24 June 2009

Sank You, Missa Smiss

The mud of Shaanxi is extraordinary and during the autumn rains, when this Shaanxi mud flourishes, we grew intimate with that particular gumbo. A combination of the highly acidic rains and compacted dust (loess), the entire landscape becomes gelatinous, adherent. Roads especially and those unpaved, country roads we bicycled on weekend outings even more especially had long stretches of truck and hand-tractor churned puddles too deep and thick to ride through.

Wet or dry, the soil itself, this aforementioned loess, is sterile. Four thousand years of continuous, unbroken, intensive cultivation have left most of the province's arable land long ago leeched of nutrients and about as fertile as broken glass. It, the soil, functions as a hydroponic medium through which the farmers deliver fertilizer (human and animal wastes) and water.

Sufficiently compacted, the loess may be worked and the tradition of cave-dwelling in Shaanxi stretches back to the early days of the Silk Road and forward (or, actually, back again) to the terminus of the Glorious Long March when Chairman Mao headquartered in Yanan.

Brief days of October sun tempted us beyond the city and we trudged through long stretches of bleak farmland, from village to village, mud-spattered, pushing our bikes through shin-deep lagoons and in the villages, hanging from the trees in the villages, long garlands of yellow corn drying. Great ropes of pale husk and golden ears looping over every branch and from tree to tree and every household wall and roof and eave and gable (and god, I'm going to say it) "festooned" with corn.

At the Foreign Language Institute where I teach classes in conversational English to second-year Tourist Industries students, our main goal or, rather, my main goal, this semester is to master the sibilant "th" sound so elusive to Asian tongues. With this in mind, we begin each class the very same way. My students have seized upon this exercise as routine and, I think, find comfort in it's consistency and predictability in what, I think, they otherwise find a chaotic and confusingly spontaneous classroom environment. Their normal courses, those taught by regular faculty, are structured around rote learning. We, the foreigners, have grown accustomed to seeing our students around the campus memorizing their other textbooks, literally committing entire volumes to memory in anticipation of the final exam which will ask them to duplicate selected passages. There are no lectures, no discussions, no quizzes, no experiments, no laboratory, no papers, no tests. On the first day of class the "professor" distributes the textbooks. On the last day of class the "professor" collects the textbooks and writes "pages 145, 215, 232" on the blackboard. The students do their best to regurgitate, word for word, the indicated text; the "professor" collects the papers and grades them according to accuracy. Of course, this or any other academic work counts for only 40% of a student's final grade with the other 60% consisting of political attitude. My classes as well as most other foreigner taught classes, tend toward the Socratic and veer sharply away from the Confucian/Maoist tradition. At first disconcerted by the spontaneous informality of such a class, the students soon enjoyed themselves. Instead of droning out the lessons from a workbook, we would converse and practice vocabulary usage and pronunciation. We invented dialogue together, asked and answered each other's questions about idiom and culture, we made up bilingual puns, we sang pop songs together; the shy students would blush and giggle and bury their heads on their desks; the bold students would stand and with theatrical gestures declaim the Declaration of Independence.

The relative high ground of a village somewhere to the northwest of Xian seemed a good place to rest. We leaned our bicycles, wheels heavy and caked with plastic mire, against a loess-block wall and stretched out in the warm sun, rubber boots heavy and caked, a crazy pattern of corn webbed above us.

Soon, as we knew they would, they came. First, an old man in a ragged blue Mao suit, he was wearing agate sunglasses and smoking a thimble-bowled pipe. He stood before us, puffed twice on the pipe, and rocked on his heels.

"Ni hau, laodz [Hi, old guy]," somebody said and his lucky, bushy eyebrows rose behind his stone lenses in surprise to hear us speak human-being speech.

He raised his right hand in a gesture much like a royal or beauty-queen wave.

"Hhh," he glottalled at us. "Hhh."

A couple of kids, little toddler-aged kids in brightly colored quilted overclothes, were starting to creep closer and closer. The old man was probably supposed to be baby-sitting them or something. A woman in grey trousers and a white blouse came to the door of her cave house and leaned out to look at us, to wipe her hands on a pink towel. She yelled "Foreigners with bicycles are sitting against the wall under Auntie Lo's big tree!" back into the blackness and pointed at us with her chin. She went back inside.

Someone pulled out a camera.

"Keyi? [May I?]" that someone asked the old man.

He squatted down on his haunches to be on our level and pulled one last lung full of tobacco from the tiny pipe. He knocked the ash into his palm.

"Hhh? [What did you say?]," the old man answered, clearly still disconcerted by both our arrival and ability to use language like people.

"Keyi zhao-xiang ma? [May I photograph?]," someone tried.

He smiled a gap-toothed smile and bent his head between his legs, shaking it, and he couldn't believe we were there in the first place and in the second and third places, we talked and wanted to take his picture. He looked up and away, still smiling, at some corn.

"Hhh [Sure. Why not? I guess so....]," he answered and somebody took his picture.

We drank some boiled water from some canteens and the kids were getting closer, getting louder and gigglier. Soon, they would be right in front of us, pointing and laughing, screaming "yang gweidz! yang gweidz! [foreign devils! foreign devils!]."

"Nice corn," somebody said in English, exhaling smoke.

"It's feed corn," somebody else said. "It's not for people; it's for their pigs."
"Really? Could you pop it, though? Would popping work?"

"I don't know. Is popcorn the same as feed corn? How do you say 'pop' in Chinese?"

"Probably 'pop' or maybe 'pa' or something like that. 'Corn' is yu-mi," somebody else said. "Maybe 'pop' is like 'explode' or 'blow-up.'"

"Okay," one of the first ones responded. "Ask this guy if they blow up their yu-mi and see what he says."

The old man shifted his gaze from speaker to speaker as if at a tennis match. The kids were delighted and squealed with amusement to hear the sounds we made and used amongst ourselves. We were as a flock of noisy birds or a troop of singing monkeys to them.

I got this job at the Foreign Language Institute sort of through a back door. I am supposed to be a student here in the People's Republic of China and taking special foreign student classes and taking special exams and educational field-trips to educational points-of-interest on weekends but that didn't last more than a couple of weeks. We stopped going to most of our classes most of the time and, instead, began to explore in ever increasing radii, the city of Xian and the surrounding suburbs, villages, and satellite towns.

We began to make friends among the other foreigners at other schools and also among the Chinese themselves, those bold enough, foolish enough, or desperate enough to risk association with Westerners. We spent our evenings inside the city walls within the fetal Xian nightlife at clubs called Art Salon or Peace Cafe or Friendship Gardens.

It was through these friendships and the friends our new friends knew that several of us got jobs as teachers for the quasi-legal, back-door language school inside the city. Our night classes, held in a mid-school building and organized by the family who are employed as caretakers, are popular and command high tuition from the adults who wish to and can afford to learn English. Our students are engineers, doctors, People's Liberation Army officers, cadres, and bureaucrats who wish to enhance their career opportunities during flexible periods of history. The same connections soon led to a more officially sanctioned position at the Foreign Language Institute.

When I started teaching these classes, I quickly noticed this "th" problem. More than any other sound , the "th" was an alien noise and uncomfortable for most of our students. The simple phrase "Thank you, Mister Smith" became "'Sank you, Missa Smiss..." on their lips and alarmingly snake-like for my taste.

The exercise was most simple: Each student was to grasp the tip of his or her tongue between thumb and forefinger, pull his or her tongue out of the mouth, and repeat the aforementioned phrase, laden as it is with the elusive phoneme.

"Thang' goo, Mitha Smifth," they would chant together, happily in unison and happily ridiculous, holding their tongues between their fingers, more rain and lightening flashing from the southwest. I would lean back in my chair and smell the wet dust approaching storm smell on the wind and listen to them. "Thang' goo, Mitha Smifth...Thang' goo, Mitha Smifth..."

We stood to gather our things.

"Women zou, laodz [We're going, old guy]," somebody said.

"Hhh [Thanks for stopping. It was nice to meet you. Please come back soon and meet the rest of the family. You kids are all right. Have a pleasant afternoon]," the old man replied.

We swung our mud heavy boots over the bars of our bicycles and began to coast down the road to the next stretch of quagmire. The children of the village followed us running, laughing, and shrieking "yang gweidz! yang gweidz!" and we waved as we left their village and the oldest among them stooped to pick up corn cobs to throw at us and some of them came pretty close.

(from Artificial Rats & Electric Cats, Camber Press, 2008. Click on the title or the cover for more information.)

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