A Day Off from Shanghai

I’m taking a personal day from Shanghai today. I haven’t left my luxury house-sit except to go buy a chicken pot pie from the bakery on the corner. I need a little break, maybe from seeing people, but also from heat rash, and from the allergy response a couple of mosquito bites have given me.

Yesterday Lunch

Yesterday was a big day. I met Davidico for lunch again, but before we went out to eat, he helped me taobao some water brushes, which old people use to write characters on the side walk. It was a fascinating process.

Taobao is the Chinese version of Amazon; Amazon with Chinese characteristics. There were a bunch of different options, and it took us a while to pick one out with the right head, that was made of the right material, that was the right length.

Then Davidico opened a chat window to the merchant. When I was surprised that he could do that, he said, don’t you chat with merchants in the US? Sure, I said, by email, he’d get back to us the next day…

Anyway, Davidico started getting down to brass tacks in the chat box. What material is this? Are the heads replaceable? How long does delivery take?

Once we had all the details about the sale, we got very deliberate about deciding how many we wanted and how much we wanted to pay, significantly less than the price listed on the screen. When that was all figured out, he chatted the merchant: Three brushes, three replacement heads, 100块 OK?

I have heard “OK?” a lot in China, but I always assumed they were code switching for my sake. Now I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t a special Chinese grammatical particle, that means “just take the price.” Now I’m going to listen to see if “OK” occurs in Chinese when a price isn’t involved. I suspect it doesn’t. It’s definitely not as wide in scope as an American “ok.”

The merchant agreed to the price, not with an “OK,” but with a 好的 (which is how you say “ok” in Chinese). Then Davidico turned to me and said, what extra gift do you want? Because once you’ve agreed on a price, you ask them to throw in a gift. Seriously. I think he could see that I had no idea, so he suggested another pen, a small one.

Will you throw in a pen? chats Davidico, and the merchant comes back, “a real pen, or a mini brush?” I was all, mini brush! and I was thinking, what next? and thank God I don’t have to do business in this country myself.

So after the “oral” agreement (that happened over chat), Davidico then used the website to enter the item number and quantity of the things we wanted. “The merchant will change the price to what we agreed on,” he says, and then a minute later, the screen changed to show our price. Davidico placed the order.

I’m pretty sure if that negotiation had taken place face to face, it would have aggravated me. Just imagining it aggravates me. But sitting in the office with a fan, next to my friend who was giving me a cultural explanation at each step, I found it fascinating. I wonder if I should have taken video.

Yesterday Afternoon

After lunch with Davidico, I went to meet Aussie Matt in his penthouse apartment on the 34th floor. We talked about whiskey, marriage, language learning… It was good to see him again, Matt is a good man.

You know, there’s a way that most people think they have to learn Chinese, by hitting it hard, buy doing a lot of programs and contests, and throwing your life at it. Out of everyone I knew in China, I had a mental image of Aussie Matt being the one dude that actually succeeded at doing it that conventional way. I also saw him as the World Champion of learning Chinese, the dude why by sheer will forced his way into full-fledged double-dominant bilinguilism.

No way, he says; everything I know is from exposure and communication. If I have a talent, he says, it’s sounding good, I sound good when I speak Chinese, but it’s what I picked up, not what I studied. I still have a hard time expressing myself; I still lack vocabulary sometimes, I still

I wanted take a moment to be astonished, but Matt being Matt rolls right on. Pasden, he says, he really knows his stuff, his Chinese is better than mine. Your Spanish is better than my Chinese, he says.

I took away a couple of things from that bit of conversation. The first thing is that everyone, everyone, everyone learns language by exposure, practice, and real communication. Everyone. When they tell you they speak well because they studied hard, because they memorized, because they took classes, because they bought a product… all of that stuff is at best, a tiny shortcut, at worst a total distraction. If it’s not exposure, practice, and real communication, it’s not language learning.

The second thing that I took away from this conversation is that we second language learners, we might never feel fluent. Aussie Matt’s Chinese is orders of magnitude better than my Spanish, let’s set that straight, so if he doesn’t feel double-dominant bilingual then what hope to the rest of us poor suckers have?

My parents immigrated to the US 40 years ago, and as a linguist I would diagnose both of them as dominant in American English, but I think they’d self-report feeling a little language lost sometimes.

So if you can bust your ass all your life to speak a second language and never feel fluent, then I guess you just have to let go of your desire to feel fluent.

Back to Aussie Matt. As expats we all take a dive into Chinese culture, and Aussie Matt has taken an extremely deep dive. I’m going to make an effort to check in on him more; to hear what he’s finding at those depths, to make sure he’s not getting crushed by the pressure, to remind him to come up for air once in a while. What an amazing character; the story of his life could be the great American novel. The story of my life, by contrast, might be an E! True Hollywood Story.

Last Night

After my visit with Matt I got in a cab and just talked my face off with the cabbie. She was a woman driver, and I remarked that I’ve been getting a lot of woman drivers lately, whereas three years ago, not so much. She told me yes, there are more women cabbies, more women have to work to make ends meet nowadays. It was a pretty awesome conversation, and because of the rain there was traffic, so it was a good 20 minute ride that might have taken less than 10 minutes if it hadn’t been raining.

At my lesson I talked my face off as well. My teacher couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I don’t think she had time to write down any vocabulary, I was talking so much. Maybe Matt’s jawing rubbed off on me. Maybe it was the whiskey.

When class was over, I went outside and got rained on. And I started sniffling because of the mosquito bites. So I subwayed back to Jinqiao and let the crazy rain and lightning storm dissuade me from going out to Liliana’s party, which would have been a 30 minute cab ride. I felt miserable flaking on such a one-of-a-kind event, but then lightning struck across the street with that searing sound of exploding air.

So I stayed home and ate a banana.


Laundry. Skritter. Some IMing. That’s about it. For dinner I might take a cab to Wagas, have a tuna salad, read a copy of That’s Shanghai.

It’s nice to have time to think.

I had a long think about the verb “need.” The other day I was talking about not wanting to see a certain person, and my friend said “You need to get over that.”

I thought, “need?” Need? That’s not a need at all. Seeing that person is not anywhere on Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

People say “you need” to do something, and it sounds so forceful, but it’s false. I don’t “need” to do that, you want me to do that. There is a huge difference between what I need, and what you want.

UPDATE:  I am deleting the story that I had posted here earlier because it was a stupid story from years ago that is no longer on my heart.

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