The lessons of AnNa

Anna is a graduate Chinese student, training to teach Chinese as a Foreign Language. She lives in a room with four or five other women, in a building without a bathroom (it’s across the street…) or water (that has to be brought separately). She recently took an exam to try to get a placement teaching English in Kenya, as she’d really like to go abroad for the first time. I estimate that she’s within a year of my age (no doubt she’s told me, as most people open a conversation by asking your age when you’re in Asia, for various reasons).

Where this gets relevant is that Anna is my 辅导, or fǔdǎo, meaning “coach”. She helps me with my spoken Chinese (口语), and especially with my tīnglì (听力), or listening homework. She’s patient, and kind, to the extent that she invites me to go to places of interest with her, including restaurants and museums. Though my Chinese is improving gradually, I feel as though I’ve learnt an invaluable amount about modern Chinese culture, from our conversations.


Take her name for example. It conveniently masquerades as a familiar western name. Actually, it has a deeper meaning, 娜 “na” is a sound which indicates her position in her household, 安 “an” means “peace,still, calm”, and is a key component of the word ānquán (安全) meaning “safety”. So much for my initial assumptions!

She’s taught me about “banana people”, who appear Asian by appearence, but act and think like westerners, especially Americans and Europeans, hence they’re “white” on the inside, like a banana. I am reliably informed that Rupert Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi Deng, is perceived in China as being such a person.

Another topic has been the perception of unmarried women in China, especially those over the age of 26\27. Anna’s tutor here recommended, and actually implored female students in her class not to continue with further study after Master’s level unless they were engaged. This is because, according to a popular Chinese joke; “there are three types of people on the Earth, men, women, and women with a PhD”. A news story covered by the BBC further illustrates this sad perception of often highly educated women, see:

The idea suggested by the joke actually reminded me of an academic theory about there having been “three genders” in Medieval Europe. Men, women, and the clergy/ monastic segment of society, who were unavailable for marriage. It’s a similar concept, and a strange echo, which only becomes disturbing when you consider that contemporary Chinese society is effectively expecting women to choose from their mid-twenties between academia and the possibility of marriage or family life. Unlike in Medieval Europe, there will be no glorification for those who choose the former. They will not be seen as having benefitted themselves and their family in this world and the next, unlike those generations of holy women.

On a more light-hearted note, Anna has also shown me numerous occasions where modern Chinese society seamlessly blends what could be described as “high”  (elite, conservative) and “low” culture (popular and rapidly-changing). For example, on QQ, a popular Chinese social network, one of the most common usernames is the Chinese characters for “The Catcher in the Rye”. J. D Salinger’s classic, which just so happens to be compulsory reading for most Junior High school students here. Who knew? Especially as I’m not even sure what exactly the title depicts!

Lastly, and continuing the literary theme, is the etymology of the word “Baidu” -百度 – China’s main search engine. Well, if you thought BING, Yahoo, and Google were odd choices of name, wait until you read some translations (courtesy of Anna!) of the classic Chinese poetry where the sense, and true meaning of “Baidu” is supposed to originate;

The Lantern Festival Night –
to the tune of Green Jade Table, by Xin Qiji. (Below are three different English translations).

“One night’s east wind adorns a thousand trees with flowers
And blows down stars in showers.
Fine steeds and carved cabs spread fragrance en route;
Music vibrates from the flute;
The moon sheds its full light
While fish and dragon lanterns dance all night.
In gold-thread dress, with moth or willow ornaments,
Giggling, she melts into the throng with trails of scents
But in the crowd once and again
I look for her in vain.
When all at once I turn my head,
I find her there where lantern light is dimly shed.”

“The east wind at night has flowered a thousand trees,
Bringing showers of glowing stars down streets,
Fleeting our scented chariots and stately steeds.
Phoenix-cooing flutes resounding,
Jade-pot-flashing lanterns revolving,
Dolphins and dragons are dancing away–
All night long it’s bright as day.
See the grain moths silvern, the tassels golden?
See the snow-clad willow twigs of the maidens
Passing with laughter gurgling, fragrance floating?
Far and near, among the crowds surging,
Tens of thousands of rounds for one I’ve been searching;
Only on a glance cast backward do I behold:
There she is, where lights are burning so low!”

“Night lights a thousand trees in bloom
a shower of stars blown
by the east wind
ornate carriages drawn by gallant horses
filled the boulevards with a sweet fragrance
voice of the magic flute flowing
luster of the jade white urn turning
all night the fishes and the dragons danced
butterflies, willows, charms of gold
gone — that angelic laughter, that subtle perfume
in the crowds for her I’d searched a thousand times
perchance I turned
and there she was
where lights were few and dim”.

I like that rather than describe what it actually is, Baidu’s name is supposed to conjure up the image of what it does. It’s about constantly searching for something that you already have an idea of, but can’t quite locate. It’s about the frutile chasing of something evasive, which might eventually be glimpsed in the place you least expected, where the lanterns are dim and few. It’s a fantastic metaphor for attempting to capture the spirit of modern China.




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