Losing Face

I asked a friend to read over a part of a paper for class. She got into the first section, and then I saw her eyebrows shoot up as if she was reading a pop-up book about male anatomy.

“What is this?!” she said.

I looked over her shoulder, and saw, in very clear Chinese characters: “The penguin escaped from the household in search of sexual independence.”

“What penguin??” she said, beginning to laugh.

See, it’s an honest mistake. The character input for ‘penguin’ and ‘concubine’ is very similar. Penguin (企鹅 qi’e) and concubine (妾 qie). See? Easy mistake. (Still, it’s fun to imagine a sexually-liberated penguin running from a Qing Dynasty household. I imagine a Charlie Chaplin-style waddle down the path with a Daoist priest in tow).

Believe it or not, these problems happen more than you’d think. I once mistook the poet Homer for a Hippo God because a) it was an awesome image, and b) they are pronounced the same and I got confused. (And I spent an hour in class fuming about how I’d never been taught about Hippo God in my own American schooling). Another time, I thought a teacher was talking about the Samba, when really he was talking about a scar on a character’s leg. Best of all was when a classmate was complaining about all of the things his girlfriend could fit in her purse, including what sounded like “a whole turkey” when really he was saying “a lighter.”

It’s good for a laugh, which I’ve learned to do often. A friend told me that you have to learn to love losing face to make it in the world. I think that’s true. (Or, at least I hope it is, considering that I do it so much.) Every time I open my mouth, it’s a gamble whether or not I’ll say something coherent.

But to try is to dance with failure, and to stay light on your feet as the tempo picks up.

So yes, I may have created a sexually-charged-penguin monstrosity, but it’s all part of the learning process.

Or so I tell myself as I go back and edit that penguin out of my essay.

From the Grave to a Grad

A couple months ago, I saw the classic Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion.” In it, a girl meets the man of her dreams (I mean, literally: she meets him in her dreams) and pines herself to death in anticipation of him. Later in the opera, she comes back to life through the power of love — which, if by love I mean “clerical error in the Records of Life down in Hell” then yes, it’s love. Her lover, a somewhat absent-minded but well-meaning scholar, dreams of her escape from death’s door, and goes to dig her up from the grave.

Now, as all love stories involving people coming back from the dead go, she’s dug up in a way that makes her gorgeous and ready for a wedding day. She arises and they sing a duet together, and the garden spirits converge to praise their love.

That is exactly what I’m NOT doing right now.

As some of you may be aware, I’ve been away from this blog for over a year. I left China, thinking that I wouldn’t be coming back, and, much like Peony from the opera, made my melodramatic farewells and poeticized every step along the way. I thought it was time to let this blog go, since it was about China and, well, I wasn’t in it.

Surprise! That’s a hand crawling out from the dirt.

Yes, I’m back in China, less than a year after saying that I was done. This time, it’s for grad school At Zhejiang University to study Comparative Literature and World Literature, a somewhat last-minute panic decision I made this time last year when realizing that I just wasn’t done with China yet. As it turns out, this panic decision has turned out in my favor.

Points for the zombie!

Okay, I’ll be honest, I’ve had plenty of exisential crises about it, as I have with most changes. You know what, though? There are no mistakes, there is only what happens.

So, as I’m clinking my chains and rising up from the dirt, as I brush cobwebs and maggots from my hair and lurch into the florescent lighting of a classroom with Chinese spoken at warp speed about Anna Karenina, I invite you to rise up with me and come along for the journey.

Let’s lurch!