Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Taking the plunge

I've done it. I've internalized the fact that I'll be in Taiwan for (um, at least) another year, and I've begun seriously learning Chinese. I learned a good deal of Mandarin last year, albeit in a very informal manner. I spoke with pretty much any person I met, repeated words and phrases incessantly to myself, scribbled notes in my pad throughout the day, and the like. At the same time, I had a very frank awareness that I'd probably never need to be literate in Chinese. Consequently, I had an almost scornful disdain towards learning to read and write it. I was so determined to speak and comprehend Mandarin that I rather studiously avoided "wasting my time" with all those devilish characters. Believe it or not, this is not a decision I regret very much. Better to excel (as it were) in one linguistic faculty than hobble between all of them.

But now I've taken a more comprehensive approach to Chinese. There are many reasons for this new tack. One good reason is that my new roommate, James, is an extremely dedicated and gifted language learner. Iron sharpens iron, as the Bible says, and his studious example goads me deeper and deeper into the Mandarin maze. Yet, even before he arrived I decided, quite frankly, I wanted to be able to read menus better. For a whole year I've managed well enough by simply asking the server to read the items, which I understand apart from the written characters. But now it’s time for more independence; my palate demands it.

The latest reason for my new gusto for learning has come as a surprise: learning Chinese characters is actually kind of fun! Some of them are very clever. For example, the word for "short" (ai-3)[1] is a combination of arrow, grain and female, all three of which are, in their classes, shorter. In effect, ai-3 says "short, short, short." A second example, one of my recent favorites, is fen-1, "divide." Fen-1 is comprised of two inward-slanted lines, separated by a slight gap, atop what looks like a D without the bottom slope (or sort of like a large italicized lowercase "n"). The broken lines are ba-1 ("eight") and the crippled D is dao-1 ("knife"). Thus, fen-1 shows a knife apparently cutting a line in half, or dividing the number eight. Nifty, eh?

Of course, part of the fun in learning these characters is writing them in the only proper way: with a bamboo brush (bi-3). My technique is horrible, and the results are pretty infantile, but it helps me learn. And it's such a soothing activity. The simple black lines woven together into simple black words are just so sumptuous on the thick white sketch paper I use. Practicing characters is, in fact, the closest thing to an artsy hobby I've ever had. I'm an awful drawer, a worse painter, and only a cheerfully mediocre potter. My brother got all the art genes; I got most of the literary genes, which is quite likely why I enjoy writing characters so much. It's literary art. Even years before I had the slightest thought of breaching an Asian culture, it's an art that has always held an instinctive appeal for me.

As you may know, I love jazz. One of my favorite albums, and one of the best albums of all time, is Miles Davis's *Kind of Blue*. Some years ago I got a spiffy new edition of that classic album and was reading the liner notes. I can't recall right now whether this was Miles' intention, or if it was simply the way the band worked together, or whether it was just the writer's own metaphor, but each track of *Kind of Blue* flows like a single harmonic movement, a movement the liner essayist compared to an old Japanese art. The art consisted of a person moving a brush over a large delicate sheet of paper as fluidly as possible. The key was quite literally to "go with the flow." Anxious hesitation or overly cerebral manipulation ruined the work: the brush would puncture the paper, leaving the artist with nothing. Ideally, the brush led the artist, rather than the artist merely slapping down a perfect piece. That art has always struck me as indescribably beautiful, as a sort of aesthetic tai chi (or some equally inaccurate simile).

Like I said, I'm no artist; but I do get a sense of the beauty of seamless fluidity when I write Chinese characters. The stroke order is designed to move in an efficient and, optimally, elegant way. As you might guess, my theory on all this is vastly superior to my performance. It's nice to have goals, though. In the meantime, I'll keep poring over menus and chilling to Miles Davis at the sonic canvas.

[1] This form of transliterating Chinese is based on the Yale system. The Yale system uses a basic phonetic alphabet and a hyphenated number to indicate the sounds and tone of the character. It’s not the most accurate system, and certainly the ugliest, but it’s easy to type.

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