It’s coming up on a month since I boarded a plane in the United States and moved to Peace. I’m calling this city by that name because its name, literally translated, means “Western Peace.” The name also is appropriately ironic, in my estimation–it’s never quiet here. People set off fireworks throughout the day and night. Cars use their horns early, often, and effectively. And with multiple millions of inhabitants, the chatter of voices is always in the air in the city of Peace. I intend to spend four months in Peace, and that means I’m nearly a quarter of the way through my time here. It’s therefore time for my first major essay about this city and the country of which it was once the capital.
But where could I even begin? A month is long enough to be meaningful and nearly long enough to be meaningless, much like a thousand dollars is a lot of money, yet at the same time is a number large enough to be inconceivable. How long does it take to count to a thousand? Long enough. How long is a month? Normally, it’s long enough to make me go stir crazy. Normally. In the month before I moved to Peace, I thought the month would never pass. The month that I have lived in Peace, though, has been an eternal frenzy of action compressed into one tick of the second hand. In other words, Peace is an ironic state of rest for my state of mind. Peace is a strangely-dubbed home for my turbulent life. Granted, the name is partially my own creation, but the word is in the Chinese name, and thus the irony is partly my own and partly fate’s.
If you must ask why my time in Peace has not been peaceful, you have never lived in a foreign country. Life is shocking here. Cars can both drive and park anywhere, including on sidewalks and on pedestrians, if the pedestrians aren’t careful. Children are given the right to have open bottoms on their trousers and can poop wherever they please, including and especially on sidewalks. Buses are nearly seat-less to allow more people to be crammed into them, in standing-room-only style. Trash can and will be deposited wherever it’s convenient. The easiest cultural adaptation for me was learning to eat with chopsticks, something I refused to do in my home country because I was so unskilled at it. I still have to wonder who thought it would be more ideal and convenient to pick food up with a pair of sticks than with silverware–even if the latter was invented later, why weren’t chopsticks abandoned when silverware came along?
But that’s me being culturally insensitive. Chopsticks are a dainty and elegant way to dine, and this country has a sense of elegance that can’t be crushed either by the outside world or by changes within. Not incidentally, destructive factors have come from both of those sources. Developers at home here are working to wipe out classic, well-built structures in favor of modern, poorly-constructed high rises. China’s government is routinely accused by the outside world of systematically diluting, dissolving, and deleting minority cultures here. But that same outside world has been trying to change China for years, at different times by infiltration, intimidation, and invasion. I’m learning to appreciate China for what it is and for what it isn’t. It helps that I’m not here alone, but am working with people who love the country and only want to change it for the better. There’s nothing wrong with changing things for the better, contrary to preservationist anthropologists’ assertions. Some might argue that no culture should alter another–see, for example, conflicts over the fate of remote Amazonian tribes, or for a more pop culture example, Star Trek’s Prime Directive–but that’s foolishness. Cultures have mixed together and molded each other throughout history. China can’t remain unchanged, and (but?) no other major country or culture will be left untouched by China when this century is over.
And I hardly even need to mention that I can, will, and have already been changed by China and by the city of Peace. I haven’t even explored much of the city, and far less the countryside around it, but that doesn’t matter. I’m living in an apartment where the toilet doesn’t really work, and I’m working in a 22nd floor office where the internet is borrowed from friends on the 16th floor via a 50 meter ethernet cable. I’ve come to expect those kinds of things. I’ve found peace, at least, with the small irritants of living in China, and I expect, or at least suspect, that I’ll find peace with Peace by the time I’m done here. Living in a country like China is far different than living in any Western country, and that’s even the case for me, who grew up in Southeast Asia. I knew such things coming here, and I knew it would be harder to live here than I could have expected. But expecting the unexpected is of course a contradiction and a paradox, and I didn’t expect just how unexpected the unexpected would be. That is, when I knew that my four months in Peace would be difficult ones, I didn’t realize just how difficult they would be.
Today I am not at peace with Peace because its air has given me bronchitis. The smog here is unbelievable, a permanent brown haze that makes the ground invisible until your plane lands on the runway, and which makes the tops of the highest landmarks, like the TV tower next to my office, nearly disappear when viewed from the ground. Even Los Angelites would hate to live here. I’ve woken up at 4:00 am every day this week coughing up gunk and have had to spend the rest of my night sleeping in a sitting position. The one comfort in all of this is that antibiotics are both cheap and easily acquirable here. They haven’t helped me yet, except to keep the bacterial infection out of my ears. My hearing is already bad from childhood infections, and it’s causing me trouble when I try to hear the tones in the Chinese language. Temporary deafness is my worst enemy, and so I’ll take the antibiotics until I become allergic to them.
The Chinese language is the central enemy in my battle to survive here in Western Peace. Simply put, a Westerner cannot easily find peace with a language that includes consonant blends like “dz,” “dj,” “tcsh,” and “sch.” Never mind that nobody can explain to me whether the language has four tones or five. I’ve concluded it has four and a half: the high tone, the questioning tone, the drunken tone, the angry tone, and the null tone that makes the vowel disappear. Those aren’t cynical statements so much as descriptions that help me remember what each tone sounds like. Third tone, the drunken tone, starts high, droops in the middle, and picks up again at the end, making the voice waver. And here, if you ask a question like you would in English, you’ll be using second tone. To imagine this, say “Is this the right classroom?” and listen to how your voice rises. You have to stick a “ma” at the end of a sentence as a verbal question mark, but make sure to pronounce it right or someone will think you’re saying “horse.”
I find myself in an awkward state right now where I know just enough Chinese to feel very inadequate and horribly challenged, and not enough Chinese to feel proud of myself for being able to get around. It doesn’t help that I’ve missed three tutoring sessions now thanks to the bronchitis, and that my voice has been throttled enough by the illness that I can’t make tones well. No doubt I’ll get things right eventually, but right now I’m having a lot of trouble finding peace with the language.
This makes me wish I knew more about the history of language and how a language so different from English might have developed. I’m a not-just-self-proclaimed master of the English language. One of my many careers has been that of English teacher. It’s actually part of my current job description here. That fact probably makes it even harder to adapt to a language so different from my master tongue. I’ve been told my Chinese pronunciation is terrific, but I can’t hear the difference between a bad and good pronunciation. I love English because I could speak like a robot or in a high falsetto and people would still be able to understand me. I have no idea how I’d make myself understood in Chinese if I got angry and started speaking higher and more loudly. And odds are, I’ll get angry while I’m here. I just hope I don’t make a bad impression.
As I said, I’m joining people hoping to make an impact on China for the better, whether that’s by teaching English or setting up ecotours or doing any number of other things that would build relationships between China and the West. We believe in cultural exchange for cultural edification. We have no political motives and bear no ill-will toward anyone. Neither do we intend to exploit anyone–indeed, we hope to reverse that, hence our focus on low-impact tourism. So I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression, because I really hope to join in the positive change movement. I also hope that I come away with a good impression of China, and especially of Peace. I came here hoping that when I was done, I’d want to come back. I can’t draw any conclusions after a month here. Maybe I won’t be able to do anything more than I can now, after four months here.
This essay is entitled “Finding Peace” because I haven’t yet found it, in any way, punned or otherwise. I haven’t found out the true nature of the city of Peace, and I haven’t found peace with the city or the country. But I still have three months to go, plus the potential of years thereafter to spend in this country, if I so choose. That’s a lot of time to find what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it, I’ll have at least seen, learned, gained, and written, and in that I will find peace.