Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wo xihuan changcheng

"Wo xihuan changcheng" means, in Mandarin, "I enjoy the Great Wall". It is one of only a handful of sentences that I still remember from my Beginning Chinese I class during my sophomore year at the University of Iowa. "Wo xihuan changcheng", along with "Wo yao kaffei" (I want coffee) are my standard reponse when someone asks me, "Oh, you're going to China? Do you speak Chinese?"

Truth be told, my "Putonghua" (Mandarin, in Mandarin) used to be noticeably better. At one point, I could actually carry a conversation. Now I can listen and understand most numbers, but ordering food is nearly fruitless and if my taxi driver gets confused, I rely on hand gestures and, in extreme circumstances, shout "Dao le!" (Stop!) And then I climb out from the backseat and just look for another taxi driver to confuse. I always pay, of course.

Note: Xinhua News Agency reported that taxi drivers will all speak English by the Olympic Games, because English is the official language of the Games. Do they really? Let's just say this: The closest I've come to a coherent conversation with a driver was in Spanish. But more about taxis later---I digress from my main point: Wo xihuan changcheng.

Since arriving on June 22, we've been interviewed multiple times, and it never gets boring. Every interview attracted dozens of stares, and prompts strangers to take photos with us. Beth was even handed a random, (frightened, too) child for a photo by the child's (overly) enthusiastic father. We've been interviewed and recorded in the subway stations, the Forbidden City, restaurants, and The Temple of Heaven. Whenever the cameras rolled, other tourists and locals took pictures of us, thinking we were someone famous. At one point, literally dozens of young girls in heels and baggy t-shirts ran toward our group, and flashes came from every which direction as we all made the "peace" sign. If only we had this type of response when we walked down the streets in Iowa City. .

But my moment, my "Wo xihuan changcheng" moment, occurred at The Temple of Heaven, where the emperor would pray for rain. The Temple is, to be honest, more impressive in the Beijing guide books than in real life--it's something everyone sees once, but rarely return. There are kiosks inside of the temple selling ice cream, Beijing knots, and kodak cameras, if that tells you much. The formerly sacred blue and red traditional structures housing gold and incense lanterns are still beautiful, still round, still surrounded by trees in a park, but very much overwhelming with tourists. To see the golden alters inside of the temple buildings, had to practically snuggle with strangers to get any sort of view.

After my snuggle session with strangers and impatience with lines, the temple did manage to find a unique place in my mind. Behind the last round, concrete-floored temple, a small group of my colleagues and I were interviewed by, according to our study abroad adviser, "the largest news agency in southern China". I guess I can consider it part of my 15 minutes of fame. Here's what half of 1.3 billion people saw of me:

A large camera is glued to our faces as we stand in front of the tall blue and red temple. The sky is a dull gray (think: dishwater), but the gold detail on the temple must have makes up for it. Curious locals and other tourists are staring and discreetly taking a picture or two. We're used to it by now, but I still get a little irritated that strangers have 1 dimensional copies of me somewhere (seriously, what ARE you going to do with a picture of stranger, anyway?!) William, Elinathan, Sterling, Kevin, Cameron and I stand in a straight line for the camera to view us easily as Justin, our bilingual colleague, has the honor of holding the microphone and interviewing us.

William tells the camera he likes Beijing food, Elinathan likes the Forbidden City (if I remember correctly). Justin thanks them for their response, and then shares the microphone with me.

"Emily, what is your favorite part of Beijing?"

I think for a moment, relying on my favorite sentence that I've rehearsed dozens of times in my head since that Chinese class sophomore year, which I stood up in front of my class and recited for extra credit, which I wrote on pieces of paper when I was bored in other classes, which has been recited for friends of friends when they hear I was China-bound, to which their faces were impressed: "Wo xihuan changcheng."

And then I try to think of how to say, "yeah, I walked up stairs and stairs and more stairs in thinning air until I just about keeled over. It was the most intense workout I had since I quit track in 9th grade. An hour later, when I finally got up to the wall, a group of Iranian men kept taking pictures with me, all in a group and then individually with each one, which was fun at the time because they kept saying they liked my blond hair and that 'they liked Americans, and, do Americans like us?', and I said 'of course, of course' and it was all fun and friendly and I left the group feeling very pretty and laughing at the strange encounter--but once I saw a copy of the picture later, I realized why they were so fascinated by my appearance: I was so sweaty and tired and exhausted that my skin was bright pink, and I looked like one of those albino squirrels hanging up in the biology corner of MacBride Hall at the University of Iowa. Seriously, radioactive pink. I must've looked terrifying!"

But of course, I know how to say none of that in Mandarin, and I think Justin sees that I'm struggling, that I've got no more Chinese on hand, and so he says, "Thank you, Emily" and moves on to ask Cameron how he likes the people in Beijing.

And with that, I've decided that I'm going to improve my Chinese language skills. A lot.

Xie xie. (Thanks for reading, Folks).

No comments: