On Baozi

Now that it’s almost December, marking 4 months since I arrived, it’s high time to dip into a subject very close to my heart.  Wherever I go in China, it’s always there, and I warm a little when I see it.  In fact, I will sometimes go out of my way to enjoy it on a walk to campus, even if I’m running a little late (which, let’s be honest, is just about every day.)

I am, of course, referring to baozi (包子).

Baozi are these steamed buns that have some sort of filling in the middle—vegetables, meat, a combination of the two—and are always warm.  Sometimes when I look at them, I think they don’t have any filling at all.  But then I take a bite and steam wisps out, fogging my glasses, and I slowly eat the hidden treat with the feeling of a smile about to crest on the horizon.  Before I made myself go to the market and purchase mittens, I’d buy baozi and cup them in my hands, their heat seeping through the thin plastic bag they’re put into.  Whether or not I biked to school hinged on baozi.

But I guess other things hinge on baozi, too.

For one month, I helped to coach students as they prepared for the FLTRP Cup English Speaking Contest, and one of them, Alex, had to answer the question: What Chinese foods would you serve a foreigner?  He had some very interesting (and mouth-watering) answers, and wouldn’t you know it?  Baozi was one of them.

“It’s probably because they’re tasty.  And cheap!” I thought as I scribbled down the food recommendations in the corner of my judging sheet.  But then he got more into it.

In his view, baozi are the perfect symbol of the Chinese character:  “You see, the filling is on the inside, not showing off like pizza or something like that, because Chinese people are humble.”

I won’t (completely) argue with that.  When my students come into class, exactly none of them arrive with a swagger.  Maybe some of the boys grin and stride back to their seats, but when asked to speak, they don’t yell things out in a confident voice.  It’s usually a shuffle, head down, or an apologetic look when they arrive late.

“I’m sorry, my English is very poor…” most say before telling me what’s on their minds.  I’m often tempted to reply “Well, that’s why you’re in this class,” but I know how easily baozi can tear if you’re not careful.

And that’s just it.  Sometimes I take it for granted that saying the first thing on your mind over here is not part of the culture.  You always have to be calm.  I made the mistake once of publicly disagreeing with another teacher when he was offering critique for something, and I could feel the conflicting “Oh, this is awkward” and “She doesn’t know any better, she’s just a foreigner” vibes in the room.  I think the school allows me a little idiot-room as I crash into norm violations like a child trying to learn how to stop in a skating rink.

So, it’s not complete propaganda to say the Chinese are humble.  When I compliment a student on something, they’ll always say “Oh, I can do better” or “My pronunciation is terrible” rather than “thanks!”  Even the language—saying “还不错”(literally: “pretty not bad”) is a really great compliment.  Just like the baozi—not wearing the very best qualities on the outside.

But I’ve noticed something about baozi.

Alex was right: the filling is on the inside of the baozi.  However, the filling is not completely concealed.  There’s a little hole, where the dough converges on the top, and right in that hole, some of the filling just barely peeks through.  Baozi are not 100% humble.

And I see it sometimes in class—a brief grin when a student says something well, or an involuntary answer to a question I pose, followed by another if I handle with care.  The filling’s always been there, but every so often, it peeks out through the top for all to see.

“Humble” is not a fixed concept.  True, many people over here are not eager to show off, but the fact that some have the pride in their culture to declare that they’re humble says to me that the tip of the baozi is open just a crack.  There is pride, it’s definitely there, and every so often, you see it curling up to the sky like tendrils of smoke.

But of course, you have to cup the outside of the baozi in your hands first and admire it for what it already is.  And let the hint of what lies beneath creep through the crack and entice you to take the first bite.

Lessons From the PRC

Here are some lessons I’ve learned so far in China:

1)      Never ever be in a hurry.  There are too many people to move quickly, and there’s no point anyway—haste usually dashes water all over memories until they’re nothing but hopeless blurs that even Monet can’t fix.  I’m not going to say “stop and smell the roses,” since it’s basically lost its meaning.  But you know, there are some nice Osmanthus blossoms over here that are worth a whiff.

2)      Don’t get cocky.  A lot of people like to tell me that my Chinese is 还不错, which means “pretty not bad,” which means “really great.”  This is because I know the usual questions Chinese people like to ask me when meeting for the first time (Where are you from/why are you here/how long are you here for/what are you doing here/what do you think of the food?).  So, I’ll start to walk around and think “Yeah, I know Chinese!” with a swagger.  But here’s the thing about a city: you’re constantly running into new people, which means new conversations every time (or, countless encounters where you have to prove your communicative prowess again and again.)  I can flawlessly tell one person a few things about myself and they might tell me my Chinese 还可以 (“could work.”)  But right when I think “I’ve got this!” another person comes by, follows up with a different question I haven’t learned yet, and then I’m reduced to a miserable heap of linguistic failure.  Or, a more visual example: I decided to go running in the nighttime, since I thought maybe there wouldn’t be as many people watching.  It was exhilarating, running through this mess of trees and pathways darting up and down, and right as I was thinking about something poetic, and how this was a good decision because it MEANT SOMETHING, I tripped and very un-poetically fell on my rump.  So, no getting over-confident.  If nature’s good at anything, it’s putting you in your place.

3)      If someone tells you that the taste is much better than the smell, realize that their definition of “good taste” is vastly different from yours.

4)      If it’s bigger, it wins the game of Traffic.

5)      When you think “I can make it if I run!” when trying to cross the street, refer to #4.

6)      Dream big, and then poke at it with a gnarled stick until it’s within reach.  I had this vision before leaving for China of me playing my violin with an erhu-player beside West Lake, amid a deep conversation about cultural difference and Life.  When I got to China, after having toted my violin all over an airport, I thought “Like hell I’m carrying this around to parks.”  But this past weekend, when I was on my way back from Shanghai to play violin with a piano-player at the Conservatory, I just so happened to go to a park.  And right as I was thinking “This park would be so much better if I wasn’t strapped down with a violin…” I heard the erhu.  And when I got to the pavilion, my dream came true.  Well, minus the deep conversation bit.  Dreams come true in ways that make sense, I guess.

7)      When stuck, do the thing that makes you more nervous.  It usually ends up being more rewarding in the end.

8)      Beware people saying that they’re studying English and want to practice.  It can be fun for a while, but you never know when suddenly you’re roped into tutoring groups or judging contests or book-editing.  Some people are genuine and really lovely to talk with.  Others…well.  “No” has a nice velvety feel on the tongue.  You should try it.

9)      Laugh at failures, because there will be a lot of them.  There’s a song by Florence and the Machine “I’m Not Calling you a Liar,” which has become my China song, because of the middle part that I changed from “and you FALL and you FALL and you FALL and you FALL” to “and you FAIL and you FAIL and you FAIL and you FAIL” during a mangled trip to campus wherein I had to go back to my apartment twice once I reached the school because I’d forgotten things.  And that’s six flights of stairs to climb.  Usually, I say “Forget it” and adlib something in class in its wake, but alas, some things are necessary to retrieve.

10)  “Because China, that’s why.”  The only real justification a place needs is itself.  Why are fireworks going off at 3PM?  Because China, that’s why.  Why is there this ghastly truck that sprays high-powered jet-streams of water on the streets?  Because China, that’s why.  It’s good to be curious and sometimes asking these questions leads to something interesting, but it’s also good to understand that some things can’t really be justified in ways that are fully satisfying.

11)  Since no one expects you to know Chinese at all, you might as well try.  Literally any Chinese is impressive for a foreigner to know.

12)  You really might as well try anything, for that matter.  Why?  See #10.

13)  Don’t make a big deal of everything, or else be prepared to deal with undergoing lots of conniptions.  It’s a different culture.  Best to just accept it and move on with your day.

14)  Ask for directions, even if you think you know where you’re going.  It’s just nice to double-check BEFORE you end up on the wrong side of West Lake.

15)  Don’t worry about fitting in.  It will never happen.

16)  Embrace the beautiful, jumbled, sometimes contradictory anomaly that is living in China. Who knows?  It might hug back.

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Halloween is pretty bonkers, if you think about it.  People put on outfits, go to strangers and pester them for candy, with the promise that they’ll wreak havoc if not obliged.  Not to mention all of the weird superstitions, like how knocking on wood is supposed to hold back the forces of spoken words or how breaking a mirror will lead to 7 years of bad luck.  And then there are the catalogues of creepy stories, Halloween specials on TV, and the ghost stories told with a flashlight under the chin.

In other words, I love Halloween.

On an average day, we won’t generally talk about ghosts or other ooky things mucking up our lives, or even admit that they could potentially exist.  But on Halloween, we open the door, welcome them in, and throw them a party.  “Ghost Festival” is the closest translation to it in Chinese, and in China, there are plenty of ghosts to contend with.

I told them about Western superstitions, and with prompting, they told me about Chinese ones.  Apparently, you can’t give someone a clock, a pair of shoes, or cut a pear in half and offer them the other half, because of similar Chinese pronunciations with words like “death” or “parting.”  They told me that if you lose a top tooth, you have to throw it under your bed, and if you lose a bottom tooth, you have to throw it on the roof.  Sounds strange, but when I then told them about the tooth fairy, I realized how weird that was, too.

Then, we moved onto my favorite part, which was making up ghost stories.

Ghost stories!  The kinds of stories we say we’re not frightened by, until we’re alone and there’s no one to laugh about it with anymore.  The kinds of stories that lurk in the shadows and snatch at our feet when we’re not careful enough.  We voyaged into the dark, my students and I, and we did it with gusto.

I gave them all idea cards with either events or objects on them, and they had to put them together like a puzzle.  None of the puzzles were the same, and with the lights turned off, cell phones used as flashlights, and hushed voices, we were transported to another world.  What I learned was that, no matter the language, if there’s a good story, it will be told, and it will be told well.

“There once was a man whose friend was looking for something.  He went out to help him find it, but he somehow lost his friend, too!  He returned to his dormitory, and then there was a knock on the door.  All that he saw was a package.  When he opened it, there was a skeleton with the note “It was your friend.””

Or another one: “There once were people walking through the woods, when suddenly they got lost in a maze.  There was a ghost there that made them wear masks that made them forget the outside world, which let them stay in the maze for the ghost to feed on.  Luckily, they were able to get the masks off and escape!”

It was perfect.  The sky was overcast, raining and dreary, and I walked home in the evenings well pleased with how my students performed.

But when I opened their journals, that’s when I saw the really scary stories.

“What is the scariest thing that’s happened to you?”  A simple enough prompt.  The answers they gave me—all well-paced stories with exclamations and “Can you believe that, Ms. Hannah?” written in the margins.  Some talked about seeing ghosts, being chased by scary dogs, seeing snakes (ughh), almost drowning.  And some talked about moments so personal that I ached just reading them.

That’s when I realized that Halloween, this crevice of ghouls tucked in the middle of average days, is as much a feeling as it is a holiday.  We can skip and laugh on a normal day, but Halloween is always there, and damned if we aren’t a little fascinated by it.

I can say “I’m not afraid of this, or this, or this” and I can say “Now is the time to be brave.”  But the lights still turn out, and I’ll still hear strange noises, or I’ll be frozen in fear as I see how far down there is to fall.  And sometimes, there’s no conquering that.   Every night, I still check to make sure that the lumps in my blanket are from fabric, not intertwined snakes.  And every time someone calls more than twice in succession, I feel fear slip through me like a lump of ice.

Halloween happens.  Fear happens.  The ghouls escape and make us scream.

So, what do we do?  We do what we do every Halloween.  We invite them in, and we throw them a party.

The Circle

Imagine a small circle.  Inside this circle, a collection of facts, phrases, habits, idioms, song-lyrics, and fragments of Chinese that drift aimlessly around, bumping into each other, and then ricocheting away.  The edges press inward from being handled daily, like a snow-globe shaken to see where the flakes of imitation-snow will land, or a Magic-8 Ball that will supply the answer to a question misunderstood. 

Life holds the circle; Time shakes it and an answer appears.

The answer changes every time the circle shakes, and every time it looks a little different from the time before.  Maybe this time, it will be a comment on how to properly spend free time, maybe advice to walk a little further today, maybe directions for where to plant my feet next.  Every time the circle settles, it shakes once more, and another answer floats upward—“Sorry, Try again later” or “Definitely” rising from the murky depths of “what if?”—a challenge to dig deeper and welcome the dark.  But in those defining moments, we wait still for the answer, for the direction to go.  Standing still, waiting to move.

I shake the circle every day over here, wondering what my answer, what my direction will be once I walk out of my apartment door, down the six flights of stairs, and into the big world.  Sometimes, it’s obvious—Go to Class.  Other times—Get Groceries.  But sometimes I’m caught in the murky dark, waiting for the pale-backed answer to arise from the depths like a terrible fish, to tell me that there is no answer today.  Sometimes, I’m waiting, waiting to move while it eludes me and there’s nothing to silence the frantic flutter of my heart as words fail. 

Words should not fail.  That’s what I’ve been taught to believe in my time studying English.  Words have the power to rend worlds apart and build them up all over again.  Words are the fortress, the foundation for reaching into other worlds.  Words help us to know things. And Knowledge (know-ledge) comes down to two things: knowing something, and standing on a ledge, ready to take a leap.  It’s a dangerous thing, knowledge, but it is necessary all the same—this dark horse galloping in the night.  Never seen, always there.

But what if it falters?  What if I am truly alone in the cavern of my own mind?

It can be a scary thing, losing words and standing in the silence as what wishes to be known and what was once known battle for what will win.  I stammer, filling the void with something, anything.  But neither wins—there is only silence waiting, a patient friend to be greeted when the time comes.  In the end, silence will always be there, in the end it is what everything is built upon.  Words grow out of silence, and out of words come stories, and out of stories a closed book waiting for the next person to come along and awaken it, to stroke its spine and whisper its secrets.

But there has to be silence first. 

Sometimes, words are useless.  In the hum of a moment, they only cloud the air, muffle the wave of Unknown, stop the sigh before it escapes us.  Sometimes words are what we use when the wait between answers takes too long and we fear that vacant shiver of silence. 

And sometimes, when words fail, they get our feet moving and lead us to a place where silence was exactly the answer we’d been looking for all along.

As I stand, holding my circle, waiting to move, waiting for something to tell me to “Go Right” or “Turn Left,” I have a choice.  I can follow the words, or I can blink, accept the darkness, and aim for the spaces in-between.  And my feet might take me to a place I’ve never been, or they might take me to a place I hadn’t paid enough attention to before.  They might lead me to my violin, where I wordlessly hammer out variations to songs, or to the guitar shop I pass every day on my way to school where in the spaces between words, there is music.  Some days, the darkness keeps me there, and I look, and look, and look, and see where I’ve been all along.   

Life holds the circle, Time shakes it.

But I choose the answer.