Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Color of Communication

On Monday, I asked my students, intermediate English speakers, to write the names of fifteen colors on the board. Of course, the standard Crayola eight -- plus pink -- made their way onto the list in less than one minute. The spaces for colors ten through fifteen remained blank, and the classroom fell silent as forty pairs of Chinese eyes stared at me.

I tried soliciting more color names with leading questions. “What’s the word for a purplish-pinkish color?” Silence. Was “fuchsia” on their vocabulary radars? Nope. Neither was magenta or eggshell, I learned, but one soft spoken teenage boy did add “sky blue” after a few minutes of intense thought.

After class, I flipped through their English book, which is based on British English standards. They learn that color is spelled c-o-l-o-u-r, but advanced color vocabulary never appears in their lessons.

Yesterday, I shared the story with an English-speaking coworker and friend. I complained that the lack of color vocabulary lessons does not do the English language any justice. “What color do you like?” is one of the first English questions the students learn. Apparently, they only learn nine different answers for colors, the Crayola eight plus pink. Six years later, even though their English has progressed to more complex sentences, their ability to answer the original color question has not grown.

My friend scoffed and asked,“Well, can you name fifteen colors?”

“Of course,” I said. “The standard eight plus pink. Fuchsia. Magenta. Ecru.” I paused, counting my tally on my fingers.

“Periwinkle,” he added, and I nodded, confirming thirteen color words.

“Eggshell and sunshine yellow,” I said, “but I don’t know sunshine yellow really counts as a separate color if I am using ‘yellow’ as part of the name."

Does adding an adjective to a basic color make a new color or simply better describe that color? Do my Chinese students care? They can already answer what color they like, even if they offer the most basic color name. They are still communicating. That's the point, right?

PS. Crayola reports that the most popular favorite color, world-wide, is blue. Just blue, the blue without any fancy name.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hello, Wisconsin!

Do you see what I see?

Clearly, Wisconsin is making itself known in this garden of greens on this side of the world in Guizhou Province. 

Spring Is A Comin' ... Please, Please, Please

It's been a long winter here. Even though I never saw any snow, the cold, damp weather has challenged my health, sanity, and soul. Those of you who know me well know how much how I hate the cold. I'm a sad representation of a Midwesterner. I hate winter. I hate snow. I hate being cold. I'm convinced that I lived in deserts in every single one of my past lives. If I didn't look so much like my mother, I would be certain I was born in Arizona and was then adopted and brought to Wisconsin.

The cold in Tongren is a whole different and far more challenging ball game. Central heating does not exist. If it's 38 degrees outside, it's 38 degrees inside my apartment. People wear their winter jackets all of the time, outside AND inside. My hands are numb with coldness 90 percent of the time. I have a heater in my bedroom, so this is where I spend most of my time when I'm home. And, the sun does not shine in the winter. A thick blanket of gray clouds have covered this city since November. NOVEMBER! It's been FOUR MONTHS since I've seen the sun in Tongren. I am not exaggerating. I hate getting out of bed in the morning, and finding motivation to do anything is really difficult because I'm just ... SO ... COLD ... all of the time. I really thought I was a stronger person, but this constant dreary and cold weather has broken me. (Insert very dark, scary thoughts here, please. I'm certain that I've thought them. Seriously.)

I try remind myself that Spring is on her way. She has to arrive some time, right? I'm certain that she's trying to scratch her way through the constant blanket of clouds that hover over Tongren.

Peek-a-boo! I see you!
Instead of ending this entry on an entirely depressing note, I decided to include some cute pictures, in attempt to cheer myself up. Some signs of Spring are universal. While walking through a market in nearby Jiangkou yesterday, I heard the unmistakable "cheep-cheep-cheep" of baby ducks and geese. Following the sound led me to the source, baskets full of the babies at 10 RMB each ($1.58). For some reason, I love ducks. If I could have a pet baby duckling that never grew up and could be potty-trained, I'd have one. I'd name him Cheepy, and I'd love him forever and ever.

Getting Stuff From Here to There

All three photographs were taken in Jiangkou, about 60 km
away from my city. Jiangkou means "River Mouth", or
"where the river begins."
Chinese people have the strongest bodies in the world. Moving stuff in this country often means using your body to do the work, regardless of the item. Strong backs are the backbone (pun intended) of getting things done.

I see everything carried on people's backs. The man, at left, is moving a new wooden table to its new home. I'm guessing that table is destined for a restaurant since it looks just like the tables I see in most of restaurants in this part of China. This man probably just finished putting it together in his shop and is delivering it to his customer. He carries it alone, and he walks quickly. No one on the street around him bats an eye, as this is so common. The foreigner (that would be me) is the only one taking notice.

Babies moving around in baskets is also very common. Parents and grandparents carry their precious cargo in wicker baskets on their backs, leaving their hands free to carry produce home or push vending carts to that day's sales location. This toddler wasn't in the mood to sit inside his basket the right way. Instead, he was balancing his little bottom on the very edge of the basket. His mother didn't seem to mind, speaking to the balancing abilities of her and her son.

Never underestimate what wicker baskets are capable of supporting. They are often used to carry more than babies. They are also filled with heaps of pencil-thin spring onions or baseball-sized radishes. Sometimes, they even carry home new TVs, as you can see in the third photograph. The TV doesn't fit inside the basket, but it will fit on top of the basket, with the help of some strategically tied string.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tough and Tender

Kunming, Yunnan Province
I really love this photo. It captures so many things about China and about what I notice, revealing things about both of us.

I have been staring at the computer screen for ten minutes, trying to choose the right words to explain why I love it.

I realize something.

It doesn't need any explanation.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Scenes From a Run

Everyone shares the road, and this herd of goats is no exception.
A bunch of goats jogging down the road, babies following, is one
of the cutest things. Alas, the goats didn't care one bit about us.

Home, sweet home, for a family, or two. I heard voices inside
but wasn't brave enough to holler out for conversation.
Yesterday, my friend Jim and I decided to go for a long run. I had one route in mind. He had another.

Jim: "Want to try that path I pointed out last time?"

Me: "You mean up the big hill?"

Jim: "Yeah, but it's not that big."

Me: "No." Jim and I have different ideas about what constitutes a big hill, and he is a lot stronger than I am.

I paused. One rule for myself is to not automatically say no to an idea here. I should at least consider it.

Me: "Ok ... how long is the hill?"

I found out. I couldn't make it up the darn thing, which always frustrates me. (Insert complaining here.)

However, the hill provided its own reward. Just on the other side, true China awaited. We were in the country. No car horns. No construction trucks. No throngs of people. No one yelling, "Laowai", which means foreigner. The sounds of the city were three miles behind us.

The shift from city to country is abrupt. While China is modernizing, many places are still living the old way, as you can see in the photographs.
Across the street from the home are the fields the family likely tends.
These vegetables will show up in my market, a mere three miles away.

We trekked into a small village in search of water. Instead, we found
a small cave and teeny, tiny waterfall. Ok, it was a trickle of a stream. Hundred of
hidden caves are tucked into these mountains. Jim wanted to see how far one
small cavern extended, so he crawled inside to find out. Alas, it didn't go very far.
At the end of our journey, we had four muddy shoes and one scratched eyelid, and the sun came out as we returned to the city. It was a great morning.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Safety Schmafety

Let's take the whole family, including Junior, out for ride ... no helmets required!
Kunming, Yunnan Province, about 450 miles away from Tongren, as the crow flies,
or a one-hour flight followed by a 13-hour train ride on an evil green train
Safety in China comes down to one statement, “Enter at your own risk.”

Seat belts are missing in vehicles. “Caution! Wet Floor!” signs don't mark freshly mopped, slick floors. No ropes surround an open manhole on the sidewalk, so you see a missing cover and a round drop.

During the Chinese New Year, everyone lit fireworks, day and night. This is the birthplace of fireworks, after all. I could buy shooting rocket from a street vendor and walk five steps away to light it. These were the “big-deal” fireworks, the kind that shoot up into the sky, bursting into rusty red stars, the same fireworks that require high-stakes permits in the good old USA.

My favorite scene is watching a moped driver wear a helmet, but his straps are not clicked together under his chin. Instead, they are floating in the breeze alongside his ears as he zips around the taxi. Or, the metal fabricator has safety goggles, but as he’s searing through a sheet of metal with his shooting flame, those goggles sit on the ground, next to his knee. If I don’t want to singe myself with the renegade sparks, I need to keep myself away.

The lack of safety-control rules in China makes the United States look extremely over protected. In China, you are responsible for yourself and your actions. This is one of many ideological differences. People here are not sue-happy. People are aware they are making decisions, and they drink the hot tea without the printed warning that reads, “Caution. The beverage you are about to drink is extremely hot.” People don’t blame others for common-sense things that they should know in the first place. And, as a friend crassly noted, there are a billion people. Perhaps a lack of safety regulations is one way to control the population a bit. 

However, do NOT, under ANY circumstances, drink cold water in the winter. You will catch a cold.