Sunday, June 10, 2007

Stuff to sweep under the rug

There are some general things about the Chinese language that I find interesting. If you take away the ridiculous writing system1 and the absurd idea of using only one syllable per word,2 then it’s remarkably simple. There’s no conjugation, no plurals, and basically no need to put extra words in the sentence that don’t really add to the meaning. For instance, there’s a word for “please,” but in most contexts it sounds weird, so you can just leave it out and get to the point. To my Western ear, it makes everything sound rude, or at least abrupt, but I’m getting used to it. One place I find the absence of “please” strange is with some beggars: some will just say “thank you” over and over. And there’s no beating around the bush with things like “Could you spare some change?” In the case of one woman who followed us around for a while the other day, it was simply, “Give me one kuai.”

And this brings me to a more depressing topic. Alison tells me there’s more street poverty here than there was in Chengdu. It goes with the generally higher degree of rundownness that seems to exist here. I was walking home from the gym today, and my route took me through an underground market to avoid an intersection.3 On each of the two sets of stairs I had to take, there is often some variety of street vendor, but even more frequently at least one panhandler. Further down that street, I noticed the guy who has no hands and no feet, who usually crawls along in the middle of the sidewalk pushing a can; this time he was resting against the wall. I wonder about this man; I don’t know much about the politics of begging in China, because I haven’t asked (and Alison tells me that people won’t say much even if you do ask), but I don’t think it’s so elaborate as in, say, India, where there’s a whole hierarchy and people choose to be mutilated as part of the “job,” but still - how does one lose one’s hands and feet? Very bizarre, very sad. Anyway, further down the street from this guy was the oddest begging set-up I’ve seen yet. There was a man lying flat, face-down, repeatedly nodding his head. This in itself wasn’t that out of the ordinary: Alison has talked about seeing arrangements with one person like this (sometimes not just nodding, but banging his head into the ground), and a second person next to the first, doing the actual begging. This man in particular was alone, but he had a boom box next to him, playing something, and occasionally he’d look up from his nodding to adjust something on the stereo. I just don’t understand.

Now to be insensitive and shake thoughts of other people's misfortune from my mind, I will leave you with a couple of recent photo albums:

1 A phonetic writing system makes so much sense! If I see a word that I don’t know, at least I can probably figure out how to say it, and then I can ask some one, “What does ‘ludicrous’ mean?” If I can’t pronounce it, I can just say, “Do you know this word: O, U, T, R, A, G, E, O, U, S?”

2 The sound “shi” (sounds like the “shou” in “should”), with a sharp falling tone (as opposed to the four other tones that exist), could mean to be, city, thing, pattern, life, room, scholar, inspect, experiment, or at least thirty other things. (At least 37 characters exist with this pronunciation, and each character can have more than one meaning.)

3 Alison always stays at street level as she doesn’t like the market and because Joe got his wallet stolen in there once; Joe, however, still takes the underground route because it’s faster and includes some stairs for better exercise.

1 comment:

Jayman said...

love the fatty pants! I guess if I wanted a pair I'd need to get meat sticks!