Sunday, September 26, 2010

China vs. Japan, Out of the Mouths of Babes

A few days ago I was walking along the road, weaving in and out of what must have been a kindergarten class coming back from a field trip. Chinese kids are cute. Not just in the way that all little versions of people-not-your-own are cute, but they've also got another quality that makes them even more endearing: Unlike children in (most parts of) the world, Chinese go to school to learn not just how to read and write but also how to speak.

Mandarin, while it's spoken by an increasing number of Chinese, is often not the language spoken in the home—especially here in Shanghai. This means that elementary school language classes are packed with pronunciation and oral Chinese classes. You even have to pass pronunciation tests to graduate from high school and college, which is why foreign teachers here are constantly asked if their English pronunciation is the “standard” pronunciation (and obviously, unless you're from Wisconsin, it's not). So, if you listen carefully to a young Chinese speaking Mandarin, they speak with a broken, self-consciously exaggerated enunciation, as if whatever they were saying was still part of the rote exercises they did in class, and also as if they're taking the first greedy bite of a candied apple. It's cute, trust me.

On the day in question, I happened to be eavesdropping on this phalanx of hyper-enunciators. From behind me I heard, “If I were a Chinese official...” followed by a dramatic pause. I knew this pause. This was a kid who wasn't talking to anyone, but rather, to some imaginary everyone. He was a transcendentalist, who had made up his mind about something and was going to proclaim it to the world, regardless of who was listening or how out of context it was.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Festival for Longing

Yesterday was Mid-Autumn Festival, the Chinese celebration of the fall equinox. Because it's one of those holidays related to the seasons and the harvest, it's very old, and potentially quite meaningful. I say potentially, because, in many ways, Mid-Autumn Festival could have all of the blissful simplicity of Thanksgiving, but the traditional holiday killers of modernization and commercialization haven't left Mid-Autumn Festival unscathed.

For starters, like Thanksgiving, Mid-Autumn festival is about reunions: all you really have to do for Mid-Autumn festival is get together with your family for a great meal, perhaps light some lanterns, and recite one of the seemingly hundreds of Chinese poems to the moon. The first problem is that a lot of people don't go home (talked about here), for a variety of reasons, big and small: My girlfriend's sister-in-law missed our meal because she was attending a class on how to dress fashionably. (Presumably for occasions of more import to her than 3000-year-old holidays.) The rest of us watched the Chinese version of Dick Clark's New Year's extravaganza. Which is fine, but for the fact that every Chinese holiday ends up nearly the same way, with a variety show that stultifies most meaningful familial conversation. (Come to think of it, it's just like Thanksgiving.)

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