Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Fen Huang and the Doctor

I met the Doctor at the old Miao theater in Fen Huang. He'd been running around the decrepit, old complex snapping digital images of the empty buildings and antique woodwork. With infectious enthusiasm, he tried to explain to me what everything was and how it used to function. I barely understood a word as he delivered his lecture in a cascade of incomprehensible, academic Chinese. Fortunately he'd interject a few heavily accented English words once in a while to help clarify a point. I'd grasp at them like a starving man being thrown grains of rice. Unusually for a Chinese, he was traveling by himself and had come to north-eastern Hunan Province driven by a passion for the local Miao culture. He later told me that he'd spent ten years in the region.

The Doctor was a short man with even grey hair and a pair of thick spectacles that he took off whenever he read something. It was inconceivable to him that I was incapable of understanding Chinese characters as for centuries they have been the lingua franca that have allowed Chinese people with wildly different dialects to communicate. Every time he wanted to be sure I understood exactly what he was saying, he'd use a finger to systematically slash out complicated ideograms on his raised palm. Never once did he seem to fathom I couldn't make head or tail of a single a stroke. He'd spent four years studying medicine in Japan and spoke fluent Japanese. When I told him I was in the process of putting together a system for speaking Japanese quickly, he started peppering his sentences with smatterings of Japanese words and phrases, which only helped to confuse the issue further. Together we wandered around Fen Huang all afternoon, exchanging comments and finding out personal histories in a mixture of three languages.

The town has become a hot spot for Chinese tourists as the center of town managed to survive the scourge of all of China's twentieth century upheavals virtually unscathed. Twenty-first century tourism has, however, seriously rearranged the place. The ancient streets and stilted, wooden waterfront buildings have all been turned into souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and travel agencies. In a flurry to look quaint, new old-style buildings have shot up, the wood still a honey yellow. Women in ethnic costumes ply the tourist trade, posing for pictures and selling mass produced handicrafts. The covered bridge over the river has become a seething market of knick-knacks with an elongated teashop filling the second story. An armada of specially crafted, wooden tourist boats continually passes below it. When they arrive on the other side, a singing, costumed woman on a raft greets them with a bright Miao song that invariably ends in a jaunty "woo-hoo, wheeee!" that the boat passengers can't help but emulate. Fen Huang also boasts an old walled city, with several pagoda'd gates leading into it. These streets too have been taken over by stalls with a repetitious touristic theme of hand-painted t-shirt shops, pseudo-ethnic costumes, silversmiths, Chinese style wine shops, and places selling thick chunks of blackened, dried meat, one of the local delicacies.

Part of our wanderings brought us to his hotel, where we used my computer to look at his woefully amateurish photographs and videos of Miao villages. He'd paid ten yuan for his tiny, threadbare room and the way he'd been careful not to buy anything told me that he'd budgeted his money very carefully in order to make this journey. Both of us had skipped lunch so I invited him to have supper with me and said I'd pay.

At a restaurant by the bridge, the Doctor removed his glasses and examined the menu. He asked the owners a barrage of rapid questions and decided it would be better to eat elsewhere.
"Too expensive," he explained.
On the opposite side of the street, a macabre selection of dried animal and bird parts was hanging from hooks at the front of a food stall. They looked like the leftovers from a mummy unwrapping and, trying to keep any hint of revulsion from my voice, asked the Doctor if he'd ever tried that type of food. He said is was known as "la rou". He said he'd eaten it many times and that it was delicious. My curiosity was piqued and I suggested we give it try. The Doctor fancied himself a bit of an expert on the subject of Miao delicacies and immediately rejected the meat we were looking at. Good la rou, he said, should be black on the outside. After a short search we found a place exhibiting meat with just the right hue. Once again the Doctor scrutinized the menu and cross examined the staff. To be certain their la rou met his high standards, he asked to see their secret stash then had them dissect a couple of pieces so he could sniff the insides. After inspecting all the vegetables and apparently finding them adequate, he disappeared in to the back the restaurant, presumably making sure it was acceptably clean. Meanwhile, I sat nursing a beer, wondering if I was about to find myself the victim of a culinary ordeal I couldn't extricate myself from.

The la rou was delicious. It turned out to be the Chinese version of Spanish Jamon and cooked together with greens and chiles set my taste buds singing. I'd asked if they had any mushrooms. After their thorough inspection and subsequent cooking they also appeared on the table transformed into a exquisite dish of subtle flavors. The dishes kept on coming, an entire platter of stir-fried greens in a gente, garlic sauce and a great bowl of chopped up, seasoned roots. Together we worked our way through the food, passing comments on how good everything was, with special credit given to the la rou. My stomach was almost at capacity when a large bowl of steamed rice was added to the table followed by even bigger bowl full of egg and tomato soup. It would have been rude not to eat some of it so I continued snapping away with my chopsticks until I finally had to announce that I couldn't eat another bite. For some inexplicable reason this made the Doctor unhappy. He soldiered on until almost all the food was gone.

I was getting ready to order the bill when the woman of the establishment came over and handed the Doctor a few bank notes. I suddenly realized he'd paid for it all beforehand while at the back of the restaurant. Following the Chinese face saving custom, he was treating the foreigner and picking up the substantial tab. He couldn't afford it but I knew there was no way he was going to let me repay even a little bit.
I sputtered out a defeated, "But I wanted to pay."
"You pay next time," he said with a sour grin.
As we walked back toward the covered bridge I insisted I at least buy him a drink somewhere and he kept stringing me along until we arrived at the street leading to his hotel.
"How about we meet tomorrow for breakfast? Please, let me buy that for you."
I knew it was pointless. He made some excuse about always getting up late, which was obviously untrue, then he bade a hasty farewell and hurried off to his shabby room.

Traveling Hard Seat in China

Train 2205, carriage 9, hard seat 41. Even with all the windows open and a faint waft emanating from a series of rotating ceiling fans, the heavy, hot air was as still as a dead body. Every seat in the carriage was taken with the excess passengers standing in the aisle. A couple of people sat above everyone else on the seat backs, absentmindedly fanning themselves with newspapers.

Sweat was dribbling out from every one of my pores and I repeatedly my examined pocket alarm clock wishing the ordeal would get underway. I was in a sour mood. I'd asked the conductors when I boarded the train if there was a chance of obtaining an upgrade. They'd babbled something in Chinese that offered a glint of hope but nothing had materialized. Traveling overnight by hard seat is possibly one of the worst ways of getting anywhere. I'd experienced it fourteen years previously and swore I'd never do it again. I ended up buying the ticket because everything else had been sold out. It didn't stop me from going back to the ticket office on several occasions but each time I'd been met by the infamous "Mei you" - "Don't have". As time ran out, I held on to the last straw hope that perhaps the Chinese Railway had modernized along with much of the rest of the country. The moment I caught sight of the train, I knew it hadn't.

Seat number 41 was an aisle seat. Between me and the window were two other people with three more sitting facing us. The seats were the same type I'd known and hated. They had padding, which was nice, the main problem was the angle of the seat back; no matter which way you sat, it didn't line up with your back and neck thereby ensuring that, whichever way you positioned yourself, only part you would be touching it. The seats themselves were not quite wide enough and were positioned just close enough to the facing passengers to make sure you were doomed to sitting like a naughty schoolboy who has to sit up straight at his desk with his feet firmly planted on the floor. A sliver of a table extended out from the carriage wall with just enough space so that the people by the window could fold their arms on it and put their heads down. Those in the middle seats could do likewise but each only owned about a 10th of the table top. Seat 41 and its opposite didn't even have that luxury. As the booby prize, the passengers on the edge got a hefty belt from the legs and baggage of everyone struggling up and down the aisle.

The train shuddered into motion and by the time we'd reached cruising speed the air had calmed down a little. My fellow passengers and the staff had already taken some interest in the grouchy foreigner amongst them. One of the conductors saw me board on the train and had made it his personal mission to track me down and eke out a free English lesson. He said his name was Shaolin, like the famous Kung Fu temple somewhere north of us. At the time I secretly wished he'd do what the students at his namesake do and take a flying leap. But I figured it would kill a some time and that was exactly what I wanted to do. We ran through the usual banalities, "Where are you from?", "Are you married?" etcetera, before hitting hot topics such as "how long had he been a train conductor" and "what had he done before?" His vocabulary proved to be quite extensive but his grammar followed patterns that defied logic. Pronunciation, he admitted, was one of his biggest failings. I could only agree. Whenever I asked him a question, he'd ask me to repeat it then, in a desperate attempt to understand the second time, he'd shut his eyes and screw up his face so tightly it's a wonder smoke didn't come billowing out of his ears. Whenever the train pulled into a station, we'd have recess as Shaolin hurtled down the corridor to unlock the doors to let more passengers on.

With cunning born of desperation, I started twisting the English lesson towards the question of ticket upgrades. He earnestly replied that regulations forebade him from issuing bearths to passengers. I seemed like a good opportunity to teach him the saying "rules were made to be broken". Eventually I had to write it down to make sure he understood. When he did, his eyes suddenly grew large and he literally took a step backwards. Was I actually suggesting I thwart The Regulations!?
"Oh! No!" I assured him, secretly hoping for just such an event, I was merely teaching him some useful English.

In a last desperate bid to tilt the odds in my favor I asked him if he'd like to have a book in English, namely the now pointless Vietnamese guidebook I'd seriously considered leaving behind in the hotel room that morning. Regulations, he assured me, also forbid him from accepting gifts from passengers. That didn't stop me. I ferreted around in my bag, pulled out the book and generously gave it to him in full view of the entire carriage. He couldn't refuse as it would have caused me a loss of face in front of the whole audience. Instead he perused it studiously, making murmurings of appreciation and kept it. I figured I'd gone as far as I dared, if he couldn't get me a sleeper now then there simply wasn't one to be had. Desiring a little breathing room and also wanting to give him some time to find me the coveted berth, I said was going to the dining car for a beer. I never saw him again.

Although the railway's superstructure had remained virtually the same, some changes had taken place in new China. Smoking in the seating area of carriages had been banned and, except for those few who felt that rules should indeed be broken, everyone complied. Another big change was that people generally refrained from using the floor as a trash can. In old China, the conductors used to sweep it every few hours or the gathering piles would have eventually taken over.

I tried all the positions I'd attempted fourteen years before to try and get some sleep: legs crossed and wedged below the seat, head lolling forward; body sideways with knees in the aisle, head flat against the seat back; head back, spine arched, feet flat on the floor. It was no use. When my body did eventually give out and sleep overtake me, my torso would begin falling toward the floor and I'd awake with a sickening start. I closed my eyes and tried to concoct intricate memories of past journeys to help the seconds inch by and every hour on the hour I'd make the trek to the space between the carriages to light a cigarette and stare out the window into the all consuming darkness. I smoked slowly and deliberately making sure each one lasted as long as humanly possible. When I returned to my seat, one of the standees would have invariably taken it for a momentary reprieve. I'd unceremoniously turf him out of it then go back to the next installment of serial memories.

As we approached stations in the early hours of the morning, the passengers would liven up. Those who were staying would examine the people across the aisle to see if they were making any move to collect their baggage. If they were, a hurried interrogation would take place and a frantic scramble across the aisle take place, the coveted seat by the window being the prize. I missed out on all occasions and stayed propped up in seat 41. Finally the sky started to lighten and one of the conductors came by to tell me we'd be arriving at Huai Hua in half an hour.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Changes in China

I've been in China for two whole days now and all I can say is that it's knocking me for a loop. I came to here fourteen years ago and spent four months criss-crossing the country until finally exiting via the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan. China in those days was not exactly foreigner friendly. We had a special currency all of our own called the Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC) to pay for the few overpriced hotels we could stay at, exorbitantly expensive train tickets and foreigner price entrance tickets to all the country's major and minor attractions. It was officially illegal for us to possess the local currency, renminbi, but it was impossible to exist without it as most Chinese people had never heard of FEC and refused to accept them. The trick was to change dollars for FEC then sell them on the black market for a slight profit. With the government officially ripping us off, the local people couldn't resist getting in on the act; we invariably paid ten to twenty times the local rate for just about everything.

Just getting from the border to Nanning was an exercise in how China had changed. I used to figure how long a bus journey would take by dividing the distance by 25 kilometers per hour and was generally very accurate. The buses were wheezing, overcrowded antiques and the roads questionable at best. This time I was whisked to the bus station by a three wheeled motorcycle taxi to board a luxury air-conditioned bus that left within three minutes of my arrival. It wasn't even close to full. As we pulled out of the station, a hostess in a purple and white uniform with a red satin sash came down the aisle and offered us each a complimentary bottle of mineral water. Once we hit the highway, she made the circuit once again, this time making sure we all had a seat belts securely fastened. Seat belts on a half-empty bus in China?! It was as incongruous as an picture of Mao Tse Tung in a three piece suit and tie. Even the road was a surprise; a smooth four lane highway that began and ended at a toll booth and came complete with sparklingly new crash barriers. There was hardly any traffic but even that drove sedately, making sure it stayed in its lane and obeyed the speed limit. Outside the sealed window a fog enshrouded scenery of karst hills and delicate linear fields whipped by the window. On the bus's television set a Chinese woman belted out songs in English then Mr. Bean fumbled with office equipment. It was all so startling prosaic. It took only two hours to cover the 200 kilometers to Nanning's southern bus station which, like the journey itself, was as modern and efficient as a digital watch.

Eschewing a taxi, I decided to ask at the information booth where I could find a bus to the train station in the center of town and was told by a giggling girl in a uniform to take bus number 213. The bus was like any found in America or Japan: hard plastic seats, a bar down the center with hand grips and a succession of quick halts at glass covered shelters. Anyone examining my face would probably have mistaken me for a rube from the country the way I gawped at the modern high rises and ample, well laid out open spaces. Above all it was the cleanliness that amazed me. There were trash cans on the street! And people were using them!! I felt like I'd arrived in the wrong country.

I still expected the hotel arrangements to echo the past but even that proved false. I spotted a hotel offering rooms for 80 yuan a night as we neared the station . "Right," I thought, "I'll try that one. They'll probably turn me away, telling me it's only for Chinese people, but there's no harm in trying." I got the place; a single room with a bathroom and a view across to a housing complex. I found out later that within the last year almost all hotels have been opened to foreigners.

A walk around downtown Nanning was equally as startling. The central district is dominated by a crisp, clean, modern shopping plaza that hosts so many McDonald's restaurants I'm beginning to wonder if I should eat at one to make sure my experience in China is complete. What is most amazing of all is that I haven't been ripped off once. To my great surprise the prices, even for a pack of cigarettes, are marked and even if they aren't I'm charged the same price as everyone else: a corn cob from a street vendor costs one yuan for me (about 12 cents) as it does for everyone else, an ice cream cost half that.

I'm slowly coming to the realization that China has become rich, not per se in the international sense but as more of an internal idea. By European or American standards these people are not making much money, but that seems to be offset by the amount of merchandise they can buy that is now made in China. In the shopping plaza a well heeled clothing store is selling a decent shirt for 15 yuan (a little under two bucks), a high end place is selling a better variety for 90 yuan. Because of the relatively low costs of manufacturing within China itself and the fact that it's enormous population makes it a world unto itself, the Chinese feel they have become well off by local standards. I'm also starting to wonder if there has been a government program to change the actual character or the people. I have a television in my room with all of the 45 channels broadcasting in Chinese. Intermittently I catch a public service message that is an indication of the direction this country is taking. In one of them, a handsome, well built man is jogging through the center of a city. Suddenly he spots a piece of trash on the ground. With an appreciative audience looking on, he flips up the can with his feet, in the style of world class soccer players, and propels it towards a trash can. It enters one opening but with reckless abandon exits through another. Enter: a sporty Chinese lass in form fitting sweats. She slows to a trot, bends down to pick up the can and puts it where it belongs, in the trash; just like everyone else should do. The gathered crowd smiles approvingly, then the two goodlooking atheletes exchange knowing looks and jog off camera.

It would be absurd for me to judge modern China by one bus ride and a single city. All I've read of China lately has suggested that the countryside is not doing quite so well. Even in Nanning a suggestion of the old ways lurks behind every modern building in the guise of decaying housing projects and hand to mouth existences. An older profession is also making a comeback. On the road leading from my hotel to the train station, ladies in painted faces and skimpy dresses call out to all male pedestrians, inviting them to step inside their grungy, open front boudoirs for some momentary pleasures.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hanoi, The Vietnamese Language and Heading North to the Border

My friend, Bradford, described Hanoi as being a Graham Greene city. It's a place where East has met West and left behind a mixture of decaying, French colonial buildings, concrete monoliths, courtesy of its fling with Communism, and more recently ultra-modern mini-skyscrapers. To provide protection from the sun and rain many of the city streets are lined with sinewy, tropical trees that provide a canopy for the swirling street life below. In the old quarter each area has its speciality. Near my hotel was the discordant tinsmiths' street where each small place acted as both a workshop and store front. Around the corner was the place dedicated to selling traditional musical instruments. And so it went, street by street, each geared up for one type of business. As the modern world sneaks in, holes are forming. CD stores are intermitently sprinkled throughout the old quarter, as are bright new clothing stores and tourist style restaurants. The march to modernity is relentless. Every day, I was told, another delapidated and shuttered colonial building disappears to be replaced the gaudy new standard.

Wandering around Hanoi is always an adventure. The traffic is a constant and abundant buzz of mopeds with horns blasting every few seconds. The Hanoians have a habit of parking their "Honda Dream Excesses" and "Dylans" crosswise on the sidewalk so what few pedestrians there are must walk in the street to make any headway. Like all big cities, Hanoi hides little nooks of delight. One was a cafe that Bradford showed me. I would never have found it otherwise. It was down an innocuous corridor with only a rough sign to announce its presence. After climbing four flights of stairs we eventually arrived at a table and chair strewn balcony boasting a magnificent view across one to the treelined lakes that dot the city. I'd walked around this particular one earlier on in the day. It was edged by a well-designed, manicured park of curving walkways and strategic benches and provided a welcome respite from the ever shifting energy of the surrounding city. My walks around the city invariably took pause at one of Hanoi's numerous coffee shops. They can be found just about everywhere and come in a wild variety of styles, from shabby holes in the wall decorated by a curling picture or two, to state of the art glass and steel establishments where the staff wear uniforms and the prices keep out the riff-raff.

When I wasn't sipping coffee or getting lost in the warren of streets, I had to work. I needed to finish of the process of correcting and revising the Vietnamese Phrasemaker. The person I found to help me was Mr. Duc, the manager of a tour company that operated out of an office at the back of my hotel. He wasn't the perfect man for the job as his English was somewhat feeble but as time was running out, I needed to use whatever resources I could. Like all residents of Hanoi, Mr. Duc hid himself behind a mask of reserve and never once offered information about himself that didn't first require an inescapably probing question. During one smoke break, I pried it out of him that he was fluent in Russian. He'd learned it at school and had then lived in Volgograd for a year. He said that Russia had seemed like a paradise at the time, compared to the relative poverty of post war Vietnam. Using this theme as a spring board, he gracefully switched the subject to talk of more impersonal matters.

As usual the process of revamping the Phrasemaker led to some interesting snippets regarding the language and the culture. Like Khmer, Vietnamese has enormous range of pronouns to refer to people based upon their sex, age, relationship and number of people. One of the more interesting ones is the word "chung-no". It translates as "they" or "them" when speaking of small children, objects and animals and was term used during the war when speaking of the American forces. Mr. Duc showed how easily Vietnamese can change it's meaning with a simple omission of a tone. The phrase "an buoi", with a diacritic over the "o" that looks like a question mark, means, "eat for a little while", without the mark it becomes "eat cock".

Once the Vietnamese portion of the project had been finished I told the hotel staff I would be leaving for China the following day. One of them urged me to buy a $21 ticket for the tourist bus to Nanning, the first big city across the Chinese border. His description of the journey made it sound very comfortable and convenient; a mini-bus would pick me up from the hotel at 7:30AM and whisk me and other foreigners out to the edge of the city where we'd board a luxury A/C bus. By 4:30PM we'd arrive safe and sound in Nanning. No hassles, no danger, nothing unexpected. It sounded as adventurous as a can of chicken noodle soup. I deliberately got up late the next morning and after a lingering breakfast caught a motorcycle taxi to the train station to see if anything was going north that day. What I really wanted was a last opportunity to use the Vietnamese I'd learned over the past three weeks. In Hanoi so many people had spoken passable English that it made it difficult at times to make any progress. In Vietnamese I bought my ticket to Dong Dang, the last town before China then constructed the sentence to find out at what time the train was expected to arrive. It turned out the border would be closed by the time I got there. I'd have to spend one more night in Vietnam.

The journey north was slow and pleasant. I traded snippets of conversation with my fellow passengers, who were delighted at having a foreigner on board, and spent languorous hours studying the scenery from the only area on the train open to the elements. The staff warned me repeatedly not to stand there as young boys were apt to throw stones at the passing train. I couldn't resist staying where I was; the view was extraordinary. It was dominated by a long, snaggle toothed range of karst hills that presented great sheets of brittle, discolored rock face and crests of stone so rough and uneven they looked like saw blades. A dense mane of foliage clung to every horizontal surface and draping it all was a foreboding mist that suggested this was not a place to go for a Sunday walk.

In Dong Dang, to my great relief, not a soul spoke English and just as I'd hoped, I managed to accomplish all the necessary tasks in basic Vietnamese: transport into town, haggling the price of a hotel room, supper and a bottle of water. I was surprised at how easily it came to me and it was with a tinge of regret that I realized the following day I would be leaving it behind like a piece of discarded luggage and in its place start picking up Mandarin Chinese