China can be confusing. Chinese can be really confusing.
“了” is sometimes (often) “le.” But sometimes it’s “liao.” Confusing.
“长” is sometimes “zhang.” But sometimes it’s “chang.” Confusing.
The saintly, wise Yoda from Star Wars, in Chinese, is “You da”[尤达] while the very unsaintly guy who sits in Satan’s mouth in Dante’s Divine Comedy is “You da” [犹大] (different characters and different tones). Without context, this can be . . . confusing.
But these are just some of the idiosyncracies that can be found in any natural language. Try explaining to someone learning English the differences among “though,” “enough,” “bough,” and “slough.” Details matter: after all, consider how slight the differences are between “flatter” and “flatten.” Would you prefer to be flattered or flattened?
But this week was more a conceptual, or logistical issue, than a linguistic issue. Certainly “confusion” would be the best word to describe the big event of this week, my participation—”participation”—in the 7th Urban Philosophy Forum. Or, perhaps, “unprepared.”
The philosophy department here, and, in fact, everyone at Suzhou/Soochow University, has been extraordinarily kind, helpful, generous, and gracious. (And possibly thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.) The department welcomed me and made me feel part of the show; I’ve given a couple of talks, and it was not really surprising that I was invited to a meeting this weekend.
However, I was told I was to talk for 15 minutes, or give a paper. Opting for the former, easier option, I naturally asked “what am I supposed to talk about?” I was given a five-page document; the only thing I could read on it was my name and the time I was supposed to speak. Finally, I figured out how to translate it, and discovered the meeting was on “Globalization and Regionalization: Urban Logic in the Development of Contemporary Society.” Of course, now the only thing I could understand, sort of, was “logic.” I’m familiar with Aristotelian logic, truth-functional logic, predicate logic, modal logic, and deviant logic (Hi, Robyn). Urban logic? Not so much. I suppose I am in favor of it.
I go to the meeting, which is entirely in Chinese with (as one can probably guess) quite a lot of technical vocabulary that I wouldn’t have a chance of knowing (possibly in English, certainly in Chinese). Then we had a break for tea and fruit (that I could handle), and came back. The chair looked at me and said, more or less, “go.”
My friend Taozhen keeps reminding me of the Chan Buddhist idea (I think that is where this comes from: don’t blame her or the Buddha if I’m wrong) that a Fulbright scholar should learn to “flow like water, bend like bamboo.”
Well, I did some serious flowin’ and some earnest bendin’. I got up, said in the Chinese I could muster that it was embarrassing I could not speak Chinese, that I would be speaking in English, and a bunch of fairly basic self-effacing moves. (I also mentioned, briefly, the three Ts and an X, although I’m not sure that made it into the translation that followed. I think I did state that one of the Ts “is and always has been part of China” although, again, it was not clear that the irony with which this was stated came through in the translation.)
I then mumbled about income distribution, the demographics of an aging population, and how the split in urban and rural populations imposes distinct needs on a government. This entailed more mumbling about how China and the US should work together to achieve our mutual goals, that we have much more in common than what keeps us apart, that the Fulbright program helps with this by exchanging scholars in both directions all around the world, and closed by thanking them for making me feel welcome to Suzhou University, the city of Suzhou, and the People’s Republic of China. I also took (naturally) a shot at the current US President, noting that he makes all international relationships—and particularly that between the US and the PRC—”more difficult.” I believe this, in Chinese, is 瞒报—at least that is as close as I could find to “understate” something. Maybe it’s “轻描淡写.” 我不知道.
I had about ten minutes to prepare these profundities, while not really knowing what the hell I was supposed to be talking about. While I meant what I said, there may have been a bit of boilerplate and yada yada.
Continuing to try to fit in, I sat there listening to (hearing?), sort of, what people were saying in a language I did not understand. I did better at lunch, where I met a lovely Yoruban woman from Lagos and a different but also lovely woman from Xuzhou. I then went home. I felt about as guilty as I ever do (which is not much) leaving early, but it was not quite clear what I was going to accomplish, or contribute, the rest of the day at the meeting.
So I basically dominated the entire 7th Annual Urban Philosophy Forum. At least it might look that way on my c.v..
The other highlight of the week was some Italian food at MammaMia! My friend, the sartorially-resplendent Andrea Baldini, told me it is the best Italian restaurant in Suzhou. I’ve tried most of them, and I now agree. This was one of the best meals I’ve had since I’ve been here.
To conclude, pictures of my children. My son Henry hasn’t shown up here, mostly because he hates getting his picture taken almost as much as his father. But here he is, hanging out (I think) in the New York City subway. On his phone, of course: he would fit right in on a Suzhou subway.
And here is the daughter and her beau David, as the bride of Chucky and Chucky (respectively). I like to think this was for Halloween, but they are in Philadelphia, so one never knows.