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!

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