A Letter from China
September 5, 2000
"Ni hui Yingwen ma?" ("Do you speak English?")
"Okay, so here I am in China," I said last year under my trembling breath resigned to my fate as I arrived in China. I had just flown over northern Russia, and stepped off a big jumbo jet that read "Air China" on a Beijing runway after a 20-hour flight from USA. Alone, no Chinese language expertise, never been to China or even the Orient, little knowledge of Chinese culture except ancient hearsay stories of rickshaws, Chinese women with tiny feet, men with stringy goatees, families with multitudes of children (none of which are now true), and visions of rice paddies dancing in my head. Add to this the media horror stories of Tiananmen Square, Tibet, the Red Guard, Taiwan, secret police, wire-tapping, and widespread massacres, plus the cautions of a well-meaning-99-year-old aunt in Cleveland, Ohio, about Chinese trickery, the warning of a worried mother-in-law to be careful, the advice not to trust Chinese from a close friend just returned form China ("get everything in writing, even the promise of a hotel maid to clean your room"), and the wise observation of a cautious wife, "remember, you're over there without the backing or advice of any agency, company, or even one American friend." This, mind you, was 10 p.m. in the middle of nowhere and with nary a pal to be found - yep, it was a tad scary -- but what the heck, I'm a seasoned traveler with nine trips overseas (I kept telling my shaking knees). Soooooooooo, who's afraid of the big bad Panda, right?
I looked around and noted that the whole airport seemed peopled with teenagers, or at least young people, and wondered under my breath if the youth were taking over China -- maybe the Red Guard is still in command. It turns out the observation was correct, but the conclusion wrong, for 3 reasons: (l) young people are more highly skilled in labor then older Chinese (such as airport personnel); (2) China has an early retirement law (55 years for female, 60 for males), and (3) all Chinese seem to have an uncanny ability to appear young, really young, until about age 40. "If it's because of the rice and noodle diet," I grunted, "I'll eat it 3 meals a day, and 4 times on Sunday just to give thanks!"
"Step carefully, sir," said a pleasant, female voice of a tiny 5-foot, 0-inch, 22-year- old stewardess that somehow failed to arrest the anxiety of my uneasy stomach.
And thus began my 10 month sojourn into the heart of China. But let me set the record straight for some of us about China; indeed, these letters will try to learn some of their secrets and adjust some of the misconceptions we Americans have of China and Chinese ways tucked behind the so-called "bamboo curtain" of past days.
The name "China" is traced back to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) when the idea of a unified China, then called Da Qin (da meaning big or great), was first achieved under the name of Tschina. At this moment China is the most populated nation in the world with about 1.4 billion and counting. She is due to peak out about 2010 because of the one child, one family policy, although that rule is not enforced in the rural farm areas. India, which does not have such a policy for religious reasons, will surpass China in population about 2020. Since about one-fifth of the world speaks Chinese and about another fifth speaks English, this means that between the two languages are amassed about two-fifths of the world population. So obviously it would behoove both our countries (and the entire world) to try to get along with each other.
China, with nearly 3.7 million square miles (9.6 million sq km) is the third largest country in land mass, just slightly larger than USA, but it has more than twice the population. In addition, much of the country is untillable with about two-thirds in mountains, uplands, deserts, and semi-deserts. About 90 percent of the population resides in the northeast, along the coast, the fertile basins and the 3 main river flood plains (the Yellow, the Pearl -- does that sound familiar to Mississippians?-- and the
Yangtze which at 3,900 miles is the third longest river in the world behind the Nile and the Amazon -- the Mississippi is fourth). China has 22 provinces, three municipalities, five autonomous regions (including Tibet) and is bordered by no less than 14 nations and four different seas. She just recovered Hong Kong from the British in 1997 and Macao from the Portuguese in 2000.
There are some 52 official minority groups, 150 different dialects and languages, but the official language spoken by two-thirds of China is Mandarin, from the Portuguese word mandar which means "to govern," although it is known by them as putonghua, which means "common tongue." Cantonese, spoken in Guangdong providence, Hong Kong, and Macao, is the second language used. You can see that trying to learn the Chinese language can appear to be foreboding, even to an English teacher like me. It has three different systems to learn, written pinyin romanize style, calligraphy style, and oral -- and remember there are many dialects in which even the Chinese do not understand each other (e.g., Canton, Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing). In over nine months I have learned only a handful of Chinese words (characters). In 1980, the Chinese government did their people a favor and reduced the many dialects to one (Mandarin) and the many characters (letter/syllables) to a manageable few. Can you imagine a typewriter with more than 350 characters to create words?
Well, anyway, having only arrived Oct. 6, I began with quite some trepidation the next day teaching 9 books I had never seen before to 8 English classes a week, 37 students per class, a total of 253 college English majors.
But as I said before, that's another story -- tune in next time to The Harbinger's "A Letter from China" and we'll continue the education topic.
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