My friend Michael in Seattle, who is also an acupuncturist, wrote me an email recently. He noticed that my blog entries in China haven’t been as full of magic as those I wrote while living in Taiwan.
Well, I’m sure you will all be happy to know that I finally have an answer. “There ain’t no magic here, that’s why!”
Ahh, that feels good to get off my chest. Oh, I’m tingling.
Yeah, after living in Taiwan, if you are interested in Chinese culture, living on the mainland is almost a practical joke. It’s almost as if your girlfriend’s tatooed, phlegm-spitting, asshole twin sister suddenly takes the place of your soulmate, the woman you’ve waited your whole life to be with.
I’m sitting in Starbucks studying last week and having a good conversation with a middle-aged guy. He tells me his car was just in an accident, and he’s admiring the Chinese characters I’m writing in my notebook.
“Your Chinese is pretty good,” he says.
Recently, I’ve made a resolution to see the good in China, to not be so negative. I feel that if I can change my attitude, that somehow people will suddenly be “good”, that I will find the “magic”. And so I engage this guy in Starbucks in a conversation.
After my study session, I go downstairs and walk out to my bike. Suddenly, the guy is calling me. “Excuse me, my friend,” he says. He’s got a whole little act for me, but I’ll spare you. To cut to the chase, he asks me for 20RMB, about $2.50.
I am incredulous. All that conversation, for this? In China, you better believe that, yes, all that conversation was, in fact, for the purpose of this punchline.
I’m not going to give him money, and I tell him “no way” (不行) in Chinese.
“You’re so cheap,” (那麼小氣啊!) he says, and walks away.
I am even more incredulous now. I immediately ride my bike home and call my Taiwanese friend Chi on Skype to ask for her help.
“What do you need?” she asks curiously.
“I need to learn how to say ‘Get the fuck out of my face, you asshole’ in Chinese.”
Chi is cracking up. As you may or may not know, Taiwanese people are experts in the ways of people on the mainland.
In Taiwan, I never needed to learn such profanities, but I feel that I might need to use such sentences here in the mainland. Lest you think I am on a downward spiral here in the PRC, I also think of funny responses (in Chinese) to such requests.
Perhaps I’m still getting used to China. Perhaps I need to just get settled here, get in a groove, and slowly, things will come together.
Don’t get me wrong. There are good people here. They’ll be embarrassed about the guy in Starbucks. They’ll shake their heads and tell you you need to protect yourself a little more from the bad people who are just part of society. And if you are lucky, they’ll tell you China needs to evolve.
In a way, China is my teacher. I see this impatient part of me that I’ve never seen before, and I get to examine it, witness it, maybe even grow. And every day, I get a chance to practice compassion, to be good instead of reacting in a normal, conditioned way.
This afternoon, I go to a bookstore, which is pretty much my favorite thing to do in the world. I get stuck reading a book by some Westerners on how to do business in China.
They mention how Taiwan is one to two generations ahead of China in terms of mentality. Tell me about it. They also say how the failure of communism here, although it led to the deaths of millions, also had an upside, which was to point out to the world quite clearly the flaws of communism and preventing us from repeating them. Living here, I agree.
I come home and do a YouTube search on Taiwan. I watch a video made by the government to promote tourism there. I am practically in tears.
Okay, okay, I’ll admit it. There are a few tears.
I eat dinner in my apartment, and then it’s time to study. Fortunately, while I am enduring “China”, there is the Chinese language, which I love, which keeps me going. It’s creative, it’s poetic, it’s beautiful. I figure I’ll go to Starbucks again to study more. Who knows, maybe I’ll make another friend, maybe even one who won’t ask me for any of my renminbi.
On the way there, while thinking of what I’ll write in my blog tonight, I am disturbed by one of the hawkers on the corner near my house. He wants to sell me a fake Rolex or LV bag. I always tell these guys that I am a student and that I need their help to help me practice my Chinese. And so they usually run in the opposite direction. Fortunately, most of them know me already, and so they don’t usually even bother me.
But I’ve never seen this guy. He is persistent, and I don’t get upset at all. I just tell him that I need him to help me with my Chinese. He suggests we go to his shop to look at fake merchandise. I ask if he can help me practice my Chinese and teach me a cheng yu, a Chinese proverb, for the day.
After thinking for a second, he says. “Would you like a little maiden?” (姑娘,你要不要?), which I guess, because he uses the word for “maiden” is supposed to sound profound and educated.
I want to learn some advanced Chinese, and this guy is most probably trying to find me a massage parlor.
I think back to my many experiences in Taipei, sipping wulong tea in the mountains and having civilized and warm, friendly conversation with new Taiwanese friends about Chinese culture. I even learned a few cheng yu.
Instead of wanting to leave China on the next plane to Taipei (via Hong Kong), I am curious to see how my journey here will unfold. Will the magic finally appear?
I remember an old Zen teacher of mine. He would say that the magic has already begun.
I say goodbye to my new teacher (the one with the fake Rolexes), and head to Starbucks to write more characters.