February 5, 2008

People's Square

Originally uploaded by ryry9379
Today I did a walking tour of the area in & around People's Square (Renmin Guangchang). The tour included a 2-hour stop in the Shanghai Urban Planning & Exhibition Hall. The highlight of this museum is a giant model of the city, in full 3D and lit up when the lights dim, that takes up 75% of the third floor. It's amazing to look at. I took a couple pictures of it in the set, but these pictures hardly do the model justice.

Afterwards I wandered around the area just taking some pictures of the buildings. I stopped in a small little eatery and had some fried rice & dumplings. Man, I really love the dumplings. They're so good. I get them whenever I can.

I had small conversations with people throughout the trip. I asked a street guard where Renmin Ave. was. (I knew the answer, but I just wanted to see if he could understand me. He did!) I talked a little bit with my waitresses, but nothing major. I even tried to talk with the staff at the public toilet (which costs 0.6 kuai to use, btw). But these conversations were limited to Wo shi meiguoren and other teeny-tiny phrases.

I feel like a dope when I can't understand people. It's actually pretty discouraging. And it happens a lot for two reasons: 1) people talk quickly, and 2) they use words I don't know. And by "quickly" I mean "normal speed for people who understand Chinese." They repeat words again, slower and louder/clearer, but it's lost on me if I don't actually know the word. It's very frustrating and humiliating to not be able to order a meal at KFC without pointing at this special menu they have for the lao wai. (Yes, I've eaten at KFC -- so sue me :-)

I knew before I came here that I'd feel this way. And actually I was looking forward to it. You know why? Because now I know what it feels like to be the newcomer who can't speak with anyone outside a pre-determined circle of people. That's a perception that not everybody gets to have. And it's very alienating. Especially because I like being nice to people and chit-chatting with them, but I can't do it here in the way that I want. So I feel like I can't be myself when I'm out alone, unless I happen to meet someone who speaks English. Therefore, regardless of what these people think of me when I'm around them, they are not seeing who I am.

So I'm looking at it from that point of view. But, you know, I've only been here a month. And I'm trying to practice all the time -- that's all I can really do, right? Hopefully at some point I can at least understand people. But I have no idea how long that'll take.

However, I did understand my waitress when I asked for the check. She just said Wu shi wu, or 55. She had to repeat it three times, but I got it :-) You know, now that I think about it, I probably should have asked for a paper receipt instead of just going with what she told me. But it seemed reasonable based on what I saw from the menu, haha. And I did have a small conversation in Chinese with Justin on Sunday night, too. So that was encouraging.

Learning Chinese while being in China is just like learning a programming language. In both situations, you have this system, out there, that you have to interact with. And in your head, you know what you want it to do. But it doesn't understand your English that you've worked 20+ years at perfecting. You speak at it in English, and it doesn't do squat. So you have to learn how to talk with it.

You start by learning the basics. Then you write one small "Hello world!" program, which here I guess is like taking a taxi somewhere successfully or ordering food all by yourself. This is your first test. Does the system respond the way you want it to? Do all the characters print onscreen? When you tell the taxi driver "Fuxing Lu", does he take you there or to Xingfu Lu instead? (Both of these are actual streets in Puxi, and they're pretty close to one another.) I guess that's what I'm doing right now.

But it's fun to watch the system respond correctly to my inputs. For example, in a bar telling someone that they're drunk, at my office asking my co-workers if they want to go eat lunch now, or in a taxi telling the driver that the guy who just cut you off is insane, or asking the guard where Renmin Ave. is. In these situations I have seen the system produce the expected output, and it's made me happy. These are my "Hello world!" programs, and they're not all perfect, but they compile and execute and return results that are mostly similar to what I expect. I get excited when, for example, I asked the waitress today if the restaurant had watermelon, and she said "No, we don't have it", and I understood her.

What I'm doing now is, again, working on parsing the results. This can be a problem in computer programming too, as any of you who've done it (or even used Adobe Photoshop) will understand. Many programs spit out incomprehensible error messages, and in a similar fashion, when I ask someone a question in Chinese, I seldom am able to understand the response :-)

God damn, I'm a dork.

The good thing is that I'm getting better at adjusting my camera's flash, f-stop, and exposure time manually. Most of the pictures I took today turned out pretty good, I think, and I took 95% of them manually. It's a small hassle to adjust the settings before every single picture, but now that I'm used to having this degree of control over each photo, I'm hooked. I don't know why I wasted all those years relying solely on the automatic method. See, people -- reading manuals actually pays off :-)

Plus, I avoided another tea scam. And I feel pretty competent with a map of Shanghai, like, I have a good visual picture of the city in my head. That's pretty helpful.

The fireworks are beginning. I've been hearing them sporadically, like maybe once or twice a week, for the past two weeks. But last night there were a ton of them, and they are only getting more frequent. Actually, I'm hearing some as I type this :-) Tomorrow is New Year's Eve when the big shows go on. People tell me the fireworks go on for literally hours. I'll venture out to Shiji Gongyuan and try to get some pictures and/or videos. I wanna try and catch a parade, too.


AuntI said...

Hi Ry,
I know you might not see this comment but I especially loved this posting. It would make a great article if you sent it somewhere in the U.S. The parallels between programming/systems and language learning are great. P.S. Most people wouldn't even attempt what you are doing :-)
Aunt I.

bluegiraffe said...

Hi, Ryan. I haven't been posting comments to spare you embarrassment :), and also because you can't access the comments. But I had to say that I thought this post was brilliant. And I'm not saying that because I'm your mom. It resonated with me as a beginning (and frustrated at times) Spanish student, and as an English tutor. Can't wait to see you in Shanghai in May!