Please welcome today’s guest writer, Bethany Van Kooten. Bethany graduated in 2013 with a geography major and international relations and Chinese language minors. After spending three years of teaching English in China, she has returned to find adventure in small-town Iowa while working part-time at a local law firm and applying for law school.
So there I was, just returning from a run in Qinhuangdao, China and it’s starting to sprinkle. Not a steady sprinkle or drizzle, but more of a spitting type of rain. This is exciting because I hadn’t felt the rain for quite some time, and I would love to be caught in a downpour (since I’m soaked in sweat anyways). For a cool down and to prolong my venture outdoors, I decide to walk down the short path behind our apartment building on campus. The beginning of the path is flanked by temporary housing for construction workers, but the path ends in a large garden with an ivy covered wall. Well, perhaps not ivy…some climbing plant with large, vibrant petunia-like flowers. The garden is a welcome sight in brown northern China, with bougainvillea, yet-to-bloom moss roses, hibiscus, and a multitude of other colorful blossoms. Sitting at the base of a big tree is the old gardener, Zhang Hongqin. I know his family name is Zhang and the first part of his first name is Hong, but his semi-toothlessness impedes my understanding of the last bit of his name. Not wanting to seem too inept in Chinese, I don’t ask him to repeat his name again and again. Instead I make small talk about what he does, where he lives. And then I ask about the weather.
“Do you think it might rain today?”
“What? No.” He looks at me confusedly.
Since it is already sprinkling, I am confused by his answer. Feeling awkward, I bid him adieu and head back towards our apartment.
Then it hits me.
You know how Chinese has four different tones that can make one word mean four very different things? For example, ma said in a high tone means mother. Ma said in a dipping tone means horse. Rising tone ma means marijuana or toad. And ma said in a falling tone means to scold. You might imagine the problems this causes for learners of Chinese languages.
Anyways, the word for rain is yu. Yu can also mean fish. You see where this is going. I thought I asked if it would rain today. Turns out Old Zhang probably heard “do you think fishes will fall today?”
As my roommate and I walked home from the supermarket, we saw a man roasting corn on the cob on the side of the road. I’ve wanted to try roasted corn in China because it reminds me of the stuff we had occasionally when my family lived in Nigeria. We bought one ear, but had to stand by while the roaster roasted it to his satisfaction.
While we waited, we noticed that he was also roasting eggs, still in the shell. Even in China, I’ve never seen grilled eggs. So, we bought one of those, too, thinking “we may never again have a chance to try this Chinese specialty.” Even if it’s not very good, we’ll at least say we tried it.
And we waited.
And as we watched, we discovered that the eggs weren’t your regular Grade A large white eggs sitting on a grill. Noooooo. They were something even more special than we thought.
These were fertilized eggs with chicks inside. Feathers, beak, feet all visible. Being grilled. And we’d bought one. To eat.
Living in China is like…
…trying to navigate your computer after a software update.
…playing a well-loved game with friends who play by different rules.
…returning home after a stint at college to discover a stop sign where there was none before.
…using an old atlas to navigate new roads.
Each have elements of the familiar but also have enough elements of difference to produce confusion. Everything looks the same after a software update, but this or that element is housed in a different place or under a different name. You understand the game at first, but then you do something that was legit when playing under your house rules, but that your friends say is wrong. It’s the same street as before, but you run the stop sign. Same atlas, new place, and you get lost.
China, too, has elements of the familiar. But it also has enough elements of difference to produce confusion.
What I didn’t expect was to feel the same way about returning to America.