Linguistics and Politics–but, like, hopefully more amusing

I am very proud to report that the way I spend my days in China has settled in to a vague feeling of the semblance of normalcy. Very, very, very proud. I think it took one month, two weeks, four days, and nine hours…. or somewhere around there. It took a damn long time, is the thing, and there are still some mornings when I wake up after dreaming of Walla Walla and feel the unrelenting stiffness of the mattress beneath me and breathe a heavy sigh…. another day in China.

Days in China don’t make a whole lot of sense, but are as full of contradictions and variations as the country itself. (Ooh look at me, so clever and wordsmith-y.) There’s very little rhyme or reason to what I do each day—my work schedule is different every day, and my social opportunities are sometimes plentiful and sometimes few and far between. I can’t do much but see what happens and say yes to as many things as my wallet and energy levels will allow. I spend a good amount of time each day studying Chinese, which mostly consists of writing characters over and over again. I’ve developed a not-quite-debilitating dependence on podcasts, which I listen to while quizzing myself on characters. Sounds like a less than effective studying routine, I know, but this way it’s enjoyable, so I end up spending at least an hour or more each day studying and learning things about the world via podcast, which is more than than most people can say so shut up.

Chinese is a language that revolves around writing, I’ve learned, which I love. There is a very limited amount of sounds in Chinese, something like 300 syllables or something. (That’s probably not accurate, since I didn’t look it up before posting. Google it if you really want to know. The internet here in China is too slow for me to spend five minutes waiting for the *Bing* search to load (Google is blocked here).) Since all Chinese words are at most three syllables, this leads to a lot of words that sound very very similar. There are four tones, so each syllable can be pronounced in four different ways… but I’ll get there in a sec. This means that to communicate with all the subtlety of a modern society that isn’t focused on fields and farming, the Chinese rely on the written language to convey the thousands of meanings that we somehow express with just 26 characters in English. As you probably know, there are thousands upon thousands of unique characters in Chinese, an overwhelming and tantalizing challenge for someone like me, who likes the idea of bunches of little pictures all getting together to create a novel or newspaper article. Plus Chinese people are always referring back to the written language in everyday conversation. Even Me-the-Chinese-noob can tell when they do this~ someone will say something, and the other person will pause with furrowed brow and repeat a certain word. “fu-jie?” they’ll say, “like, yi-er-yi-jie?” and sort of trace the character in the air. The other person will nod yes, or say “Bu bu bu, like~~~” and trace the character. The confused person will tilt their head back in an exaggerated nod of understanding, and the conversation will continue, facilitated by the vast caverns of characters that make Chinese Chinese.

(I will admit that it’s rare I see two Chinese people doing this—usually it’s one of my foreign friends crinkling their brow and learning new characters and words. It’s pretty awesome to watch, since I know that if I work as obsessively as I have been, I will someday have the same pool of character references-ha!- from which to draw to understand spoken Chinese—crossing my fingers that it’s sooner rather than later.)

Tones: grrr. There are four different tones with which each syllable can be pronounced. This is the thing that just comes to Chinese people naturally, that just isn’t fair. Like how English-speakers can look at the word “read” in the right context and pronounce it “red” instead of “read”—which truly doesn’t make sense. Whoever invented English had a sick sense of humor. (I know I know, it developed over years and years from many different languages, but it doesn’t make it any less of a beast to learn.) But Chinese people have tones, and each of them seems to be born with an intrinsic knowledge of the different meanings and communications of each tone. It’s incredibly frustrating. Since I can’t speak enough words to get my tones too mixed up yet, it hasn’t actually happened to me (the only advantage of not speaking much Chinese) but I have seen foreign friends get a tone wrong on some word, and even though it’s the same sound–same vowels and consonants–it’s incomprehensible to the person that they are talking to. I’ve thought that I knew what someone else was saying, only to find out that “baize” when said one way means cup, and when said another way only barely discernible to my thick American ears, it means blanket. ~face-palm emoji~

To diverge from my nerdy language raptures, I did realize something interesting today when I asked my Chinese friend if he knew about the death of Liu Xiaobo. Not only did he not know about his death, but he didn’t know who the guy was. AND get this: he didn’t know about the Tiananmen Square massacre or protest until six months ago, when one of his foreign friends mentioned it in passing. Michael had to ask what he was talking about, and was “very, very surprised,” because he quite literally had never heard tell of this event that had shaped the recent history of a country that he’s never had the opportunity to leave. I in turn sat in shock, taking a break from shoveling freshly Korean-barbecued meat into my mouth. I mean, I don’t believe that I ever learned specifically about Tiananmen in school due to the heavily Western-centric education I received in Seattle Public Schools–yet even before I started reading about Chinese history, I knew with a vague sense that something horribly unjust and terrifying had happened in Tiananmen Square, which I was pretty sure was somewhere in China…

Later, I came across an article posted on Twitter by “People’s Daily,” a Chinese publication that I started following when I knew I was going to move here. The vast majority of their tweets I scroll right past, as they’re all blatant “China is great and beautiful, come here and spend money, tourists!” Keep in mind that this is on Twitter, which Chinese people don’t have access to unless they care enough to spend at the least a third of a monthly paycheck on a VPN. Aka most Chinese people don’t have access to. The audience of this tweet, then, is majority English-speaking and probably Western. And yet the way this publication twisted the politicization of the death of a Nobel Prize winner…

“The rapid deterioration and ultimate death of Liu is, no doubt, a huge misfortune, made worse by how his death is being politicized.

“By granting him the Nobel Prize, the West has shown that Liu is a pawn in its game to undermine China. Now some are using the moment of his death to tarnish China’s image on the world stage and encourage more dissent. This makes one wonder if the pressure was really about saving Liu, or more about promoting Western ideas for the purpose of bringing about certain political changes in China.

“Liu Xiaobo’s death, while unfortunate, should be a sobering reminder that many in the West remain hostile to China’s political development. It is nonsense to say that China opposes democracy and human rights simply because its system is different from the Western system. What China does oppose is the politicization of Liu’s case and any interference in its internal affairs.”

I’m sorry, but fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck no. The Chinese government jailed Xiaobo for years for trying to stand up for the basic rights of human beings When he was potentially (later revealed to be literally) on his deathbed, denied him the healthcare are that he needed, ala our frand Mitch McConell . I myself have experienced the trickle-down of the Chinese government’s authoritarian policies, which I’ll save for a later post, when I’m (hopefully) no longer in the thick of the drama. (Bum bum bummmm)

The reason I want to bring this up is that I think this same article could easily have been published by an American publication devoured daily by Donald Trump in television form. It features the same scapegoating, the same (false) ideological imposition of superiority, and lies. Reading this article and discovering that my friend doesn’t know who Xiaobo even is made me VERY grateful for the American publications that are not publishing this bullshit. Thank god that we have competition between publications in America, competition to get the truth out, to educate those that care to read and stay up to date (a fairly grueling task at this point, I’ll admit. But I’d also argue that it’s at least as entertaining as those Kardashian people). Okay, perhaps capitalism is driving the competition, but still: there are journalists that will tell us whatever “the truth” is in the United States, and not try to make the death of an honorable person into an opportunity to make another culture look evil. Let us hope and pray that this persists, that our grandchildren know who Martin Luther King, Jr., Philando Castile, and Chelsea Manning were/are.

And let’s also hope and pray that my readership isn’t wide enough to get me in trouble with the ole Chinese government. Luh u! China’s gr8 omg!

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