How to Write About China?

Chinatraffic

Crowded streets near the Zhengzhou train station

I have been in China for a little over a month. In fact, I am one week shy of two months, and I don’t know what to say about it. There are plenty of topics from which I can choose to write a story. I could write about the air pollution. I could write about the traffic and the driving. I could talk about the cultural differences in ideas surrounding education. I could write about visiting Shaolin and what it felt like to have my picture taken as many times as some of the stunningly rebuilt temples. I could talk about what it is like to be a teacher in a program filled with China’s second generation of wealth. There is the food, the water, the toilets, the westerners there are many topics. Yet, when I face this computer screen and this blank page or when I hold a pen in my hand and stare down on to the blank sheets of paper in my journal my mind is empty, and I have nothing to say. I can write small bits and jokes on my facebook page, and make funny and hopefully entertaining videos on my youtube channel, but when I face the blank page that requires my words and thoughts I have nothing to say.

Writing is so different from talking or from jotting down a note or a quick fb post or a regulated size tweet. This is where the author can be like the painter. When your words will begin to translate your feelings. It is when you recreate your inner thoughts and experiences through figurative language in a way that guides other people to understand those thoughts and feel those experiences, maybe even pretend that they are the ones living the words on the page. This is a particular type of writing. It is the type of writing I want to do. I have these words. They are there these words. I know it. I can feel them bubbling and rising to the surface of my mind, resting on the frontal lobe and like oil they soak in between the ropes of my brain, but when I sit up they vanish. I have nothing to say.

“Use your English words.” I say this a lot in my classes. “What does that mean?” I say to a kid that is making a gesture. I know what they mean. I can easily say, “Yes you are right that is the definition,” and let it go, but instead I say, “Use words. What do you mean by that gesture.” They look at me with a pensive look, “ummm… it is very hard. I do not know the words.” The Chinese students are very good a memorizing. They are very good at taking tests. They will be able to read a paper out loud, but when you ask them to explain what they have just read they do not know. They know the words in English, but they do not understand the words. Language is complicated. It is beautiful.

I do not speak Chinese. I do not even know the words. I am an alien in China. I am different. I am isolated. I am surrounded but alone. I don’t know the words. I don’t understand. I am alone without the language. My students they know the words, but they do not understand the words, so much is lost in translation. There is no translation because the meanings are lost. It is just memorization.

Use your English words. I suppose that is where I need to begin. I can follow the advice of Raymond Carver and write a word, and then another word until I have a sentence, and then when I finish that sentence I will write another one. It’s like walking he said, “you put one foot in front of the other.”

And so I can begin at the beginning.

I moved to Zhengzhou, pronounced Jengjo, China on the 25th of August. It is a large city in the largest province, Henan, in China. There are 80 million people living in Henan. There are 9 million people living in Zhengzhou. Those numbers are not exact, but they are close. There are 600 registered westerners living in Zhengzhou. I am one of those 600 westerners.

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