落叶归根 - Reflections on China

August 2016


Yesterday, I woke up early and traveled to Tiananmen Square to see Mao Zedong’s body. The line was tremendously long, snaking around a great deal of the huge public square. Slowly and steadily, my Taiwanese roommate and I fought our way through the crowd. Finally, the end of the line was in sight. It was around this time that I felt a question flood me from deep within.

Am I Chinese?

This acute awareness of the cultural gap between the local Beijingers and me is hard to describe. I’m not your typical laowai. I look Chinese. I eat like a Chinese. Some people even say I speak like a native Chinese (they would be wrong). But the difference is subtler.

As we began to work our way through the line, I scowled at a mother and small boy cutting us. They wouldn’t be the last. Just a couple minutes later, a lady old enough to be my grandmother shoved me out of the way and hobbled ahead of me. Three overweight men to the side of me started to produce sounds similar to those of a cappuccino steamer.1 I can see why most of the ex-pats I know in China are jaded. Beijing is a tough place to live in.

But on the very same day, I saw two men fighting to give the other an empty seat on the bus.

I saw mothers gather around a tired baby to give the equally fatigued mother a much-needed respite.

I experienced kindness when my daily fruit vendor told me not to worry about paying exact change when I couldn’t find enough cash. How do you explain this crazy place to a foreigner? As Evan Osnos said, “never in modern history has China been more prosperous and functional and connected with the world—and yet, it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.”2

My Summer Story

In reflecting back on my summer trip to China, I figuratively don an interviewer’s hat and ask myself, “Well, Mr. Tiu, you’ve been in China close to three months now, what have you learned?” In such a situation, I would structure my answer in three parts:

I worked at a start-up called Pop-up Chinese4. In essence, Pop-up Chinese is a company that teaches Chinese online through interesting audio podcasts. On the very first day, my boss, David, told me, “we have some voice actors coming at 2 PM, could you write some dialogue ideas?” When the actors did finally come, David told me to take two of them and direct them on how to perform my dialogue. Directing dialogues for Chinese learning in Chinese compelled me to take a close look into what pedagogical methods are most effective in language acquisition. My Chinese improved immensely.

At Pop-up Chinese I was also a part of many interesting projects. One of my projects was to program a neural network for hanzi radical optical character recognition (OCR). I was also involved in helping to build a program called Adsotrans, which is much like other online translators but with a bigger emphasis on correct contextualization of Chinese phrases. Lastly, a great deal of my time was so spent doing audio editing; there’s nothing better for learning Chinese than to edit a Chinese learning podcast!

Chinese is hard. Immersion is key. Finding good resources (like Pop-up Chinese!) is very helpful.

2. I learned that the people here (ex-pats included) are incredible

My other assignment this summer was to help out with a podcast called Sinica, co-hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn. It was an unbelievable experience. Within the second week, we interviewed David Moser and Evan Osnos, both personal heroes of mine. All of the people we interviewed were involved in incredibly inspiring enterprises, such as Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen from Phonemica5. Last week, David Moser interviewed Mark Rowswell (better known as 大山). Even more amazingly, I got to probe the brains of these pioneers over dinner and drinks after each recording session, well, with the notable exception of Mark Rowswell. Most of these people gave me wonderful tips on how to live in China, especially regarding engaging with the community and bursting out of the ex-pat bubble.

3. I learned about myself

The title of this memoir, 落叶归根, literally means that the falling leaf returns to the roots. Coming to China has a special meaning to me. This summer I had the chance to branch out of Beijing and visit Hong Kong, where my family is originally from. Aside from the amazing food in Hong Kong (no bias here), I was delighted to finally have a limited capacity to understand the culture around me. Reading a menu in Chinese, albeit Mandarin and not Cantonese, was an astoundingly empowering experience.

This amazing summer has made me more Chinese on multiple fronts. I also had the opportunity to visit Taiwan and Hangzhou. Both places were remarkably different from Beijing. The real secret that every Chinese student knows who’s visited the mainland is that putonghua often isn’t the language spoken. During my travels I was exposed to Taiwanese, Hakka, Cantonese, aiweihua, and zhejianghua. I’d love to tackle them all, but I’ll focus on Mandarin for now.

(Bonus!) 4. Oh wait, I learned that Chinese food is the best, seriously, the best.

At the end of the very long line to see Mao Zedong, we were rushed and hushed into a long hall with lavish furnishings. In the middle of the hall was Mao Zedong’s body, entombed in a glass case. I must admit, the first thing that came to my mind was wondering how they kept his body in such pristine condition, and then it suddenly ended. The whole viewing experience lasted maybe 10 seconds, literally. While we exited the building, I turned to my roommate and said, “Hmmm.. It was short, but was it worth it?” The lady next to us scoffed and said something cloaked in heavy erhuayin. I later asked my roommate what she said. “Let’s just say,” he told me in his smooth Taiwanese-accented Chinese, “that she really didn’t think it was worth it.” China is a study in contradictions. China is worth it, but not at a 10-second glance. Beijing tourists zoom by and see the line-cutters, street-spitters, and suicidal taxis. Part-time China watchers from afar see corruption, Mao, and the party. Neither is the whole reality.

My transformation this summer in China is much like yesterday morning. I came into that line as a foreign tourist, biding my time to see a historical figure. Near the end of the wait, I was line-cutting and cursing with the best of them. Does this mean I’m Chinese now? The question still lingers.

Now, as the line fades into the departing crowd, I’m asking myself, “well Simon, was it worth it?” My visceral reaction is to spout out all the amazing 10-second moments I’ve had this summer. Though incredible sites like the Great Wall, Taipei 101, and Victoria peak, were mind-blowing, it’s the other 6 million seconds of fighting and biting this summer that made this trip worth infinitely more than just scholarship money alone.

I strongly believe that the only way to grasp China is to let it grasp you. UC Berkeley’s Huang Scholarship allowed me to do that. As I meet the future Huang Scholars, I feel a tinge of jealousy, knowing what excitement lies ahead of them. Beijing is a femme fatale – enchanting, alluring, and not completely innocuous. Alas, I cannot resist the siren’s call.

I’ll be back, Beijing. I’ll be back.


1 “David Sedaris: Chicken toenails, anyone? | Eating in China | Life and style | The Guardian .” Latest news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | theguardian.com | The Guardian.

David Sedaris' humorous comparison between the sound of spitting and that of cappuccino steamers: 'This was what I had grown accustomed to when we flew from Narita to Beijing International, where the first thing one notices is what sounds like a milk steamer, the sort a cafe uses when making lattes and cappuccinos. 'That's odd,' you think. 'There's a coffee bar on the elevator to the parking deck?' What you're hearing, that incessant guttural hiss, is the sound of one person, and then another, dredging up phlegm, seemingly from the depths of his or her soul. At first you look over, wondering, 'Where are you going to put that?' A better question, you soon realise, is, 'Where aren't you going to put it?'"

2 Osnos, Evan. “Letter from China : The New Yorker.” The New Yorker.

3 Moser, David. “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” Pinyin.

You're not alone! Chinese is hard on an absolute basis, not just a relative one.

4 “Learn Chinese.” Learn Chinese with Chinese Podcasts | Popup Chinese.

This is where I worked over the summer!

5 Phonemica. http://phonemica.net/.http://phonemica.net/

An incredible project that aims to save local Chinese dialects.