese people on your progress. But, I said, you don’t really compliment people on their language abilities once they really get good enough. I don’t even think of complimenting most of my international friends at Stanford, any more than I would do so to a native speaker, because that’s what they sound like. As long as I get told my Chinese is great, I know it’s only good.
We had ordered a few bottles of Tsingtao beer, which we drank from small glasses (about 2-3 times the size of a shot glass). Before long, the toasts started. ZhaoYan stood up, said some nice words about America’s Independence Day, and we clinked glasses. I sought out everyone else’s glasses, clinked with them, and then drank. This is not how you do it in China, Cheng kindly told me – in China, toasts are one-on-one, not communal. Oops! In the US, I said, we usually do group toasts, so I did one as an example and everyone drank, but then we returned to the Chinese model – ShaoZhen and GuoYang toasted me, and I returned the gesture and toasted each of them.
When I studied Chinese in Xiamen, I took classes like 口语 (oral Chinese), 听力 (listening), and 报刊 (newspaper reading), but I’ve long maintained that these are not sufficient for a holistic Chinese education. I would like to see classes in four main areas which have a huge impact on the quality of one’s life in China: ordering food, singing karaoke, getting mad, and toasting. The whole lab is going to dinner after group meeting on Friday in celebration of the three students who are graduating, so I better start preparing some toasts now . . .
When you’re toasted, I was told, you make the other person very happy if you drink your entire glass. I can just drink a shot in one mouthful, but these glasses are way too big for me. The girls, Cheng and JiaWen, agreed with me, but none of the guys seemed to have a problem at all. We decided we’re going to write a paper on how men drink so fast. It would go well with the visiting professor’s research on urination!
Someone asked me how old I am – apparently the oldest in the room. This makes me their 师姐, they explained – it’s something like “older lab sister”. I love this custom in Chinese, to address members of very close groups with family terms. I first experienced it in church, which was familiar because we also call fellow Catholics “brother and sister” in the US. But while I feel like my labmates at Stanford are like brothers, I still call them “labmates”. Here, though, these guys are my 师弟 and 师妹.
I treated everyone to dinner. I think I was pretty awkward about it, but 请客 (treating) is a complex affair in China and friends have a history of sneaking off and paying before I even realize what’s going on. (For example, I still have no idea how karaoke was paid for or what it cost.) So after we ordered, I announced that I was going to pay. I got away with it with only moderate protestations and last-ditch attempts to pay the cashier that I was easily able to override. Dinner for 6 was just under 500元, or about $80. That’s a great price for a wonderful day spent with these guys outside of work! It’s amazing – it’s almost four times what I paid last night for the sangria and various taxis, but I don’t mind spending money on friends and good times, while getting cheated even out of $3 is absolutely infuriating.
In a very bittersweet revelation, I also found out that I’m going to be saving about 200元 this month. ShaoZhen, my office mate, main lunch buddy, and the first guy whose name I learned, is leaving on Monday for an internship in Zhejiang and won’t be back until after I leave. The good news is, he’s going to let me use his internet account since he won’t be here and I won’t have to worry about stealing someone’s precious allotment of internet.
That should save me 10元 a day . . . but ShaoZhen is leaving! My friend circle just got a little bit smaller. I was also not prepared to say goodbyes this early. I’m really bad at sharing my emotions in Chinese, so I’m even worse at goodbyes in China than in the US. I said that I had enjoyed getting to know him thanked him for all of his help, and wished him a good experience in Zhejiang. Then I said, We Americans usually hug goodbye, but I know that you guys don’t have this custom, so . . . We shook hands, before everyone else told him to let me hug him. It was a good hug, actually. A lot of Chinese people don’t seem to know how to hug, so sometimes they try to go left, but he went right. Goodbye, ShaoZhen!
As we biked back to the Tsinghua campus together, I biked next to GuoYang and we talked. He has probably the most similar personality to mine. We both tease people a lot – he was the one who asked me if I was really a mechanical engineer when I didn’t know how to operate the kickstand on my bike the first week. (It’s a complicated kickstand, okay??) He said, I figured you could handle it. I, in turn, have been giving him a hard time about his Chinese, haha. (He didn’t know a song by 王菲, the most famous female Chinese singer, so I’m not even sure he’s really Chinese.) But, he told me seriously, he’s been learning from me about how to learn a language: carrying a notebaook around, reading a book in another language every year. I was so flattered by this! Now I’m trying to think of recommendations of English books for him – he especially likes history and culture.
Another aspect of this perfect day – it rained through most of the day, but we avoided it perfectly during either karaoke or dinner. Hopefully this means another few days of clear skies!
Today was not the first Fourth of July I’ve spent in China – 2008, 2010, and now 2015. It was also not the most traditional (in 2008, we put on an amazing fireworks show at the farm and ‘barbecued’, although the meat was a goat we slaughtered). And it was not the most beautiful (in 2011, we rented a boat and went around to some deserted island’s around Xiamen). But this one deserves some sort of superlative . . . Today felt pivotal, like it was really the point at which we transitioned from labmates to friends.
Yeah, I’m definitely leaving a part of my heart in Beijing.
Today I learned:
I cannot sing Shakira’s La Tortura without someone to sing Alejandro Sanz’s part. Also, all of Lady Gaga’s music videos are super weird.
How many Tsinghua graduate students it takes to figure out a cell phone plan – apparently 5. My cell phone plan was, and still is 128元, which is about as much as I pay in the US! I’m not sure how this simple transaction is beyond my language abilities, but it was some comfort that it took literally all five of my friends half an hour to help me put money on my phone account.