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China through the Kaleidoscope of a Curious Traveler

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I hate this practice, I said, because despite the omnipresent street sweepers with brooms and dustpans, the side walks and stairs have spots of dirty yellow, brown and black, which remind me the floor of a garage with a geriatric Ford or Chevy. Chinese people have not yet embraced the idea of not littering the streets. Though litters and trash are immediately swept away, their traces or shadows remain on the streets. I assume that most of those spots were created by the leaks of children with backward zippers and gums discarded by young and adults. Based on my little investigation before visiting China, I expected to see everyone spitting in public, yet so far, I saw only one in a week, which can be considered an anomaly in the city. I was told that the country side is very bad in hygiene, though.


With its 2.5 million central city population, Changsha is about five times bigger than Tucson. Its downtown where major department stores are located, an area consisting of several blocks, is restricted to automobile traffic. With its busy side walks, high rising buildings, flickering huge advertising displays, and gleaming colorful lights, it resembles Times Square or the Strip at Las Vegas.


Being an Illiterate Professor in China


The rule for real estate is 3L: location, location, location, and I believe the rule for a trip to a foreign country is also 3L: language, language, language. Without language you may end up wetting your pants, or get frustrated and frustrating at the same time, or buy a bag of dry fruit that deceptively looks like delicious sour plums sold in America, but have a bizarre sweet flavor which make you hesitate to take a second bite.


Nineteen years ago when I immigrated to USA, escaping from political and religious persecution in my country of birth, I found myself in a very difficult situation. At age thirty one, as an accomplished author and public speaker; I was suddenly reduced to the level of a secondary school kid. My conversational English was even worse. I knew some big words, yet I was unable to ask some simple and vital questions or understand the given answers. I used to carry a dictionary in my hand to communicate. I still remember the embarrassment of asking the lady who lived in the next apartment with the aid of the dictionary. I needed to wash my socks and I did not want to waste water and energy by using the washing machine. I wanted to wash them in a container by hand. When she opened her door and heard me asking her, “Kathlyn, Can you give me your pelvis?” I noticed the shock and surprise in her face. To make myself clear, I added, “Can I burrow a pelvis; I want to wash my socks in the pelvis!” We were both relieved when she understood me. I washed my socks by hand; but after that incident I lost my trust to my dictionary, which confused the Turkish word “leğen” (big bowl) with the word “leğen kemiği” (big-bowl bone, that is, pelvis).


Here, in China, I cannot even ask to wash my socks in someone else’s pelvis. If I were in Spain, in Italy, or France, I would not be illiterate at least. I could recognize the words and use a dictionary to find its translation, which would allow me to roll clumsily some isolated words on my tongue. This would greatly help me survive the debilitating alienation in a foreign country. But, the Chinese characters are like noodles and doodles, and I had no clue how to identify them, thousands of them.


You should now pay attention to what I will say: If you are planning a trip to a non-English speaking country, you must type a list of most important words and phrases in a card, laminate it and carry it like a passport. You should include the following words: Hello. Yes. No. Where is the restroom? How much is this? And in my case, I must add: “Do you have diet soda?” And “I do not eat pork!” You do not need to bother with “I do not know Chinese” since your face will scream that statement before even you say it in perhaps an unintelligible accent. I have a business idea for tourism companies: print a list of most needed words and phrases in two languages on the front of T-shirts and sell them in airports nearby related airlines. The tourists could just point at the words and sentences when they needed them. You could even include, “I love you!” or “I am a good American!”


The second day of my trip, I ventured a solo trip to the nearby subway market. It was like two Super Wal-Mart store underground. Lacking the 3Ls haunted me there. I learned that they have not heard the word “diet.” They really did not need diet sodas, yet! They were oblivious to the obese genies lurking in those Cola and Sprite bottles. After I lost my way in the subway super market, unable to ask the direction of the exit that would take me towards my hotel, I was disappointed in myself. As an Americanized person I was considering myself the center of the universe and for a while I blamed the Chinese for not listing the ingredients in English or not including English to their signs. I also blamed them for not understanding my sign language.


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EDIP YUKSEL, J.D. is a progressive American-Turkish-Kurdish author/philosopher/lawyer/activist (too many hyphens and slashes, I know). His recent English books "Quran: a Reformist Translation", "Manifesto for Islamic Reform", and "NINETEEN: God's (more...)
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