Friday, August 19th, 2011
Rich looks at me, embodying Apathy.
“When we got on the flight, everyone was like, you know, this ain’t so bad.” He proceeds to bang his head lightly against the seat in front of him.
Fast forward a few hours. Or backwards. Or to the side (the subconsciousness of those suited to remain sane knows to push the logic behind time zone timekeeping methods to the back of the mind, to avoid destabilizing the passenger psychologically). I wake up in a position resembling something a self-taught yogi would finagle their way into and pay for later with physical therapy. Rich looks at me, now embodying nothing in particular. Not being present is his newest survival tactic. I attempt to raise his spirits, and glance at my watch. Could it be?
“I do believe it is seven hours later, Richard. 10:30 Ohio-time to be exact. We have successfully time travelled.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s bright outside.”
“We’re traveling forward in time. Of course it’s morning. We slept for an hour.”
I put all 184.9 days of my iTunes playlist on shuffle and set about paring it down manually, hoping to God it would be enough of a distraction to allow Hannah the Naturally Caffeinated the benefits of functioning.
It takes 13 hours to get to Beijing from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. If taken by a non-sleeper by myself, a trip like that could one over the edge. However, I had the great fortune of not only sitting across the aisle from my dear friend (and source of Common Sense) Rich and new friend Antonio, but to be sitting in a central aisle next to an absolutely lovely Peruvian woman named Teresa Alvarez, a Chinese woman whose name I never gathered, and her daughter Jane who is my age and eager to practice her English. Teresa is a warm world traveller, expanding her horizons to keep herself evolving. She caught onto the fact that I was Jewish as soon as I told her my name (strange) and waxed ecstatic about a recent trip to Israel. After sharing with her my story, she told me she thought I was the kind of kid who was very intelligent and would do big things for America.Teresa barely knew me (and definitely seemed like the kind of person who tries to see the absolute best in everything and everyone), but who wouldn’t want to hear something like that about themselves, especially when they’re traveling to the opposite corner of the world and not as secure in their abilities as they’d like to be? Jane and her mother, on the other hand, were returning home after a US tour of Sociology graduate schools. They hit the ones popular in Asia- Harvard, Berkeley, and Stanford- and then visited a few in Texas, just in case. When I was in high school, my teacher expressed in all seriousness that, compared to the Japanese, Chinese parents had much more lenient expectations for their children- where Japanese children had to go to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, Chinese children were allowed to attend Stanford, Dartmouth and Columbia as well. These sentiments play into my apprehensions about participating in Chinese society, which I will hopefully discuss at a later time.
The three of us had conversations in English and Chinese, attempting to bridge the gaps between our broken Chinese (mine) and less broken English (Jane’s, her mother’s, and Teresa’s). When Jane told me that my Chinese was good, I responded with the traditional ‘Nali, nali,’ (a response of humility and denial). And the honest truth is, I know I SHOULD know a lot of Chinese, but I don’t really know how salient my language skills are. My accent is American, my grammar is nonexistent, and apparently my aptitudes are idiosyncratic- where I find reading and writing the easiest parts of Chinese, followed by speaking and accompanied by a struggle to listen effectively, others excel in speaking and listening and lose traction in the visual sphere. Academically, I’d like to become fluent in Mandarin to the point where I can read a newspaper and have full conversations with countrymen whose ages require double-digits notation. Socially, I aim to befriend the other students on my program, other expats, and those native to my future country of semi-residence. Having such a concentrated amount of diversity is almost overwhelming- because I’ve been taking Mandarin Chinese for six years, I’m not going to be in language class with the other UNC students- I’m being put in an international class where people not only are still learning Chinese, but might not even know English. I want to challenge myself to make friends despite the incredible lingual and cultural barriers I will face, because we are in a unique position to conquer the most basic hindrances to communication by finding our humanity and (hopefully) good-naturedness in common despite them. Having a large emotional support group is also not something to take lightly.
With an hour and a half left in the air, I’ve managed to partake of a few word games, organize my computer Word documents and IPhoto library, arrange an assortment of new iTunes playlists, add to my new blog, re-memorize some Chinese characters, bond with my first foreign friends, delete the majority of my cellphone texts that had been automatically logging since late 2009, watch an episode of the Simpsons with Chinese subtitles, write in my diary, read 50 pages of a book (I promised I wouldn’t read it until the plane lifted off- I kept my word, sir!), manage an hour of sleep (which is significant for someone whose sleep patterns are in league with those of vampires) and travel almost 7,000 miles without walking more than a half of one throughout my limited wanderings of the plane. Agonizing, sure, but productive! Maybe long plane rides aren’t so terrible.
I’m on the flight to Xiamen. 2 days in the air for the price of 1 and a half.
I’ve only been in Beijing’s airport so far and I’m already astounded by the country and the people. Everyone is so open- personal questions are asked freely, people are stared at, and everyone wants to practice their English and help me understand Chinese. I’ve been able to get the group (the four of us flying out of Chicago- Antonio, Keeli, Rich, and myself) out of a few sticky situations with my limited knowledge of the language, but when I have difficulties with grammars or vocabulary, there’s always someone willing to help me figure things out and work with me as I struggle for a phrase that makes sense. I’ve barely been here a day and while I realize that I’ve lost a significant amount of my Chinese skills over the summer, I acquire new skills and learn quickly. The difference between learning for a grade and learning to give yourself immediate opportunities is the impetus to study, and study hard.
This plane trip’s helper is Julia, a fourteen-year-old from Xiamen eager to assist me in understanding how sentences made up of characters I don’t understand make sense. She takes my books and points out how characters evolved over time, and corrects me when I misguidedly ask why the plane hasn’t taken off yet- when we’re in the air, and I’ve fallen asleep. Now that it’s 2:31 PM Ohio time (meaning that I’m been awake for 32 hours now), I’m going to fall asleep to the dulcet tones of Chinese soap opera television as sea air wafts about the room. 晚安！