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How Do I Explain Myself? Excerpt

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          “But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”

          —Toni Morrison


          There’s always an impulse to explain.

          I spoke Chinese exclusively until the age thirty-two. So it begins.

          Whenever I speak and write in English, such as now, I have an impulse to explain my language of origin. Sometimes the impulse is to include Chinese characters in between lines. Phrases that come to me in Chinese before English, may not have an equivalence, may not . . . I begin to explain this way, but there is a voice in me asking, “Why do I have to explain?” Midway through explaining, I refuse to continue and I say, “It’s just me.” 

          Yet the impulse stays. 

          Being aware first must begin with being self-conscious, but what if I am self-conscious about my self-consciousness? Nothing more self-conscious than constantly being aware of the language we utter. Every. Single. Word. Like being conscious about every breath. Like being conscious about being alive. It may be that an impulse to explain is an impulse to continue. The question should be: If I choose to continue with this new sound . . . 

          But again, why?

          To answer, the keyboard under my fingers is making tapping sounds, words flow out line by line on the screen, taking shape.


Chicken Intestine

         I picture my birth city, Guangzhou, China. A group of men maybe in their forties or fifties sit low on small wooden stools circling a round plastic table only slightly taller than the stools. They lift one leg and rest a foot on their stools; one or two men rest their chins on their knees. The table must have been outdoors for years, the cheapest plastic but durable enough to withstand wind sweeps and rainfalls, a typical subtropical weather drill in southern China. Its washed gray condition tells me that it could have been any color when it was new. Now it’s dented and cracked in the middle, but the cigarette holder is placed properly and undisturbed. The men chit-chat in Cantonese about nothing really, maybe grumbling about a dickering negotiation of a ten-yuan transaction with a customer. They sell low-cost merchandise that we call 出口转内销, export turned domestic sales, suggesting that the products were supposed to have been sold overseas. Locals favor this type of offering, as it upholds a higher international standard. One guy bites a still-lit cigarette and yells, “丢,鸡肠字!” “F--k, chicken intestine!” Excuse my French. (Wait, excuse my Chinese?) He’s not actually talking about the intestines of a chicken. It’s a snap phrase for frustration in my language. He is trying to read the instructions on a package, but everything is written in English. He can’t understand. He’s irritated. English as a lingua franca in today’s increasing globalization creates overwhelming chicken intestines, on screens—internet or the traditional TV—and on the packaging of merchandise. You can’t avoid it. English is everywhere. 

         I never used this phrase chicken intestine 鸡肠字, but the image keeps knocking at my door. In any language, words signal class and status. In my mind back then, the phrase signaled low in Cantonese, countryside and street low. In my home, we never would have sat with our knees raised to the table like that, nor spoken in certain ways. It simply wasn’t done. I wonder why the image of these men reappears to me again today. It may be that to explain my roots, I have to look all the way down, past my once snobbish gaze. Only through penetrating the earth can I ground my thinking, can I decipher, can I and my being possibly cohere.  

         In the Cantonese imagination, chicken intestine mimics the shape of English writing. Consider the cursive. It’s to juxtapose the two written languages and find nothing in common, only differences on all counts. It’s our sense of pride rooted from the distinctive, square shaped Chinese character, the pictorial depiction of meaning that carries out vivid and tangible imagination. It’s this culture’s self-admiration that, unlike the curvy lines to form shapes and sounds, each Chinese word contains an image or multiple images to tell a story.

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        The traditional writing of 聽, listening (enlarged above), for example, tells us listening is king (lower left), that to listen not only does it take physical ears (upper left) but it involves ten eyes (upper right) to imply a tremendous concentration, and one heart (lower right) as wholeheartedness in the act of listening. What wisdom a single character has shown. 

         I want to believe that learning to write words such as 聽 stroke by stroke teaches us to be better listeners. Although I can’t take apart all characters and learn about each one of the stories behind them, it humbles me to explain listening to my fellow Americans, to my students in my communication classrooms, by drawing out the image of the character. It never fails that each time a student will ask: how many of us truly listen today? 

         And this is only one word. There are seventy thousand Chinese characters. The system was so complicated, which means elitist, that only 20 percent of the population in China was literate when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Mao Zedong reformed and simplified Chinese characters in the fifties. 听 is the simplified version of “listening” that we write. It contains 口 (mouth) on the left, and the word 斤 (a weight measurement equal to 500 g) on the right. There is a Chinese idiom 斤斤计较 to mean fussing over the minor matters. Does listening today mean something different than in the past? Does the mouth in the simplified character give us permission to be more verbal while listening? Does the character unwisely simplify the act of listening, so instead of taking the time to listen from the heart, we haggle over trivia? This simplification results in a loss in the original storytelling, but because of the simplification of thousands of Chinese characters, the entire population quickly became literate. In two decades, 80 percent of the people in Beijing could read a newspaper. Today, the estimated national literacy rate is 95 percent. So what is better, 聽 or 听? Do we have to trade our heart for a mouth to be widely understood? 

         Simplified or traditional, learning to write Chinese takes dedication. In school, we learned to write using repetition and drills with practice sheets like this one:

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          This phrase 好好学习天天向上 is one of the famous Chairman Mao quotes: “Study hard and make progress every day.”


         You need about three thousand characters in your brain to start reading the newspaper, but to pursue intellectual reading and writing, at least eight thousand. I remember tracing each stroke of a newly learned character in the square box and repeating it so many times that it became second nature. We write characters stroke by stroke. Each word has its own structure built from the foundation. There is no shortcut, only perseverance. 

         Sometimes we learned through Chinese calligraphy. My favorite of all. First I learned how to hold the writing brush. The specific way of holding is crucial. Older generations remind the young that by establishing a good habit, you’ve already succeeded halfway. I might have been six or seven years old, my little right hand holding a brush wrapped by my father’s big palm to practice the grip of this ancient writing tool. His command, steady and controlled, guided me first and then I traced alone, then later writing without a sketch, without a layout, all on my own. Like life. 

In this tracing and mimicking, I learned to write:


         中国共产党万岁 Viva La Chinese Communist Party

         中华人共和国万岁 Viva La People’s Republic of China

         毛主席万岁 Viva La Chairman Mao 


         Chinese calligraphy demands many details. You are supposed to sit up straight. The brush should be held strictly upright. You should hold the brush rather firmly but keep your arm relaxed. In the classroom, pupils cleared everything from their desks during calligraphy sessions. We placed the ink bottles on the right corners but not too close to the edge or they might fall. The brush holder was next to it to rest the brush whenever needed. If you happened to walk by, you would see a uniform posture, all sitting straight and squarely in their place. The space smelled of ink and exuded nothing but tranquility. The lampblack or soot odor might be unpleasant for others, but for me it is mildly soothing. Silence was enforced, as any sound would interfere with flow. We learned to be calm and composed at an early age, that something can be made, and can be unbroken, as long as you have peace. Today, whenever I meditate, I remember that space. I can almost smell ink. 

         But somehow I don’t remember any lefties in that room. Maybe there were none? So many rules, so many specific “right ways.” Lefties might have been “corrected” and made to look the same as everybody else. I have been a righty all my life. It’s natural for me. My way has always been the right way. When you are a norm, and in a room full of people like you, you don’t think about exceptions. You just be. But did the lefties, if there were any, ever think of explaining themselves? Ever think of trying to make their differences allowed? 

         I can’t help but wonder why Chinese written symbols, 汉字 Hanzi, are called characters. It may be to contrast with the letter symbols, the chicken intestine, I am writing here, but doesn’t “character” also mean who we are? The slow learning of Chinese characters and their meaning gives me a theory that, as a culture, we became introspective and in-drawn. It shapes us to bestow patience, maybe, or a tendency to be silent. What’s more to me is how Chinese writing bodily instructs me to conform. Every trace trained me to properly organize a word into a set box. My body doesn’t tilt or lean, so the steadiness may ensure a character is squarely situated, evenly spread out, not too much to the left or right, just settled in the middle. Each word, each character has its own place. That box. I don’t go outside of it and I don’t make a mess inside either. I, like anybody who writes Chinese freely, no longer need the box but know all too well how to maintain that center. There is an invisible box that keeps our characters in place, as if there is a voice whispering in our ears, “Stay in there!”

         We write square characters. We are square characters. 

         One day, the square-and-settle meets chicken intestine, the two incompatible worlds collide in the square-and-settle’s mind. It suddenly makes sense to me why learning English felt safe when it was about grammar, as it gave me rules to follow, boxes or boundaries, if you will. When you enter an uncharted territory, you are eager to find rules. To me, I was, maybe still am, eager to look for boxes. 

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