December 20, 2017

Many apologies for the spotty blogging lately.  I’ve been on the road for what feels like months ... because it HAS been months.  It turns out that the time-space continuum favors being in one location for a period of time to get stuff done in that location.  Who...

November 21, 2017

Middle age.  So named because that’s the migratory destination of one’s body mass over time: The Middle.  Love Handles?  I wish.  Try Love Shelves.  I’ve become the Ikea of body fat.

The challenge of being middle aged in China is keeping fit. Having...

September 1, 2017

Like many expats in the dog days of Shanghai’s late summer, my thoughts turn to home. In the old days, summer was when expat’s practiced the annual migration known as “home leave.” Years ago, that journey had but one aim: to replenish life’s necessities: chocolate, cof...

August 20, 2017

I got an email from a friend in the U.S. a while ago. He said that he’s been reading a lot about China in the news and is suddenly interested in what is happening over here. Now this is a friend whose prior exposure to anything international was limited to brief forays...

August 6, 2017

The Apple Store in Shanghai makes me happy. And I don't mean the warm-puppy-on-a-Hallmark-card or a smile-from-a-friend kind of happy. I mean a deep, existential, all-encompassing, I've-finally-found-the-meaning-of-life kind of happy. Why?  Because Apple retail has dis...

July 30, 2017

I’ve had a couple of requests for an article I wrote for a local Shanghai magazine a few years ago about getting my driver’s license.  The Chinese media – even English language publications – are all owned by the Party and are managed by the Ministry of Propaganda (a g...

July 25, 2017

There is an environmental disaster of epic proportions looming over the great city of Shanghai and it is threatening to change our way of life forever. We are being forced to dress differently, walk differently and apply chemicals to our skin to protect us from this ha...

July 23, 2017

I was booking a hotel online and came across the list of amenities...does this mean that, if they don't list "toilet paper", you need to bring your own??

July 22, 2017

Like “government intelligence” and “student athlete”, some call “Country Music” the ultimate oxymoron…it may come from the country but it sure as heck is not music. As one of the only original American art forms (besides the Big Mac), country music has had little impac...

July 9, 2017

Not so very long ago, I was sitting in a Chinese railway station awaiting my train which, like the first snowfall, the Second Coming and Godot, was taking its sweet old time. Worse still, I was experiencing a throbbing headache.

Then suddenly an announcement came over t...

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The Talking Monkey Blog

A common question among the foreign community in China is “do you speak Chinese?” Generally, my answer is “yes” - though I am by no means the most fluent foreigner I know, I can do pretty much anything I need to do here in my personal and professional life in Chinese: I can get around, get into trouble and (usually) get out.  But there is a metaphysical qualification to my linguistic abilities in that, when I speak Chinese, I am not sure that I am really “me” — or even human.  For those non-Philosophy majors (i.e. those with a real job) who have forgotten what “metaphysics” means, allow me to explain.

Speaking Chinese with friends and co-workers, I am neither funny nor witty, though I like to think I am (maybe mistakenly) in my native language. I am certainly interesting, in the same sense that monkeys are amusing when taught to use simple sign language. I can talk, but it is not communication, it is desperation. Some people say I am “bright” because I can pick up the language or “clever” because I can mimic an accent. Yet I don’t consider those attributes “human” … because communication has nothing to do with fluency and everything to do with culture.

In China, to be human is to use the Chinese language and to use it properly. Anthropologists have discovered rudimentary Chinese characters scratched into turtle shells and cattle bones many thousands of years old. To be Chinese is to be attached to this history by some unseen umbilical cord which feeds you and keeps you alive. To really speak Chinese, one must incorporate that history.

The idiom and its linguistic cousins is shunned in the English language — as a high school English teacher said to us, “avoid clichés like the plague!” However, in Chinese, to speak the language properly, one must correctly use cheng-yu (成语), idiomatic parts of speech passed down over millennia that define what it means to be Chinese. In China, you are “human”, not because you sound human, but because you are able to link yourself with the rest of humanity (i.e., the Chinese).

When you speak or write in Chinese, your audience is much broader than the receiver(s) of your immediate message. The Chinese ancestors hover about your conversations and they are disappointed when you miss an opportunity to refer to a present situation in light of the past, for it is the past that is their primary concern. These forbears still communicate with the modern generation and they are strict teachers, ready to rap you on the knuckles with the ruler of historical linguistics should you neglect their lessons.

One can think of communication, not as a process of passing a “message” from sender to receiver, but rather as a way of sharing meaning. A conversation can be a “sacred ceremony” wherein meaning is shared and reality is created, altered, and negotiated. According to this perspective, my primary purpose for communicating is not to get someone to do something (although that may also happen), but it is to tie myself to that person, to share something beyond the words of the liturgy and to the spirit of the relationship. To be able to take part in that ceremony, one must be a “believer” in a linguistic sense. In Chinese, the meaning, history and feel of the words must reside in your soul, not in a dictionary.

So yes, I guess I “speak Chinese” but not as a believer. In Chinese, I am a heathen, like noted atheist Madeline Murray O’Hare reciting the Common Book of Prayer—you know what the words mean, but you are not quite sure what she means.  I like to speak and write in English because when I do so I feel something lift off of me, a great linguistic burden placed there by the whim of natural geography and about 10,000 years of human history.  I am no longer a talking monkey—I am suddenly human again.

I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!

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