Conversations with my Chinese teacher

14 Mar

I get along very well with H., my Chinese teacher. Apart from teaching me Mandarin, we actually talk about lots of other things and ask each other questions about our respective countries and cultures. She’s been teaching foreigners for a long time and therefore is very exposed to Europeans and Americans. Less so to people from the Middle East, so she sometimes asks me what’s going on Syria these days. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the Chinese media convey very matter-of-factly information, such as: “there are some skirmishes between a faction of the population and the government.” We then had a whole conversation about the Arab spring and she didn’t know what the word “dictatorship” meant.

Other times, she gets really perplexed about some specific issues pertaining to western culture and asks me about them. I think she perceives me as somehow mid-way between a Westerner and non-Westerner, having lived in Europe for a long time and being familiar with it, whilst not being a European myself.

The other day, she told me in a very serious way: “Lì Yà, I need to ask you something. Can you tell me what’s the difference between cheese, butter and mayonnaise?” So I explained to her that mayonnaise, even though it is white, is not a dairy product, how you could derive different products out of milk through either fermentation or concentrating fat. Likewise, the sequence of a “western” meal was very alien to her. She didn’t fancy butter and bread (Chinese eat neither). Aside from the fact that she thinks there are too many dishes, what she finds the least logical is the alternation of hot and cold dishes. “But how can I eat ice cream after eating a warm dish?” From what I’ve understood so far about the Chinese conception of the body and philosophy of eating is that you have to maintain the balance of your guts (and by extension of your whole body). So you shouldn’t brutalise it by eating really warm food and then iced food or the other way around.

She also doesn’t mind me asking questions about China. I also enquired about the sequence of Chinese meals (tea, cold (room temperature) appetizers, hot appetizers, main course, rice to make sure you’re full if you haven’t eaten enough of the rest, and I think desert is more of a western influence), about Chinese manners and other things derived from our lessons. I refrain from asking anything directly relating to politics, periods of Chinese history or other sensitive issues. I let her do the talking and every now and then she expresses quite strong opinions about some policy and other governance issues, but without ever elaborating too much. However I do get to tease her sometimes and she’s always taken it well, even on Mao, who apparently comes from her hometown in the province of Hunan. She was once explaining to me how the hometowns of various presidents became really wealthier or experienced economic booms due to the guānxi (i.e. almighty personal relationships or networks – good luck doing business in China without the guānxi) with the government of the time. So I told her, with unambiguous extra sarcastic enthusiasm: “Yeah well this guy may come from this town and this other one from that town, but surely no one beats Mao Zedong!” And it made her laugh!

One Response to “Conversations with my Chinese teacher”

  1. what to talk about on a first date 25 March 2012 at 10:39 #

    Hi, We sent an e mail (regarding the previous article). Does the “website” e-mail work?

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