T’is the season for a slice of humble pie

With my masters degree in one hand and four passed board exams in the other I sailed into China riding a wave of excitement and ready for new adventures – it was all rather dramatic, really. Being a stranger in a new place is, in my personal experience, guaranteed to transform habitual brainwave patterns ensued by say, graduate school (sleep, eat, school, play, sleep, eat, school, play) into something a bit more spicy. Yes, traveling has a certain freedom that the ordinary day to day just plain lacks. Add in the thrill of anonymity along with borderline excessive green tea consumption and a heightened state of awareness transpires. Colors seem, no colors are, most definitely brighter, food bursts with flavor, smells (good or bad) hit the nose acutely. As a traveler in Chengdu I felt as open as the sky and with little shame or embarrassment. Alas, hindsight can be such a buzz kill. Such a humbling, albeit necessary buzz kill.

Back in Taipei, I am a settled woman and with this – a shift in my perspective. Whereas in China I welcomed my status of wàiguórén (foreigner), here I can’t help wanting to just fit in. I feel self conscious and subsequently quite clumsy, which only accentuates the fact that I am mostly stumbling through life at this point. Fortunately, I find some humor in the ridiculous girl I have become and realize that these moments are transitory. So I intend to let each embarrassing fumble roll off my back and in that same manner, I hope these stories bring a passing smile across your face. While there have been many, many, moments of humility over the past couple of months, these are my favorites. I share them because, well, c’est la vie, and besides, I can’t go around taking myself too seriously.

“GOOD MORNING!” is what my ear, adjusted to the English channel would hear each time I entered a shop in Chengdu. No matter day or night every salesperson would greet us with a “Good Morning,” which my friends and I got a big kick out of. I suppose it was the humor of it all that distracted us from common sense and so we failed to question what our narrowly tuned ears were hearing. For the entire month of October I went along assuming that all Chengduian sales personnel were taught “Good Morning” as way to welcome their English speaking customers. You might wonder how my friends and I responded to this. This is the part that makes me cringe a little – just trying to be polite, we all found ourselves calling back with a “GOOD MORNING!”  No joke, we Americans went on saying good morning at just about every store we strolled into, whether it was 10 a.m. or 10 p.m. Of course, no flag was raised in my mind, not even when one salesgirl shot us a look of confusion and replied – “it isn’t morning!” Duh, we knew that… but why did she??

Flash forward to my first night back in Taipei with Dave. As we entered the 7-11 to pick up some water, I heard the familiar “Good Morning.” “Oh wow! They say that here too?” I asked my husband. It was at that point that Dave introduced me to a common Mandarin greeting – huānyíng guānglín (say it as fast as possible and I swear you will hear what I heard). Uh oh. Had my ears deceived me? Oh drats! They had. Still feeling doubtful, I insisted Dave was wrong. All of these people must be saying good morning – they must! If I was wrong, that meant, oh yes, it meant I was the kind of tourist everyone dislikes. The kind of ethnocentric tourist that actually manages to hear their own language when clearly the people in China were just speaking (you guessed it) Chinese!! In that moment I had to wonder why this was never covered in my Chinese 101 class. But let’s be honest, this was all on me. The silver lining? My current Chinese tutor told me that this is a common mistake made by many Americans and Canadians, so I take comfort in not being alone on this one. In the end, I am sure I gave a few salesgirls a good laugh over there in China and so I am happily humbled by these recent events. Of course, the longer I hang out in Taiwan the less huānyíng guānglín sounds like good morning, just as the longer I stay in Asia my eyes see things differently.

My second humbling moment seems appropriate to share because it involves Guì Zhī Tāng (Cinnamon Twig Decoction), one of the most versatile and famous formulas in the entirety of Chinese herbal medicine. Guì Zhī Tāng won my heart long ago. This formula is among the first taught to any new student of Chinese medicine. It is also the first formula mentioned in the Shāng Hán Lùn, possibly the most notorious Chinese herbal text in existence. Guì Zhī Tāng never let its notoriety go to its head though – it is a humble formula consisting of humble ingredients.

This formula was the obvious choice for me when I came down with a cold in Chengdu. Given its popularity, though dismissing how complicated simple tasks can be when you are far from home, I entered the first herbal pharmacy I came across on my walk home from clinic. The plan was this: find the Guì Zhī Tāng in whatever form it was available, go home, take said herbal concoction, eat some soup, drink some tea, get into my cozy clothes, climb into bed and let the herbs do their thing. Silly, silly girl.

Upon entering the store I was greeted by a salesgirl (who happened to say “Good Morning,” and I happened to reply “Good Morning” back, though this is besides the point). It hit me immediately that my plan had holes. Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that if you don’t say a word with the appropriate tone emphasized you run the risk of saying something totally different. When learning herbs, we placed little emphasis on proper tonal pronunciation and so I should have done some preparation if I wanted to walk out of the store with my medicine. Ughh. As I repeated Guì Zhī Tāng a few times over, the bewildered salesgirl escorted me over to an old man to whom I again repeated – Guì Zhī Tāng. I also listed the ingredients in the formula, hoping that might help. To seal the deal I threw in a little cough cough, sniff sniff, shiver shiver. The man nodded his head, repeated the words back to me and passed on some information to the girl. I waited for a few moments, feeling pretty confident that I was on the road to recovery. I figure it was in the bag when I see the girl return with a box. I am thinking, “oh shoot, I was really hoping for a tincture but I guess these pills will have to do,” and as I glance down I notice that I am not holding what I think I am holding. Now, if constipation was my issue the magnesium pills would have been a perfect cure. This was not my issue. So we all tried to understand each other for another moment, but in the end I left empty handed and feeling bit ridiculous.

Some people are better at understanding butchered Mandarin. For instance, in my graduate program, the Chinese faculty never had a problem understanding the students. Their ears had become accustomed to us. I have had many experiences in Chengdu and now here in Taipei where I am understood, but I have also had many instances when I am not. These experiences, most notably the above example serves to remind me that I have only scratched the surface of my studies and of my life here in Asia. I am humbled, and at the same time I am filled with excitement as I slowly learn this language and add a new level of depth in my study of Chinese medicine.

This photo is a Guì Zhī Tāng tincture that I am making. It will be ready to consume in one week. I can happily report that the ingredients were purchased by yours truly at an herb shop here in Taipei. I think my language lessons are starting to pay off! Thanks for reading!

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7 thoughts on “T’is the season for a slice of humble pie

  1. Good morning! Thanks for sharing. Possibly THE most mortifying moment in my travels in Korea was when I took coffee on the subway, not realizing how crowded it was going to be. DUH. I spilled coffee ALL over the back of this older gentleman’s nicely pressed shirt, and I just kept repeating how sorry I was (in Korean) but he wouldn’t even look at me because HE was so embarrassed. He wanted to die; I wanted to die. I thought my stop would never come…

    • I bet we could write a book together just about these sorts of things! Without a doubt I embarrass myself daily. I have yet to spill food on anyone or cause any physical harm, but I am sure it is inevitable. When I get back to Portland we will have to sit down and revisit your time in Korea.

  2. i honestly think one of my favorite things about traveling or living in foreign countries are experiences just like these. i laugh at myself everyday, even if no one else does.

    • Yes, I think it looks this way as a result of my inability to communicate exactly what I needed to the herb guy. I told him I wanted the herbs ground up and he took that to mean totally powdered. We will see! Also, they are dried herbs… do you use fresh or dried when making tinctures?

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