Shanghai International Literary Festival

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By Marta Cooper

As a long-enough suffering student of Chinese, it amazes me to hear from those who have tackled the language, with its thousands of characters, rote learning, four often indistinguishable tones and even more indistinguishable dialects, with unwavering enthusiasm. Deborah Fallows, wife of The Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows, epitomises this spirit. In her recent book, Dreaming in Chinese, she charts the joys and frustrations of learning one of the world’s most fascinating languages, and at one of the Shanghai Literary Festival’s glamorous lunches, Fallows shared her experiences as a student of Mandarin.

Fallows lived in Shanghai and Beijing with her husband from 2006 to 2009. A Harvard graduate with a PhD in linguistics, she prepared herself for the Far Eastern move with Chinese lessons before leaving their home in Washington, DC. However, as Fallows found out upon touching down in Shanghai, being taught by a Beijinger was little help when trying to decipher the Shanghai dialect. “I could not understand a single word,” she says of her arrival. This overwhelmed feeling did not stop at the local dialect: small, everyday things, from figuring out where to buy food to being able to cross the street safely, became part of an energy-sapping survival. “Nothing prepared me for how amazing it would be, I was flabbergasted.”

The shock did not deter Fallows, as she immersed herself in Mandarin at a Shanghai language school. Comfortable with studying, she saw it as the one aspect of her China life she had control over. “I had two small victories,” she says. “The first would be when I’d forget my dictionary but still accomplish daily tasks. The second was using what I’d learned in the classroom on the street.”

However, frustrations soon crept in. Most vexing of all was the all-too-common scenario of a Chinese person simply not understanding what a foreigner was saying. Fallows writes about a particular episode when she was trying to order take-away food (dǎ bāo 打包,literally, ‘package’), only to be met with a stunned blank look from the waiter. She tried countless tone combinations, including what would translate as ‘big hug’ in English (dà bào 大抱) until the waiter finally realised she did, in fact, want take-out food.

Despite how obvious it may seem to a Westerner that whichever version of ‘da bao’ used in a restaurant would inevitably be interpreted as ‘take-away’, the change in tones shifted the meaning so significantly for the Chinese that Fallows’ request was unfathomable. That she managed to dust herself off from this experience was a reminder that the best way to shoulder daily, seemingly unconquerable language frustrations is with laughter. The beauty of Chinese lies in its unique blend of the fascinating and the maddening.

Cultural and linguistic nuances also proved a challenge. In comparison to English, with its plethora of polite phrases and courteous requests, Chinese seemed abrupt, sharp and rude to Fallows’ ears. The lack of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ seemed drastically out of sync with a culture whose rules of politeness and courteous manners are vast and complicated. At dinners with local Chinese friends, Fallows observed how the guests would always be served first, but no one would ever add a “could you please” when asking to pass the salt.

Baffled, she put this to her tutor, who told her that the Chinese view linguistic niceties as a social buffer, creating an offensive barrier of formality between you and the person you are speaking to. Close friends and family are part of yourself, he said, adding, “why would you say please to yourself?”

As she studied deeper, Fallows also came to grips with various changes in word meanings that had developed over time. One word that she grappled with was ài, 爱,translated as ‘love’. During her first trip to China in 1986, locals asked her which one of her sons she ‘loved’ more, while a friend in Beijing commented that Fallows ‘must really love’ her husband after many years of marriage.

As with politeness, the notion of love in China was completely different from its Western counterpart. Confucian thought upheld it as something of harmony and obedience, while cultural and social movements in the early twentieth century saw the introduction of a new word, ài qíng, 爱情, meaning specifically the love between a man and a woman.

Harmony, practicality and obedience versus more modern, romantic notions of love are today on constant show on Shanghai’s streets. “You don’t need to look beyond People’s Square,” Fallows chirps, noting the weekly marriage market where ruthless parents attempt to set up their children with suitable candidates, while on the metro young couples have no shame when it comes to public displays of affection. “The language is a metaphor for a changing China,” she says. “Everything is in flux.”

What are Fallows’ words for anyone thinking of embarking on the language? Simply, anything is better than nothing. “Any Chinese you can pour into your head is good. Everything helps. It’s quickly rewarding considering how poorly you do.” And how should one manage the characters? Can we do away with them and just rely on Pinyin (Chinese in Romanised form)? “Do whatever works,” she beams, excited that more and more people are willing to take on this labour of love.

When asked what she misses about China, Fallows is brimming with fond memories. “I loved waking up every day and knowing whatever happened would a) not be planned and b) be marvellous and mysterious. Dinner conversations with my husband would often begin with ‘you’ll never believe what I saw today!’”

Her journey with the complicated, never-ending language and unpredictable cultural hurdles defined Fallows’ time in China. Both language and country are characterised by constant surprises, frustrations and moments of sheer excitement. “Just when you’ve got it figured out, something happened that made me think I had a lot to learn.”

Click here for an interview with Fallows on Danwei.

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By Marta Cooper

This post is the first in a series of blog entries from the Shanghai International Literary Festival. Held at the city’s Glamour Bar and M on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River, the festival, now in its ninth year, has become an institution in the city’s spring calendar. From 4th – 20th March, the event will showcase 87 writers, bloggers and journalists from seventeen different countries.

There is one question that Pallavi Aiyar reveals she constantly grappled with as a China correspondent. “I was asked, both by Chinese here and Indians back home: which is better, China or India?”

With today’s attention focused on emerging superpowers, the crude comparison is an inescapable one. But, as Aiyar told an eager crowd of Literary Festival listeners on a recent wet Sunday afternoon at Shanghai’s M on the Bund, the reality of living in one country on the rise while hailing from another is a little more complicated.

In her 2008 book, Smoke and Mirrors, which earned her the China-India Friendship Prize, Aiyar chronicles her experiences in the People’s Republic. She spent six years covering the country, becoming China bureau chief for The Hindu in 2003. Her fresh perspective lies in that she doesn’t approach the vexed question of ‘Chindia’ as an academic or expert, but as an Indian correspondent sharing with readers a sense of the everyday.

Pallavi Aiyar and Jeff Wasserstrom talk at the 2011 Shanghai International Literary Festival

The New Delhi native was not led to China by an Orient-influenced lust. It was a Spanish Sinophile boyfriend (and now husband) whose own interest brought her to Beijing in 2001, but it only took her to step off the plane for an “instant” fascination with her new home to take hold.

“I miss the earthiness of the place,” she waxes nostalgically. In her new base in Brussels, Aiyar laments European rules and restrictions, longing for the crafty, entrepreneurial and flexible spirit of the Chinese: “they could sell contact lenses to a blind person or chicken feet to a vegetarian.”

Aiyar’s initial lack of knowledge about Chinese culture, language or politics seems the norm in her homeland. “There’s prejudice and an emotional disconnect. Only a minority of Indians actually like China,” she says candidly. “There’s a lack of empathy, but also a sort of China pathology. India is always benchmarking itself against it.”

With China’s unabashed growth now making it the world’s second largest economy, it’s unsurprising that India, namely its middle class, treats its neighbour with a blend of fear and admiration. “There’s road envy,” Aiyar says of China’s unstoppable construction. “I’ve had Indian friends come to Beijing and say, ‘Wow! There are no potholes on the roads! And the Chinese drive so well!’.” This awe stood in stark contrast to Aiyar’s European visitors, most of whom looked around aghast at Beijing’s signature smog and lawless motorists.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics cemented this trepidation, Aiyar states: “India saw the opening ceremony and said ‘oh, s***…’.” And while the recent Commonwealth Games may have given India its own chance to shine, Aiyar argues that they only showed how these two Asian heavyweights are not in the same league.

Nonetheless, there are some fundamental similarities that can add a little grey to an otherwise black-and-white comparison. As Aiyar describes, “There is a resonance of experience in being developing countries, in battling corruption, change, social relations…there is this sense of universality.”

But is one, in fact, “better”? Aiyar compares the poverty of China with India, noting how even dustbin men working in her Beijing hutong would wear gloves (showing “self-respect”) and how their children went to school; how modest gains signalled a wealth of opportunities. While India might be democratic, she added, the chances for upward mobility in China were even more palpable.

Yet China came with its own frustrations. A genuine fear of reprisals made sourcing information from interviewees a disheartening struggle. Alongside this was a stifling lack of passion for debate and ideas that made Aiyar pine for her homeland, a place where the only consensus was “knowing how to disagree.”

It is this complex reality of the everyday that Aiyar wants readers to take from Smoke and Mirrors. “There has to be a third perspective,” she says. “China is not so shocking.”

Aiyar’s warm and witty candour was a reminder that the heart of living abroad is not so much our new surroundings, but how we respond to them. She puts to us all a question as simple and essential as the one she faced during her time in China: “What is normal?”

An earlier China Beat interview with Aiyar on her novel, Chinese Whiskers, can be found here. Read an excerpt from Chinese Whiskers at Danwei, and listen to Aiyar’s SILF talk here.

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