Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chinese Medicine Neophyte

Western medicine and Chinese medicine appear to co-exist in modern Chinese culture. Dalian is fortunate to have one of the most contemporary Western medical hospitals in China. It has all of the normal machines you would expect to see, a pharmacy that deals out pills and injections, plus a ward just for traditional Chinese medicine. Yet, there are also hospitals solely for the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

These were, as far as I could tell, just as popular. I accompanied one of my Chinese friends there for a check-up on her asthma treatment. The moment we stepped out of the bus I could the smell distinct odor of boiling herbs. Once inside, I sat and waited with my friend in the small office of her doctor while other patients received treatment and consultation a mere five feet away. This was slightly uncomfortable for me, the American who is used to a clear cut beginning and end to a private doctor’s appointment. Instead, as my friend was being seen other patients lingered in the room and continued to ask questions as they thought of them.
The doctor took my friend’s pulse on both wrists and thoroughly inspected her tongue. He listened to her symptoms and complaints and began writing a prescription. She took the slip of paper to the herb center where they keep thousands of varieties of herbs, fungi, and dried animal parts. She had the option of taking her prescription home in a bag of dried mixed herbs to boil herself, or she could wait a few days and they could boil the concoction for her. Having no kitchen in her apartment, she chose the latter. Later she showed me her set of smart sealed glass pipettes filled with a thick black bitter liquid that she drank three times a day. When I asked why she didn’t go to the Western medicine hospital, she answered rather frankly, “Because those medicines can hurt you.” I couldn’t really disagree.

My only other experience with traditional Chinese medical thought was in a combination beauty/health clinic, which are as common as noodle shops around the city. This was a small operation run by one Beijing native middle-aged woman named Ms. Liu and two apprentices. I began going there about once a week for facials (don’t judge me, they were cheap). But, I really went to practice my Chinese with these terribly patient women who doted over and pampered me. Often these visits would last hours while these matronly women sat holding my hand, serving me tea and fruit, giving me life advice, and reacting with great enthusiasm to even the simplest of jokes I managed to crack in Chinese. I could always count on them to bluntly tell me if I had gained or lost weight too! It helped that they were never particularly busy!

During one of these routine visits Mrs. Liu set up a large monitor on the wall and asked me to wash my hands. Never sure what is coming next in China, I did so willingly. She showed me a pen with a lit microscope lens at the end that when rolled along the skin could project the image on the screen. She grabbed my left hand and rolled the pen along the surface of my palm and began narrating. She gestured to the chart on the wall that illustrated the points on the human hands that coordinated to various internal organs (thank goodness I had learned the names before in my first hospital experience). As she rolled over my thumb she commented that I was extremely bright because of something about the quality of lines on my thumb. She moved the magic pen to the pad of my middle finger and commented that my “small brain” was also clever. Continuing to the base of my middle finger, she exclaimed that my lungs were exceptionally healthy! But as she moved closer to the middle of my palm, she saw red spots. She grumbled that my stomach was not healthy and warned me against eating or drinking cold substances.

On this particular visit I had brought my friend along to share in the experience. He was also instructed to wash his hands to be checked out. Mrs. Liu took his right hand (being male) and repeated the process as a mirror image of my hand. All checked out as healthy until she reached the outer edge of his palm. When she saw red spots she sucked her teeth with disapproval. She warned him that his liver was in poor condition and that he should drink less alcohol. My friend protested, blaming the red spots on a scar from a recent motorbike accident. Mrs Liu was having none of it.

I dodged the bullet when they asked me if I believed in Chinese Medicine saying, “I’m not very clear on it.” I was dying to ask if the magic pen worked reciprocally. That is, could you look at my organs to assess the condition of my hands? I bit my tongue fearing the sarcasm might not traverse the cultural gap before us.

I have a rough understanding of a few other medical beliefs that both baffle and fascinate me. Many of them center on wind and cold. For instance, for fear of catching a cold, my Chinese roommates refused to sleep with a running fan. Additionally, despite the stifling heat they always slept with a blanket covering their stomachs and balked when I did not. Later another Chinese friend confirmed that it is commonly believed that cold or exposed stomach will result in internal discomfort in the morning.

There is definitely a love hate relationship with air-conditioners here. There was a mother-daughter couple that attended my weekly Tai Chi class. One day, only the mother came to class. When I inquired to the whereabouts of the daughter, the mother answered, “She has diarrhea.” “Oh,” I said awkwardly, “she must have eating something spoiled.” “No,” she corrected, “she slept with the air-conditioner on.”

I fail to see the causal relationship between cold air and unhealthy bowels. Yet, I am sure that each culture has its share of wildly accepted yet loosely proven health beliefs. For instance, is there any scientific evidence to justify the belief that swimming just after eating will actually result in cramps? Not sure, but without fail someone brings it up while snacking next to the pool or on the beach. Or, how about the magic sponge and water in Europe? When I played on a soccer team in France, a girl was injured and everyone started screaming “de l’eau, de l’eau!” A teammate ran over and dumped water on her hurt leg. If anyone can think of others, please let me know.

Other rules that I heard (but don’t fully understand) throughout my time in China are: Don’t drink water before bed or your eyes will be puffy, staying up late is bad for specifically WOMEN’S health, you should not expose your lower back to cold air as the cold temperatures can cause kidney problems, don’t walk while you are eating or you will get wind in your stomach, and eating cold things in general will give you indigestion.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Exactly how does Chinese work?

The Americans I meet ask many questions regarding the Chinese language. For those of you who have an inkling of interest in how the Chinese language system works, I will as succinctly as possible walk you through it. I will try to draw comparisons between English and Chinese throughout the explanation. However, the dissimilarities occasionally make it difficult to draw these parallels. I will put in a disclaimer that there are many exceptions to these rules. So if you are Chinese or you are studying Chinese please understand that this is just for the gist!

First, the Chinese language has “characters.” People often ask me, “Are characters letters, words, or pictures?” The answer is that they are a mixture of all three! But, to think of it like that would be selling short an amazingly intricate 2000 year old language system. Chinese does not have an alphabet in the sense that English has an alphabet. Instead, it has characters which are made up of even smaller pieces called “radicals” which have loose meanings and sometimes phonetic associations. Radicals are similar to our roots, prefixes, and suffixes (e.g. chrono, aqua, or anti). These radicals are made up of “strokes” which are a very specific set of pen (originally brush) strokes that are standardized. Strokes are similar to your understanding of standard English handwriting techniques. For example you know the precisely where to curve the second pen stroke so that everyone comprehends that you meant to write P instead of D. One character itself can be a word alone. Or, it can be combined with another character to make a compound word. Let me summarize. From most simple to most complex it goes stroke – radical – character-compound word. Here is an example with the character for mother.

Basically, think of characters of having some combination of meaning and phonetics. The character for woman is 女, pronounced “nu.” The character for horse is 马,pronounced “ma.” The word for mother is also pronounced “ma.” The character of mother needs to show the meaning of a woman with the phonetics of horse ma. So, the character for mother becomes 妈。Notice the woman part on the left and the horse part on the right.

Let’s try again with the word for fry, like to “stir-fry” as we call it. The character for fire is 火 pronounced “huo (hwo).” The character for a small amount or an amount is 少 pronounced “shao.” The character for stir-fry is 炒 pronounced “chao.” As a beginner in Chinese, I might possibly be able to work this out. I could see that the fire radical meant that there was heat and fire involved, and I might already know the 少“shao” on the right. So, I might be able to guess that the entire character together. Maybe.

Most characters are not this simple. In learning Chinese one rarely has enough time to go through all the radicals in each character and derive a meaning. Because there are 6500 characters, memorization starts early! For instance, the character for electric or elecricity is 电 “dian (deean)” and the character for brain is 脑 “nao (now).” I memorized these cold during separate study sessions. So I was delighted to know that the Chinese language combines the two into a word. That’s right 电脑 “dian nao” means electric brain aka computer!

However, don’t expect to see too many of these simple characters in your local Chinese restaurant, any US China town, or a fortune cookie. “Traditional Characters” are still used in all of these locations, whereas mainland China has since adopted the use of “simplified characters.” While there has always been a history of simplified forms of some characters, the official government driven simplifications occurred in two rounds. The first occurred in the early days of the Communist Revolution (1956 and 1964) to improve literacy. The second further simplification occurred later towards the end of the Cultural Revolution (1977). The final list was adopted as recently as 1986 to be taught in schools. Generally traditional characters have more strokes and are in my opinion extremely difficult to write. Modern Chinese characters are derived from their traditional forbearers but have been stripped down for ease of use.

Now, you may ask, “Ok so if Chinese uses characters, then what are those Roman Alphabet like looking letters in the explanations?” That’s called “Pin Yin.” It is the phonetic representation of each character. That’s right the characters are only loosely phonetic. If you are trying to compare this to English, imagine if you wanted to make a complex code with a forbidden lover. Maybe you two agree that agree that:
˄ = I
˫ = love
* = you

Then you could look at a note from your secret lover that said “˄˫*” and know the meaning without ever having to consider the English phonetics associated with the meaning. In fact if you used it enough, “˄˫*” would become phonetic in your head! Chinese children begin associating the sounds with the characters in the same way. They start early enough that they don’t really need pin yin spelling at all. In fact, I have met some older Chinese people who cannot use pin yin at all because they never learned it in school. They only operate on the sounds for characters based on pure memorization and association. They have no need for a third step of phonetic representation in between.

The problem with thinking and writing only in characters leads me to your next question. “How do they use computers?” I know what you’re thinking. If there are over 6500 characters, how could there possibly be a keyboard that big? Well, the techy geniuses of China have found a more efficient way. They use Pin Yin along side when working with word processing software and even text messages on cell phones. When they are using Microsoft Word for example there is an extra piece of software (made by Google of course) that allows them to type Pin Yin and then change it to a Chinese character.

This leads me to your next question. You are thinking, “Hmm Pin Yin looks a lot like an improvement on those complicated characters. If you have to change to Pin Yin to use the computer, why not change the language for good and forget those confusing characters all together?” Funny, in my moments of illiterate frustration I have wondered the same thing! But, it’s not that simple. Remember 马? If you have already forgotten that’s “ma.” But, it turns out that there are a lot of “ma” sounding words out there. Each has a different meaning and thus a different character. When I type “ma” I a list of choices pops up: 妈 马 吗 嘛 骂 码 麻 玛 么 抹 etc. ALL of these are pronounced “ma” but very have different meanings. One means mother, one means horse, one signifies a question, and one is one half of the word “what” etc. When using the computer each character corresponds to a number that the typist must select thus “typing” the character on the screen. That is, assuming that I, the typist knows which character has my intended meaning. So the only way is to either memorize characters or get comfortable with illiteracy.

Finally in the spoken language (adding one more layer of complexity), Chinese is “tonal.” If you have been reading my updates, you will know that I, the monotone American speaker, am constantly battling this one. Mandarin Chinese has four tones (sometimes five) and the meaning of the word you say changes depending on the tone of your voice. We have this only minimally in English. It is similar to the difference between “a record” and “to record.” That is, the noun “record label” is pronounced differently than the verb “to record.” But, the divergence in meanings due to tones in Chinese is exponentially more dramatic. For instance, consider all of our “ma” words. If you say “ma” with your voice high and steady like you are singing, then you are saying 妈 meaning mother. If you say “ma” and your voice goes down a note or two and then back up (like Tarzan) then you are saying 马 meaning horse! Here’s another one. If you say the word “mai” and your voice does the Tarzan thing then you are saying 买 meaning to buy. But, if you say the word “mai” and your voice goes brusquely down (like you’re scolding your dog), you are saying 卖 meaning to sell. Factoring in the tones in pronunciation gives yet another reason that simply switching to Pin Yin would not be sufficient. Characters wrap up meaning, pronunciation, and tone, all in one package – something that a simple alphabet system cannot handle. Again memorization is the only way out!

If you are overwhelmed don’t let me discourage your dreams of learning Chinese! There is one attractive and endearing feature of this language for the neophyte. The grammar is a piece of cake! There are no plurals, no subject-verb agreements and not really any verb conjugation at all. If you forget your grammar terms in English, that means that you don’t have to worry about when to say “I am,” “you are,” or “she is.” And, you don’t have to worry about when to say “drink,” “drank,” “drunk” or “swim” “swam” “swum.” There is no past or future tense like we know it! In English you have to say, “I had eaten,” “I ate,” “I am eating,” “I will eat,” or “I will have eaten.” But in Chinese you can just say, “I two days ago eat,” “I yesterday eat,” “I now eat,” “I later eat,” “I tomorrow eat.” How’s that for simplicity and efficiency!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Normal Conversation

As the sounds and tones of Mandarin have slowly (ever so slowly) acquiesced in my brain, I have had the joy and sometimes the misfortune to understand everyday conversations around me. I don’t usually have to eavesdrop, as I generally find many Chinese people to be quite boisterous about….anything! I happily discovered that what I had thought was an oral confrontation in the market was actually something like this: “ARE THESE GOOD APPLES?” “YES THESE ARE DELICIOUS APPLES!” “THEY’RE SWEET?” “YES VERY SWEET!” Whew. I was relieved to find out that elevated volume did not always equal conflict. As I studied more, I came to realize that these conversations sounded particularly confrontational because of one aspect of the Chinese language, the fourth tone. The fourth tone is a sharp falling tone. In English we save this tone for dogs that start eating from the table, or toddlers that reach for a hot iron. “NO!” we say brusquely. But in Chinese, this sound is common and may distinguish between the meanings ten and is, or, honest and city. But to our delicate ears, loud volume plus the harsh fourth tone would have us all thinking that Chinese people are in constant conflict with one another.

When I first arrived in China with all of my stereotypes and presumptions from history and rumor, I fantasized that the garbled sounds around me were all bits of conversations pertaining to Mao’s teachings, or some unbelievable propaganda. But, with each passing week, I began to understand more and more which brought me to the realization that daily was conversation was….well…completely normal. This realization was particularly among the children. When I was still in pitiable stages of incomprehension, I wondered if parents were pumping leftist thought or traditional Chinese philosophy into their kid’s right in front of my eyes. Now, I know that kids are kids and parents are parents, and they universally talk about the same simple things. I passed a little girl and her father in Children’s Park in Dalian. Looking at the fish pond the little girl asks, “Dad, what do fish eat?” The dad, pre-occupied but willing to indulge said, “Anything, everything!” The little girl clarified, “Well do they eat tree leaves?” “No, they don’t eat tree leaves.”

Now, when I listen on the bus, or in a restaurant, I find that about 70 percent of the conversations (of those I understand) circulate around food and money. “Have you eaten yet,” is a common conversation starter regardless of if you have any intention of meeting up with the person to have a meal later. I was listening to a one-sided conversation of the young man directly in-front of me on a crowded bus. “Where are you?”……. “Have you eaten yet?”….. “Oh, what are you eating?”……. “What’s the filling in your steamed buns?”………… “Are they good?” ………. “How much?”……… “Not bad, not bad.”

Another topic of everyday public chatter is money, and specifically prices. As far as I can tell, it is not at all rude to ask someone how much they paid for some food item, garment of clothing, even houses, and cars! Remember that bargaining is still the name of the game in many stores, so everyone wants to check to make sure they are getting the best deal around. They particularly like asking me how much I paid, and then telling me I paid too much. While we in America are often happy to brag about a good deal, we rarely ask what someone paid, as we might reveal someone’s embarrassment of being spendthrift or tightwad.

As I mentioned in an earlier update, asking one’s salary on the first meeting is also not taboo. On a flight from Dalian to Shenzhen, I sat next to a couple who starting talking about me. I listened for a while to them trying to decide whether I was Russian or French. I decided to break the awkwardness by letting them in on the fact that I could understand everything they were saying. We went through the normal questions: What country are you from, how old are you, are you married, do you like China and Chinese food, and what do you do? Then the next question was logically, “How much do you make each month?” While sometimes I lie, stating figures far higher or lower just to see what kind of reactions I get, this time I told the truth. “4000 RMB each month with free housing,” I said. This immediately led to a ten minute debate between the couple about my salary and living standards. I was completely cut out of the conversation while they argued. They paused for a moment and turned to ask me, “Do they give you free food?” “None,” I answered. The debate resumed for a few minutes while they discussed my savings capacity, food expenses, and daily spending habits. Then they finally turned to me and announced “Not enough.” I didn’t know whether to be ashamed, offended, or thankful for their financial advising. The couple continued to talk about money for the rest of the trip. I tuned out, but I could just hear numbers and prices for two more hours.

I assume that the conversations that I do not comprehend are far more profound. But those that I do understand reflect a population of thrifty people who take good food seriously!