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The Man who Speaks Chinese (fiction)

I never took a train in America. I did take one in France, but only to Caen when I got there and back to Paris when I left. Here in China, I take the train every chance I get. I don’t like flying. Or taking the bus, for that matter. There’s just something about on a train that brings you closer to the China, that real China in between Beijing and Guangzhou, even as you’re soaring through it was 300 km per hour.

You have two main options when buying a train ticket: sleep or sit. Those two are further divided: hard sleep or soft sleep, hard sit or soft sit. I always pick the hard sleep and you have three beds stacked in a room. On some trains you have a door you can close, on some you don’t. You have a little alcove for your bags, and everyone puts their shoes under the bottom bed. We have a small table and an electric kettle for water or tea.

All I have is my backpack so I keep it with me in the bed. I am supposed to be in the very top, where if you lean up you’ll hit the ceiling. As the train’s been rolling along for about an hour now, I don’t think anyone else is coming. It’s just me.

And the woman in the other bed.

She’s Chinese, and I couldn’t place her age to save my life. I have my iPod out. I’m watching Chinese Fairytales, the little you get unless you’re willing to shell out you hard-earned kuai or go hunting on the torrent sites. She says something, and I pause my iPod.


What is your name?

Isn’t this typical? They think I don’t understand Chinese. They think no foreigners understand Chinese, like it’s some kind of riddle suited to brains born in the middle kingdom. It’s not a riddle. It’s a fucking language, and I can learn any language in the world. I proved that long ago.

Wo jiao Jia Xin.

Very good. My name is Molly.

Your Chinese na – ni de zhongwen mingzi ne?

Mo Li.

Dui ni hen heshi.

She smiles. She says, Your Chinese is very good. My English, it is just so-so.

Your English is fine, I tell her, and so far, I think it is. The question you have to ask, when judging someone’s fluency in a foreign language, is if they can produce. Not repeat. Not state planned phrases. Production. Are the assembly lines in there shipping natural English? Or is it Chinese, warped into this weird-sounding language with its even weirder grammar rules and spelling?

There’s really only one way to find out.

Do you like trains?

She shakes her head. This tells me nothing, so I press on.

Why not?


I translate this into my head. Uncomfortable. Bu shufu. I tell her as much, and she nods vigorously.

Yes, uncomfortable, she says. I do not like trains, but I cannot drive. What to do?

She laughs.

I laugh too, timing it just right. There’s an art to making fake laughter sound real. If you can convince someone that your laughter is genuine, and not just more noise to pass the time, then the look that comes on their faces is amazing.

Just as hers is.

Can you drive? she asks.

In America I can.

Where in America are you from?

The way she structures the question is different from the way they usually structure it. It takes me a moment to process this.

I am from Tennessee.


She probably doesn’t know what that is, so I say the Chinese name, tian na xi, and ask, Do you know it?

I know this place.

Really? How?

I read about it in a newspaper.

I almost ask which newspaper. But I think she’s lying, and while there are some people who need to be called on their bullshit, she is not one of them. So I keep it to myself.

Why do you come to China?

The most dreaded of all questions. I think what makes it so bad is its deceptive simplicity. In theory, it should be simple, right? You didn’t come here for no reason. So what’s the reason? And I suppose in real jobs, the answer might be My boss sent me or My expertise led me here. For English teaching, it’s a creative writing seminar.

I like to travel, I say.

I don’t like the smile she gives me. I don’t like my answer either, and neither does she. It’s a terrible, evasive answer.

As I’m thinking of what to add, she says, How long have you been in China?

She asks the question perfectly. My students tend to ask, How long ago did you come to China?, or variations thereof. But such a perfect question…I left America for the second time four months ago, and I feel like I’m on the verge of another homecoming.

Four years, I tell her. I won’t…I can’t explain year I spent in America. I can’t explain my wife either. I add, A long time, right?

Not as long as me.

I can’t help myself. I grin, and ask, How long have you been in China?

She’s giggling, trying not to cover her mouth with her hands and thus the words that came staggering our.

Twenty-eight years.

You’re twenty-eight?

She holds a finger to her lips. It’s a secret, she says.

I hold a finger to my lips. Mine’s a secret too, I say. I’m full of secrets.

Her giggles die down.

Er ba shi sui, I say.

No no no.

I go warm all over. What does she mean, no no no?

We say like this: er shi ba sui. Wo er shi ba sui. Ni ne? She’s smiling, and I’m doing anything but. I know Chinese —I can learn any language in the world, and in my two years here prior to all this, I did not just dick around. I learned the language. I had a wife, for fuck’s sake!

Her smile is starting to fade. How much of my hand am I showing? I quickly say, Shi yi ge…and I don’t know the word for secret.

Another secret.

She gives a quick hum.

I try to calm down. It’s a mistake, people make mistakes. Some people though…

They make too many mistakes.

All they do is make mistakes.

Do you have a girlfriend? she asks.

I finish calming myself. This sort of question does not mean an invitation to date. She is just curious, though she may like me. Does she? Is she married? Would it matter if she were? She’s a sweet, nice person.

But what the hell did she mean, no no no?

I do not.

Are you married?

Mei you lao po. I lean in. Ni ne?


Are you married?

No, she says, the word shooting out her mouth like a dart. I am not yet married.

You’re closing in on that age. You know…

I know. Many people, they pressure me to find a husband.

And then have a baby.


And then save money.

Yes! How do you know?

I…and this is it. Should I tell her? What harm would there be in telling her? If we end up in a relationship, she’ll find out anyways. I say, I was married.

You are married?

No. I was married.

Oh. Interesting.

Interesting. She does not ask why I said this in the past tense, and I’m grateful. I’ve had a hard enough time explaining it to myself.

Was she a Chinese girl?

Yes, I say. She’s Chinese.

Where is she now?

Home. Catching her look, I add, Here. In China.

How did you meet with each other?

I stop myself from correcting her. Meet with. No need for with. Just meet. I then steer myself away from her mistake – this is not a class, and I’m not giving a lesson. Plus, I cannot expect everyone to be as good at languages as I am. Not everyone can score a 160 on the DLAB.

She’s waiting for an answer.

I met her at the first university I worked at.

Was she a student?

Why all the fucking questions? I’m not talking to her to be interrogated. I show none of this. I’m an expert at showing others what I want them to see. Ask anyone who knows me to name my top three best qualities, and they’ll all tell you the same things: smart, honest, and full of integrity.

No, I say. She was not a student. I intercept the next question early: She worked at the university, in the international office.

Oh. I see.

She sees. How much though?

And what was that shit about no no no?

I’m lying down. Now I sit up and spread the curtain. The Chinese countryside passing in the dark. Distant mountains. Collections of buildings, some as old as the revolution itself. Some to survive, others to fall victim to China’s development. I have seen time and time again.

I like to watch what we pass, I say. It’s nice. Do you think it’s nice?

She stares intently out the window. Another train rips through the view for a second.

It’s my country, she says. None of this is new to me.

That strikes a chord. None of it is new to her. All of its new to me. Two years really isn’t enough to see it all. Guess I just had to come back.

It’s an amazing place, I say. Much better than America.

You think China is better than the USA?

I pretend to think on her question. As if there’s anything to consider. For me, this isn’t even a question. When you graduate owing over 100 grand plus interest to the government, for a degree not worth wiping your ass with, you begin to look for the escape hatch. I found mine, labeled The Middle Kingdom. I just didn’t know that I’d have to use it twice.

I’m thinking too much. I always do that. If you asked my friends to name three of my faults, they’d say he thinks too much. I don’t know what they’d say for the other two. Hell, what could they say? I can’t think of anything.

May I ask you a question?

I study her for a moment. What’s her angle here? Let me ask you a question, honey, do you really think I’m going to give you gossip fodder with your friends, about the weird foreigner you met on the train with the ex-wife who’s Chinese? A man talented at languages, who made a 160 on the DLAB? Tell them that, little girl.

I almost tell her that. How much longer can I hold out?

Sure thing.

Why did you and your wife seperate?

I fumble around various answers before settling on one.

She didn’t like life in America, I say, the words coming out of my mouth on tainted air. She wanted to come back home.

She hums something.

Then I decided to come back too, I say. The way she’s eyeing me. I don’t like it. You spend long enough around these people, and you see that look. You know what it is. I say, I made a 160 on the DLAB.

She gives me a blank look.

The DLAB, I say, slowly. A new look on her face, and I like it. I sit up straight. The Defense Language Aptitude Battery. Are you aware of what that is?


Defense. Language. Aptitude. Battery.

She’s quiet.

It tests your ability to learn a foreign language.

She’s still quiet.

I made a 160. Highest score is a 175.

Still quiet.

That’s a very good score.

At last, she makes noise. A simple hum.

Either she doesn’t understand. Or she doesn’t care. I see the way her eyes dart elsewhere. I see her fingers curling around her jeans.

She doesn’t care.

I was supposed to join the Army. Do you know what that is?

I know what the Army is. We have one here in China too.

Jun dui, I say, keeping my tones perfect but fluent. An impressive feat to pull off. For most people.

That means Army, I add. I was trying to join the meiguo jun dui.

—Why not? I laugh. She doesn’t. Either she doesn’t understand. Or…

I thought it would be best for me, I say. And at first, it seemed to be. I blew away the ASVAB, then the DLAB, then I chose my job and everything seemed fine. The big problem was the wait. I signed up in June, had to wait until next March. Plenty of time for them to do their background investigation though.

The words are pouring out of me. People who can control their words demonstrate that they can control themselves. But I haven’t told anyone about this. Even my own friends back home, many of whom haven’t bothered to contact me in over a year, they don’t have a clue. For all they knew, they with their jobs, I never left China at all.

She has scooted a little down the bed.

At the interview, they asked me a bunch of questions. He couldn’t understand how talented I am at languages, how that is what I need to do, how it’s do that or nothing else. He couldn’t understand. I tried to make him understand. But he couldn’t understand.

She’s not saying anything now.

I never said a word to my recruiter.

She’s starting to stand.

I am supposed to ship in a few weeks.

She’s fully standing. God, she can’t be but four feet tall. I eye her up and down. Cute, too.

What’s up?

I go, she says carefully.

Go where?

She’s taking her bag down from the top. I go to help her, and she backs away from me.

I must go, she says, rounding the o in go. She gets the bag down. I take a step towards her, and she about crashes through the door.

Wait, I say. Let’s practice some Chinese. Ni hao ma?

I’m going, she says, more strongly. Without another word, she slides open the door and hurries down the hall. I head out into it.

Zai jian ba! I call out after her.

She does not look back. She heading away, away, away, and now she’s gone. I stand there in the hall for a minute. People behind me are staring at me – I can sense it. I hope they don’t have the wrong impression. The girl just had somewhere else she needed to be.

I hope they don’t have the wrong impression.

I head back in the room and sit looking out the window. I am muttering to myself about everything that happened. We went to America full of hope and I lost every last ounce of it there. I tell myself what I told myself the day I emailed my old FAO and did everything but beg for my old job back: it will be okay. It has to be. I scored a 160 on the DLAB which means I can learn any language in the world. It has to be okay.

Back out in the hall, I unhook one of their little seats from the wall and sit. I barely fit on it. Out the window I can see more of the countryside between Shanghai and Wuhan. Does she live in Wuhan? If so, maybe I can catch her at the station and explain what’s going on.

Wuhan awaits me. Nine million people, plus a handful of foreigners. And me. I am good at languages. Good enough to learn Chinese.

I am talented. The train rocks a little as another passes by.

I hope she can understand that.

May I kiss you? May I ask a question?

I’m tired of tone jokes.

I call them “tone jokes” for lack of a better term. You know what I’m talking about. Whenever a mainstream media outlet wants to demonstrate how difficult Chinese is, they find a syllable with the same sounds but different tones, and the tonal difference gives the syllables vastly different meanings.

The use of this trope betrays any real knowledge of Chinese at all. Depending on the word, it is very unlikely that in context a native speaker would take 问 wen4, to ask, with 吻 wen3, to kiss. Not only can I not imagine a context in which someone would take 请问 qing3 wen4 to mean May I kiss you?, I can’t even imagine why you’d have to ask in the first place.

Kissing is just one of those things where if you have to ask, it’s probably a bad idea.

Plump & Smokin

I left the United States for China at a solid 177 lbs, and two and a half years later I left the Middle Kingdom at a plump 208.

I attribute my weight gain to two things: smoking and food. Food was abundant throughout my time in China. When I visited my wife’s hometown for any occassion, my wonderful in-laws made sure I was well-fed at all times. My wife too; I would eat my portion, and then she’d feed me part of her portion too. I thought about refusing, but it just seemed rude. And besides,

The food was so damn good.

Different regions of China have their specialties. Wuhan has a few, my favorite being re gan mian, or hot dry noodles. The thing is, for my first year in China, I refused to touch them. They looked nasty. While I gorged on Muslim noodles (ji dan chao da shao mian), I left re gan mian alone. I have always regretted my decision; had I known how good re gan mian is earlier, 208 might have been more a goal than an embarrassment.

Granted, my first experience with noodles in China was not a pleasant one. My third day in China I strolled onto the backstreet and ordered a bowl of cold street vendor noodles all by myself. And just to show you I had my big-boy pants on that day, I pointed to the ingredients I wanted without the slightest shake in my finger.

It was the first, but certainly not the last time a bad food choice in China acquianted me with the bathroom.

Stir-fried tomato and eggs was among the first Chinese dishes I ate, and throughout my time in China it remained both my favorite and my most consistent. I learned how to say it quickly, and when in doubt, I could go to a restaurant, say the words and have something to eat. Lunch, tomato and eggs. Dinner, tomato and eggs.


At first, breakfast was McDonald’s. We were fortunate enough to have this bastion of American Imperial Dominance (AIDs) in a strip mall right in front of campus. Open twenty-four hours, I’d usually go there to get their large coffee, which meant to replicate the American large, I had to get two. Sometimes there or four. As for the food, my breakfasts were often McDonald’s meals, and later an occassional helping of oats, maybe with some bread from Semeur de Pain. Everytime I walked into McDonald’s, the man or woman behind the counter placed a picto-chart in front of me, sparing me the embarassment of trying out my burgeoning Pu Tong Hua abilities.

I did quickly learn to say “da bei ka fei, dai zou”.

Let’s go on to the other aspect of the weight gain: smoking. I had been something of a social smoker in America, and the first cigarette I smoked in China came courtesy of another teacher. I was going to take a walk to the local Carrefour, only to find myself ambushed by this other teacher, who was on his way to an interview with a local middle school as part of his scheme to get out of ESL teaching. The moment we sat down for the interview, the headmaster handed us both cigarettes.

The buzz was intense. I sat in that chair listening to my colleague explain that he could not teach the students Chemistry because they lacked the English to understand it, at perfect ease. And when this cigarette was out, and my eas began to subside, the headmaster helpfully offered us more.

I became a regular smoker for my first several months in China. At first, it was a lark; I had free time, in an exotic land, and I could really do anything I wanted. So I smoked. Later, as the Hubei winter set in and I began to wade through what I felt was an existential swamp, as the honeymoon ended and something else began, I kept on smoking.

I certainly found no shortage of discouragement, especially in a city like Wuhan. And seeing some men working, manning the counters at stores the size of bedrooms here and then going in the back and sleeping in a cot or on the floor, I could not blame them for having a cigarette between their lips. Likewise, I cannot blame anyone else for doing so; as one co-worker put it, “Smoking helps pass the time.”

And if you get to the point in life, well, chances are you’re pretty much dead anyway.

First, the Intellectuals

The University of Tennessee has implemented an experimental new teaching technique where at the end of each lecture, they take the professor out back, and shoot him in the head.

I thought it’d be weird at first, but you know what?

It really works. Not only does it eliminate digressions, thus forcing him to get to the point, but it also adds, to an otherwise stale lecture, a great sense of urgency.

Especially near the end.


The big Two-One

At midnight on October 19, 2006, I turned 21 and went to Buffalo Wild Wings. I ran up to the bar, ordered a beer, awaiting the moment where I could finally show my ID, without a thumb over my date of birth.

The bartender set my bottle down. “That’ll be a buck fifty.”

A classic moment that never was. Thanks a lot. Asshole.


My 25th birthday was my third, and as of this writing, last birthday in China. I spent the day playing Starcraft 2.

The previous birthday (24), we went out to Papa John’s. It is to be expected that Papa John’s in Wuhan, China, is somewhat different than Papa John’s in, say, Jackson TN. Truth is, it’s different from every Tennessee Papa John’s I’ve ever been to. Gone is the standing room only front room where you pick up your order and the bored woman manning the register asks if you want something to drink with your order.

The place is a real restaurant. Hostesses greet you at the door. They have beer and wine, as well as different sorts of ice cream and what highclass restaurant in China would be complete without exhorbinantly-priced coffee in small sizes? They got it. Say what you want about the coffee selection, when you’ve been living on Nescafe Instant Coffee, this shit is gourmet.

So how’s the pizza? Not good, compared to what I have here in the States. They say Old School down by Wuhan University is the real place to go for pizza. I wouldn’t know — the night I went, their oven was broke. I had chicken alfredo.

Birthday 23 was my first birthday in China. We went to KTV. It was one of those 100 RMB an hour KTVs. Before I went, I had all sorts of ideas about what KTV would be like. I had the weird idea that it might be fun, or at least, remotely comfortable.

It was neither.

I’m a terrible singer, and according to some of the girls there, I did not sing passionately enough. It’s hard to feel passionate about Yesterday Once More. If you don’t already hate that song, trust me, after a few KTV trips, you will. And the trip  wasn’t even special for me; when we got there, people were already there, and more showed up after we left. I paid 300 RMB, and I even had to leave some money for the others who showed up later.

I went to two of my brother-in-law’s birthdays. Both began at Jiulong with plenty of cigarettes and booze, and shifted over to a KTV with plenty of cigarettes and booze. Yeah, I know, it’s KTV, but hey, at least they keep things consistent.

Birthday 26 was celebrated here in the States with a cake and pizza. I’m inching closer to thirty. People in my life have told me that after thirty it’s all downhill. That’s complete bullshit.

And besides, if sixty is the new forty, then what does that make thirty?


I hate it when expat bloggers drop 汉字 into their blog posts, and expect you to know the meaning. It’s rather 麻烦.