The Language Babysitters and the Grown-Up Infant

In use

Don’t worry, my surrogate mom will deal with this.

I sat in my apartment, thumbs twiddling. I was waiting for a mysterious stranger. There was no way of contacting her–my cell phone and internet service had been cut off, which was what prompted her visit. I turned off the lights to wait in the dark, as being without internet or cellular made me feel like a caveman anyways.

My real estate agent had sent her. Charlie was twenty-something and awkwardly tall, as though the material that made up his body had been stretched too thin beyond the original blueprints. His English was superb, which was his purpose in my life. Aside from securing the apartment in which I currently dwell, he was also my personal caretaker. He dealt with my problems when they grew to a complexity beyond what cereal to buy or how to brush my teeth.

Confronted with a cell phone that no longer cell phoned, I grunted and bawked and mashed at it like a Neanderthal or a grandpa dealing with a DVD player. My technology no longer did technological things, and I was already out of ideas. I scratched at my heavy, sloped brow, and attempted to wifi-squat until I could contact Charlie and whine at him to solve my problems for me.

Within hours Charlie had conscripted a young woman to find me at my apartment and shepherd me through the city. She attempted to give me a ride on the back of her tiny, delicate scooter, but being twice her height and weight made the prospect unfeasible, and her offer to let me drive her vehicle through the rain in Chinese traffic terrified me to the core.

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Crash Positions and the Bag Boy

Straight razor

“I’ll have a little off the top, please.”

I entered the salon prepared for battle.

Years of terrible Korean haircuts meant a trove of neuroses as dense and fibrous as the mop of hair I was then sporting. Every excursion to a hair stylist meant almost certain doom and failure, a horrific exchange of miscommunications and dire proclamations of woe from both customer and merchant. It meant dismay and misfortune, it meant a furrowed brow and a trembling hand, and it meant a series of really dumb haircuts.

Over time my defences grew strong and I tried to mitigate the destruction rent upon my scalp through readiness. I knew vocabulary in Korean, as I now do in Chinese, to describe vaguely the kind of haircut I desire. I photos of myself from multiple angles with an approximate coiffure goal. I can draw myself in comic form, present a rule to give exact dimensions, and even guide them physically if necessary. A bad haircut in the latter days of Korea was a hard-won failure, but at least the fault was entirely upon the barbers, and not on me.

And so as I entered the salon in China, I was similarly clad for war. I had my pictures and my words, my sternest expression, my exact specifications and the blueprint for my head, the support beams and the girders and the gridlines required to sculpt my scalp into something vaguely like what I desired. My lip was curled, and my fist was around my phone, which was already scrolled to a picture of me, shorn-headed, with a similarly scornful sneer spread across my face.

“Sit down over there,” the barber said, rivulets of tedium pulsing through his voice. “I’ll shampoo you in a second. What kind of haircut do you want?”

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Chronicles of Culture Shock: The Internet and the Tortoise of Freedom

Sometimes in life, you move to Asia. Sometimes in life, you move to Asia twice. Chronicles of Culture Shock continues the series detailing my adjustment to life in Canada by looking at my adjustment to life in China.

The tortoise drum

Scoot forth! Into the great beyond!

Brigitte needed a copy of PowerPoint. Apparently it was all the rage in Korean pedagogy, and people at the orientation were already preparing introductory slideshows about themselves, their nations, their interests and hobbies and families. Everywhere around us people were on the Office crackpipe, mainlining delirious helpings of star wipes and flashy, 1980s music-video dissolves. We all sat in a mind-bendingly tedious presentation, so she took to the hotel wifi and purchased a copy of Office, and began the download, thinking she might be able to begin the install some time around lunch.

Something strange was happening on her computer. A thin strip of grey was gradually filling up with blue progress, ticking along with an alarming speed. People began to gather around, marvelling all the while.

“That whole program downloaded in under a minute,” we cooed. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

What was this devilry, this witchcraft? What had this country sacrificed to the gods of the internet to allow for such unholy download speeds, for unlimited bandwidth, for constant, omnipresent wireless connection with five gleaming bars of full signal? What gods from the depths were summoned, what demons from beyond were called upon for such unfathomable agility and electronic prowess? I imagined a Korean Andromeda, chained to the rocks, the personified anima of the internet devouring her alive, cackling as he slithers back into the ocean, the boon of high-quality broadband and and impressive wireless routers left in his bloody, rupturous wake.

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China on Easy Mode

Dragon-dog

The dragon dog says: this attraction costs ten kuai!

I go to trivia on Thursday nights in a Mexican restaurant. The bar is loud, full of talking: English, Dutch, German. The beer is Belgian, and the questions are asked by a middle-aged British man in a fisherman’s hat. The guacamole is pretty convincing – real avocados were involved in its production, and cilantro is buried somewhere inside of the kitchen. The margaritas are margarita-y. Waitresses flutter by in Daisy Dukes and take your orders in pleasant, accepting English and ask if you want the burgers medium or well-done.

This is one of three Tex-Mex joints within walking distance of my apartment in mainland China.

It is hard not to have a strong heuristic for China in your mind: Great Walls down every street, terra cotta warriors planted on every street corner. Martial arts and noodles, ancient masters perched on craggy hills, people and smog and tight, contorted writing everywhere you look. Even with my previous visit to China, I had a fairly strong vision about what China should be. Ancient pagodas, old women with scarlet fans doing synchronized tai chi under moonlight, sculpted boreal trees in architectural gardens. Surrounding these tended, verdant patches of history would be enormous buildings, hundreds of factories under a soot-grey sky, marvels of the modern world.

There would be Chinese language everywhere, and not much else. There would be Chinese food everywhere, and not much else. Chinese culture. Chinese television. Chinese people. In a huge nation with a billion humans wandering around, you kind of don’t need the accoutrements of foreign culture, of foreign language: there’s enough of them locally to learn and explore and discover.

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The Conversion Rate Epiphany

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

A wad of damp, sickly looking coloured notes clung to the inside of my pocket like so much lint and gum wrappers. I pulled out said wad before a store clerk and considered the rainbow of wet paper, the cornucopia of meaningless money before me. I tried to peel a few sickly, soggy slips from the clump, as some simple offering, a meagre supplication before this strange new altar. There were numbers on each, and I could read, and I could add, and yet none of those things particularly helped me. Yuan meant nothing to me, much as won had once meant so little, as rupees and baht and euros.

I had no viable concept for local money. The relative values and exchange rates gyrated across my synapses in a disturbing conga beyond my comprehension, visions from only the darkest obelisks sent from the spookiest, least sensible parts of space. I know that six yuan is one Canadian dollar is one thousand won is fifty rupees is something like 98 American cents. I know this fact and can repeat it by heart, can confirm via apps and research, can mentally convert great sums of multiple currencies given enough time, encouragement, and chocolate milk. But when confronted with a shopkeep who would really like for me to stop staring dumbly at him, drooling all over his counter with my bottle of off-brand local cola, I am a little adrift.

Exchange rates are theory, rather than practice. They are factoids kept and shared, interesting anecdotes to tell people back home, numbers to spit out when you want to sound knowledgeable about your environment. But in an actual place that requires your attention, your involvement, and your money, numbers mean nothing without a sense of value. Six yuan to a dollar is all well and good, but what does it mean if a packet of strawberries is forty two yuan?

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Drinking the Kimchi Koolaid

Neon Sea: How did I live life without you? Guide me home.

There comes a time in living abroad when the things that are weird begin to stop being weird anymore. Cultural understanding, proper time for acceptance, and a unique blend of Stockholm Syndrome swirl together to suddenly make things that were once utterly bewildering, teeth-grinding annoyances become normal, every-day. Things I once found impossible to comprehend and soul-crushing to endure are now part of life, and their absence confuses and frightens me.

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