A man named Fish

Another week gone already! Time continues to pass in this weird way that it feels like I’ve been here for awhile, but at the same time it feels it’s passing so quickly. While my Chinese continues to improve in stops and starts, I now speak a highly entertaining and mostly functional mix of Chinglish with a side of charades.

On Saturday, there was a get-to-know-you event for students in our program, and Chinese students in a different program at Beida. Of course the first girl I got to know was the one cradling a Canon DSLR. I was so glad for the opportunity to meet Beida students; There’s so much to get done during the week that it’s already easy to fall into only doing things with people in the program. Embarrassingly, the Chinese students’ English was, in general, far superior to the American students’ Chinese, but they were very patient with us.

After the event, I and some other program students had planned to go to Wangfujin. It’s known as a touristy, more expensive area, but it’s also known for this snack street that we had to see. At the event, we met a man named Fish who was very interested in accompanying us. (Yes, Fish. Fish was the ‘English name’ he had chosen, in the same way 安丽 is the ‘Chinese name’ my AU teacher gave me.) We found a tiny place to stop for dinner—the eight of us took up half the seating—and because Fish was with us, ordering was, for the first time since I arrived, mercifully easy. Aside from noodles, which are usually a safe bet, Fish ordered a few sides for all of us to try, including sugared tomatoes, duck eggs and duck eggs and tofu.

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by some of my American companions’ obvious unwillingness to try even a bite. So far, my resolve to try pretty much anything once has only disappointed a handful of times (more on that below…!)

Afterward we wandered to the snack street, for yet more food. This place had an especially large share of culinary oddities. One of the first places we wandered by had scorpions, live scorpions, on a stick. (They fry them up to order, you don’t eat them live!) Try pretty much anything once, I said? Alright.

as betsy looks on in horror... (photo credit to Jill Hyman!)
oh god, I just ate a scorpion? (photo credit to Jill Hyman!)
roommate Grace conquering her fear (photo credit to Jill Hyman!)

I have to admit, it wasn’t bad. It tasted kind of like a funky potato chip. I wouldn’t eat a snack bag of them, but it sure wasn’t terrible. Then Fish insisted that I had to try chou dofu, otherwise known as stinky tofu. (Disclaimer: Stinky tofu REEKS. There’s a street vendor that makes it on my walk to school, and covering my nose is half the reason I wear a scarf, other than the cold.) Try pretty much anything once? Oh my pride…

Chou dofu takes exactly as it smells (gag-worthy), and I would not recommend it to my worst enemy (if I had one!) I was so desperate to rid myself of the taste that I ate another scorpion—funny how our spectrum of what we think is weird shifts so quickly.

There was also tanghulu, which is really everywhere. It’s sugar-coated Chinese hawthorn (or miscellaneous other fruits) on a stick. That was delicious too, but you could feel your teeth rotting in real-time.

the group, with our main man Fish out front.

When we were either too full or too overwhelmed to go on, we wandered back out onto the main street and found a bookstore. I had wanted to go buy Chinese books, so I could try to read something that wasn’t newspaper articles (definitely can’t do that!) or my textbook. I meant to walk out with a book or two at a very, very young, simple language level. What I walked out with was 1) Grimm’s Fairy Tales (granted this one is indeed meant for children. And 2) Harry Potter. Yep. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s going to mean quality time with my dictionary, a giant headache, and it might take me forever, but I swear I will somehow finish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Chinese.

So, what else… Well, as everyone knows, this past week was Valentine’s Day. I was a bit sad to see girls carrying Valentine’s Day things like roses and chocolates. My teacher Chen Laoshi actually saw a girl with a giant broccoli head done like a flower bunch—though to be fair she said that’s also considered strange in China.

Larger events like the Spring Festival and Valentine’s Day give us an excuse to discuss different topics in discussion class, other than the strange textbook topics. Result: Discussion class is a RIOT. Now that my class has gotten to know each other a little better, we grow increasingly less timid to contribute to discussion class, and it gets more and more entertaining. This past week, I had the pleasure to try to discuss/argue about both pollution and different romantic customs… in limited, stunted Chinese. During the Valentine’s Day conversation, our teacher, Liu Laoshi asked us to talk about another famous love story, and a guy in my class was apparently completely in love with Romeo and Juliet, so he proceeded to try to explain the entire plotline. When she asked him why they did the silly things they did, all he could say was, “怎么说 ‘hormones’?” (How do you say ‘hormones’? Silly.

I had an interesting conversation on Tuesday with Liu Laoshi about the differences between English and Chinese. With English, there’s this striking clarity and precision. It’s very exact. Chinese is more vague, more general. From her side, as a Native Chinese speaker who’s studied/is studying English, it was interesting to hear her point on learning English. She said that many times, she’s worried she won’t understand when we ask her how to say something—there are so many words for every tiny single thing in English. She said that basically, at the level my classmates and I are at, we have the vocabulary and basic grammar to talk our way around most things (granted that they aren’t super technical topics, etc) but English speakers tend to over think everything. I told her how I in general try to translate my thoughts from English to Chinese. I first have to break down a thought into the simplest English sentence I can manage, without losing essential meaning. Then I take that stripped down English sentence, and see how I can translate it into Chinese. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher here told me I was over thinking a sentence…

Snippets:

  • I miss sink disposals; Loose-leaf tea is driving me crazy.
  • I can’t allow myself to think about the pollution. I’ll fix my body later. My throat is always sore, and the air has this icky taste. Headache always. It seems it affects some people more than others. One girl in my class has been sick almost since day one, though others seem unaffected. (Not sure how much is a mix of the pollution and the Chinese) HOW DO BEIJINGERS LIVE HERE? I like it here, but for my body’s sake I certainly won’t be unhappy to leave. Chen Laoshi: “We get accustomed to it.”
  • I don’t truly realize how little the teachers speak English. When they do, I’m almost surprised at how broken it sounds. It’s of course nothing close to the way I sound when I’m speaking Chinese—they are far, far more proficient—but after listening to them in only Chinese, and then listening to them speak English, it’s a surprising feeling.
  • My roommates and I also had an interesting “body image” conversation with our teacher/roommate. We invited her to have dinner, and she said thank you but no, she was fine with her apple. We asked if she was feeling sick, and she said no, she was a little too fat. Context: I easily—easily—have 25-30 pounds on this woman. We asked her—if you’re too fat, then what are we? She said, “No no no, don’t’ worry! You’re American!” And then made a gesture as wide as a 400 pound man. In the words of Zoe, “如果她是胖,我是非常obese!”(If she is fat, then I am super obese! It sounds funnier in Chinese…) Finally we convinced her to try a tiny bowl of what we had made. As Zoe scooped her a small serving, she said “一点儿!一点儿!我是中国人!”(“A little bit! A little bit! I’m Chinese!”)

I miss all of you guys at home! Thanks again for sticking with me here! I love hearing from all of you, too! Til next week!