Spending three days in a cheap hotel room in a random city in central China is not my idea of a good time. But my knee was telling me that it needed some time and space to itself, that if I didn’t rest would be consequences. With 18,000km of road ahead I’m kind of at the beck and call of my two knees; niall and nelly, so what could I do.
Hanging out by myself for a few days in the concrete malls, dark smoky net cafes with lines of transfixed glassyeyed “gamers”, and eating alone in grubby restaurants, really brought home how far away from getting chinese culture I am. Despite being here for four weeks now, I still have no idea what’s going on in China.
I don’t get the city planning, where are the squares, and churches? I don’t get their idea of beauty; bridges and recently built civil stuctures are prized over old temples and wilderness? And, I certainly don’t have a faintest clue as to what’s going on in the non physical recesses of chinese culture, the unsaid or unbuilt, the gestured and the comported.
The thing is, I feel like I could be here for ten more years and I’d still be clueless. In South America, I felt like I left with a pretty good understanding of the peoples and the places that we encountered- all except for Bolivia. This was in large part due to the language. Although I was no Cervantes‘ by the time I left, I could have enough of a conversation to get an idea of what makes the people we met tick- except perhaps for the Bolivians.
Its amazing the difference being from the same language family makes. I’m embarrased at how slow my grasp of Chinese is coming along- I now have five words including the two that I already knew(chow mein). I underestimated how difficult it would be to navigate the signs and symbols of the chinese linguistic landscape and I am frustrated at being restricted to simply a rough superficial understanding of the written language. Much like a toddler or a chimp might recognise that a picture of a dog represents a dog, I can recognise a symbol for a toilet or a restaurant- as ever, necessity dictates the order of things in the revolution camp- but that’s about it.
Actually getting to grips with the spoken and written language seems like an impossible task. And getting to a level of fluency where I might be able to get simple emic view of the lives of the people we meet is, on this trip at least, never going to happen.
So, cunning as I may be, my linguistic communication is likely to be limited to the medium of mime for quite some time- and I’m doomed to look like a buffoon pointing and clucking for my dinner. Encountering people and places blithely and moving on ignorant of the values and meanings right under my nose. Then, when I get home I can say I’ve been to China.