November 27, 2008

Chewing the fat with Peter Hessler

Filed under: China,east-west,language,teaching — Kim @ 4:53 pm

Just to state the bleedin’ obvious from the outset, part of the process of getting to know a place is talking to the locals. When you’re a tourist it’s fairly easy and forgivable to whizz through the sights, scoff some of the cuisine, buy some souvenirs, and then piss off out without exchanging more than a few service-oriented verbal transactions. But when you actually live somewhere you’d have to be a real retard/recluse not to have at least a few conversations with the natives.

And conversations are of course invaluable for finding out about a place and for getting insights into the hearts and minds of the people who live there:for getting at the nub of the national psyche, if such a thing there be. Often, the most interesting parts of travel books are the transcribed conversations – or the approximations of them – and it seems to me that a travel writer’s skill at conducting and then vividly and pertinently rendering conversations (as opposed to interviews) is probably the key skill of the genre. After all, a journalist can go out and interview and observe, a historian can do research, and economists and social scientists can ply their trade with facts and figures…but travel writers have got to go and “meet the people”. And they have to have the conversational skills to draw people out, and they have to know how to listen carefully and how to ask the right questions. And they have to have patience and curiosity and respect…and then they have to have time. Good conversations take time, and to get to know a nation you need to talk to a fair few of its inhabitants.

So one of the reasons why Peter Hessler is my favourite travel writer on China is because this is something he does so well. River Town and Oracle Bones are full of insights gained from simply knowing how to talk to people, and a lot of the laughs and a lot of the liveliness in his books come from the way Hessler writes up his chats with Chinese. Oh, and the fact that he speaks excellent Chinese also helps of course!

He is also perceptive when it comes to the nature and structure of conversations. In the following extract he alerts us to how both the flow and the content of a conversation can tell us something not just about individuals but, to an extent, nations.

foreigners always talked about how difficult it was to understand China, and often this was true, but there were also many ways in which the people’s ideas were remarkably uniform and predictable. There were buttons you could push – Hitler, Jews, the Japanese, the Opium wars, Tibetans, Taiwan – and 90 percent of the time you could predict the precise reaction, including specific phrases people would use.

This rings true with my experiences too, although I’d put the percentage much lower:at about 40-50%. Compared to Westerners, Chinese (and Thais and Japanese) tend to be rather conformist in their opinions and certainly any topic concerning nationalism or politics is likely to elicit some stock responses. As an English teacher, some of my work hours involve “conversation” with adults in small groups or one-on-one. It’s not quite the real McCoy, I know, but still a lot of the time I am basically being paid to chat, while occasionally correcting errors or helping with vocabulary. In fact, some of my classes are grandly and vainly titled “Salon” classes (“A salon is a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings” …from wiki) and during a recent “Salon” class on the topic of “famous people”, Mao came up like a bad penny. Sure enough 3 out of the 7 people in my class who chose to talk about Mao said what a great man he was and used exactly the same phrase; how Mao had “led China out of the darkness”. Naturally I pointed out this this was complete horseshit and that not only had the Maonster made a pig’s ear of ruling China, he had actually set back China’s development by decades while causing a huge and unforgivable amount of unnecessary human suffering, more specifically Chinese suffering, in the process. Ha! Not really…I just nodded and corrected a collocational anomaly.

And Hessler also has some good comments on the potential import of cross-cultural conversations. Take the following for example when he bumps into a railway mechanic in Yan’an…

The mechanic and I talked for a while and then as a polite way to show that the conversation was ending, he said solemnly, “Our two countries have taken different roads. But now we are friends.”

“Yes” I said, “We can forget about the problems of the past.” Many of my random discussions in small places like Fuling and Yan’an ended like that; the people seemed to feel a need to summarize the relations between China and America, as if this had a great bearing on conversations at hand. Often it was the first time they had spoken with an American, which made our interaction seem like a momentous occasion. I liked that aspect of spending time in remote parts of China…every casual conversation was a major diplomatic event.

And the reason I like this little passage so much is that it brings into focus very nicely an issue that is always on the sidelines and occasionally pushed to the forefront of my expat life. The fact is that as expats our comments and conversations with Chinese have a resonance that can raise even the most banal discourse to a more significant level. Whether we like it or not, many Chinese feel that we are representatives of our nation and they will judge our home countries in part by the kind of conversation they get from us. It’s a bit daft on some level, I agree, but on further reflection almost all of us do this much more than we should. It’s hard to keep reminding oneself that all countries are a mix of people, and so instead of saying to ourselves “this is a silly comment” or “this is a rude person” we tend to think “that was a typically stupid Chinese/Japanese/British comment” or “Chinese/Americans/Russians are so rude”. I wish people could get away from such silliness, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

There is also of course a basic human decency in being polite to people and respecting their points of view or taking their questions seriously, but as a teacher and as an Englishman abroad, I do sometimes feel a kind of a “diplomatic” responsibility to tolerate silly or uninformed questions and to not hurt people’s feelings by attacking opinions I disagree with too forcefully…hence I bit my tongue when my students praised Mao. (Also, I have to atone for the Opium Wars of course.)

When the acclaimed writer Aldous Huxley reflected on his lifetime’s strivings to understand the human race he came out with the following “It is a little embarrassing that, after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give to people is to be a little kinder to each other.” Well, a lot of life is made up of small talk with people we don’t care much about, but our conversations can be small acts of kindness too, and as we all know, one of those is never wasted.

November 5, 2008

You heard it here first!

Filed under: blogs,politics — Kim @ 7:24 pm

Big News! Obama won the American general election!

Thanks to the mighty power of blog I can tell you this momentous news literally years before future generations will hear it.

Remember…you heard it here first folks!