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December 11, 2004


I spent too much time at the Y today.

There's something about the unmistakeable flavor of watered down fruit punch that lets you know that you are at a boring function and it's just about time to get out. If you have a paper plate in your hand as well, it had better be a picnic. But if it's indoors, you're too late.

It's that time of year again. Winter Program. The offspring did an admirable job at their school's function. M10's duet in the last piece of the evening came the closest any of the acts got to a standing ovation. F9's little speaking role got the appropriate laugh, and F7 got a chance to stand in the front row for the 2nd Grade singers. All in all the family's rep at the elementary school is in excellent standing. But the YMCA is a different story.

I complain too much but this little gong show only carried the thinnest pretenses of a real community happening. After each and every of the 12 acts, another slice of the mob of parents abandoned the chairs and prime videotaping vantage points they squabbled to get in the first place and headed off elsewhere. By the time we got to Act 12, my two daughters' Jazz/Hiphop/Modern Dance Recital (otherwise known as pre-teen booty shaking, but not too much), two thirds of the joint was deserted.

Hey, I'll admit it. I was in the second to last row of plastic fold up chairs enjoying the hell out of John King Fairbank's "China: A New History" and was too deep into making sense of the effect of Buddhism in the wake of the Early Han Dynasty. I did my back of the hand opera claps when every one else did, but I wasn't really being much of a good citizen. Why fake it?

I'm thinking about how interestingly powerful and yet shallow is our multiculturalism. I mean, I've known since I read 'Japanese by Spring' a dozen years ago that nobody is really serious about capital M Multiculturalism. And while reading about the rise and fall of Chinese empires this realization slapped me around a bit. I've stepped back and started thinking about civilizations, and it's screwing with me a bit. But now that I understand about 50 words of conversational Mandarin (pu tung hua), pardon my pinyin, the distance between us neighbors is annoyingly evident.

At my Y, there are a hefty number of Chinese families, who until about a week ago were relatively undifferentiated Asians to me. Sure I have a native Californian's ability to distinguish Japanese from Chinese from Vietnamese from Korean just by looking at folks in the face, listening to the rhythm of the language and checking their body language. But none of this registers with the smacking finality of beginning to grasp meaning in their heretofore unintelligible blathering. I had no particular reason to watch or listen intently or try to decypher their conversations until now. These days I listen to AM 1300 and hang out in the Ping Pong Room just to get familiar with the cadences.

But I broke the shell this morning and excused myself to venture out a sentence or two. You see, the Y has excused itself from providing ping pong balls. So when a table was finally free, I had to cadge one off one of the Mandarin speakers. M10 and I were there listening for him to say 'ma' at the end of his sentences so we'd know they were questions, and I had inadvertantly left my idiot 'Chinese in 10 Minutes' book out of my backpack, which I take nowhere near as seriously as the Pimsleur CD course I play in my car everyday. So while the (dweh bu chee) excuse me didn't raise an eyebrow, the (syesye ni) thank you got half the room laughing. What the hell, I did get a ping pong ball out of it.

It wasn't until 3 minutes later when he mentioned the title of the book to more laughter that I started feeling like an idiot. Surely the whole scenario made it appear as though I might have purchased the book for ping pong room conversation, then again I can't decrypt Chinese laughter. But it was the clear change in the tone of his speech from then on which was messing with my mind, plus the fact that M10 can't resist hitting the ball hard but it never stays on the table. Bottom line, I'm embarassed. Plus, the old Chinese guy that I usually talk to wasn't there at all.

I did explain to Boy that inflection is everything in Mandarin. Like most black dads, I have a series of non-verbal grunts that I use in everyday family life which are implicitly understood completely by inflection. Further I have used to fairly good effect some parallel rhythms and cadences to help me wind phrases together, my favorites being (wo shwo da bu hau) and (jr dau, wo jr dau). The Chinese also use a construction which translates almost literally to "a little somethin' ". For some reason, I almost immediately feel like I've always known how to say (ni xiang tchr yidyar dong shi ma), so if you want to eat a lil sumpn sumpn, I'm the man to ask you in Mandarin.

As confident I am in my growing yet piddling language skills, I know there is terrain I'll never navigate with much confidence. I took 4 years of French and I absolutely hated ordering in Paris restaurants. I can accept on one level that I will look as foolish as some of those 6 year old Chinese girls dancing in my daughter's hiphop recital even though the very prospect grates. Somehow I am going to have to deal with the laughter and disrespectful regard of the natives as I go hang out on their turf. It may be that I'll only make social inroads with subordinates and synchophants. I'll be a haughty misunderstood uppity negro on the other side of the planet too. I can live with that.

My attitude about solitude and isolation is becoming rich, and it is in that regard that I am finding a moral tug. I am thankful and fortunate that I reach this state of mind without regret for anti-social mistakes. I have always been goodhearted in that respect. I am just coming to understand the deeper implications of the openness with which I have lived my life, especially in my writing; it's so deeply a part of me. The necessity of recognizing interdependence is critical, otherwise old men die alone and friendless. What could be worse? I could ask Qing emperors, I suppose. They didn't see it.

In my learning Mandarin and in the efforts of millions of Chinese to learn English there is great optimism. I believe that if Multiculturalism is anything it ultimately must mature to that level, despite the difficulties. I'm not sure where it goes from there or what might not happen without it, but it clearly allows me as a middle aged man the opportunity to see the world a completely different way, which is a stunning development as far as I'm concerned.

I can't say with much certainty that the opportunity I feel personally is matched by a general optimism at the prospects for our two civilizations, despite the fact that it is indeed the theme of my new business venture. It's going to take a lot of time to find the tactical and strategic commonalities. It's harder than music appreciation. Ultimately, we're talking about managing huge amounts of power between us. Our ways and their ways are very different...

I have a feeling that I should just shut up and read Kipling. More later.

Posted by mbowen at December 11, 2004 09:29 PM

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