Left Chicago Tuesday evening, arrived in Boston close to midnight. Hauled my luggage 2 miles from the train station, slept in a bit the next morning, packed my car full of my stuff throughout the majority of Wednesday and napped for a few hours before hitting the road early Thursday morning just as the sun was coming up. Drove straight down through NYC and DC (pausing during rush hour for dinner at Waffle Houes), hitting Raleigh close to midnight and getting a quick tour of both the apartment and the Django-based POSSE webapp (under construction) from Ian before folding out the sofabed and napping for an hour and a half before heading off to the RDU airport carrying my backpack and a guitar.

Flew RDU to ORD, attempting to stay conscious during my layover; flew from Chicago to Shanghai and slept fitfully for a few hours on the plane (I usually have a terrible time sleeping on planes) because I was so exhausted. Didn't sleep particularly well - it was a long, long flight, made longer by the fact that the least sappy movie on the entertainment rotation on United was called "Date Night" (actually an action-comedy with almost no sappiness at all and a bunch of guns and car chases and a helicopter, so I was not entirely displeased). Learned that specifying "Asian Vegetarian" for meals gets you way better food (curry!) and think I'll keep experimenting with various dietary options on flights out of pure curiosity.

My Mandarin isn't so much rusty as it is patchy. My main challenges with the language center around (1) lipreading, because there are clusters of syllables that appear identical and that plus the language's tonality mean that any given visual clue could correspond to a large number of auditory signals - and unlike in English, I lack the exposure to word-frequency I need to wing my way through it Markov-style, and (2) the writing and phonetics of the language being incredibly decoupled - that is, reading a character and knowing its meaning doesn't mean you know how to say it, and vice versa (unlike languages that, you know, use a phonetic alphabet[0]). So I could follow signs, but not pronounce them; knowing the English for the train station I was looking for did not help me find it on a map until I (laboriously) figured out the characters for it, translated them to pinyin (because my visual scanning for Chinese characters is weaker than my scanning for Roman letters), and then read the map, and so on.

And oh my god people here speak really fast. However! There is hope! I've started to be able to pick up on sentence structure again - not content, just structure, so sentences sound like fill-in-the-blank reminders that I have a limited vocabulary - "<place> <date> I <verb>-past-tense <direct object> or <verb> because <item> better-than <adjective> <other-item>" and so forth. I hope to someday have the luxury of being able to immerse myself in learning this, just throwing myself into a weird place and a new (well, not entirely new now) language until I actually become able to function at a higher level than the "I can get around town, buy food, have basic conversations, and painfully pick my way through news articles" abilities I had (and have now forgotten) last time I tried. I have therefore decided that I'm going to be Really Stupid while I'm here - unless work-functionality demands that I speak in English - and throw myself headfirst into reclaiming my Mandarin, which means making a fool out of myself in broken sentences and bad pronunciations but if that's what it takes then I don't care.[1]

Also, an 18-hour drive followed by 23 hours of transit to, between, and from airports (including a 15-hour flight) that lands you 12 timezones from where you started is supposed to make you tired - and it did! - for about 4 hours. Which is... how long I crashed for. And I'm awake again and not feeling tired in the slightest, though I know I'm probably exhausted but not feeling it because of the timeshift. (I usually don't even try to rest when this happens - I just go "ooo, I can work!" and work - but I tried to be unconscious for another few hours this time, got in about another hour of sleep, and now I give up.) So I'm reading in an attempt to stay calm enough to go down for a third nap before I go off to catch my flight to Beijing.

Sumana's post on Kannada made me smile - as many of her blog posts do (see: copious amounts of food) - because I feel similarly about Fookien (my family's Chinese dialect). There are words I automatically translate into thought-images that are not their literal meaning - in some cases I didn't learn their literal meaning until years later - because of the contexts I heard them in. For instance, "Gong-bin" means (roughly) "stupid/stupid-looking," but I heard it only as a term of endearment (as in "Gong-bin chabowah," which means "my dumb-looking daughter" - and I'm totally mangling the phonetic transcription here) so I thought it meant "beloved" or "cute" or something complimentary until... I think I was in high school when I found out otherwise. And phrases that mean things other than what they say ("have you eaten rice yet?" --> "how are you?") And little softening-words, and doubling-for-emphasis. And the weirdness - and richness - of growing up surrounded by a language you don't really speak, growing up actively not understanding a swath of the conversations around you, a linguistic wall that can't be breached[2], knowing idioms but not basic vocabulary.

On a semi-related note, I'm trying to discern a pattern in my fearlessness, because so often I throw myself headlong into things that other folks are usually afraid of - I'll do that for some parts of my life but not for others. Actually, it's usually not actually fearlessness, it just looks that way... often I'm terrified but hurl myself in nevertheless. (Sometimes I do seem to have an absence of fear where there probably should be at least some caution - for instance, traveling alone and walking strange city streets at night - but that's another discussion for another day.) New place? New job responsibilities? No problem - maybe an initial momentary hesitation, but then it's all plunging through. New language? Gulp, but okay, I can deal; hurtle forward. Stop occasionally to recover/gasp for breath, and then off we go into the storm again.

The adverb "slowly" is largely in my vocabulary as an abstract concept that applies to other people; I tend to have two settings: (1) ZOMG and (2) the much more rarely-seen and shorter-in-duration "crashing in recovery from ZOMG." That's why I so often write down (in this blog for my future self) the small moments of actual peace I have - they're so fleeting and rare that I want to catch them while I can because I don't know when they'll come again.

Probably not this week while I'm in China, and that suits me just fine. :D One last nap attempt now and then it's off to the airport - working with Gerard (and possibly some other local Ambassadors) today to try and get a sense for what they need. Wheeeeeeee!

[0] English doesn't really. We just like to pretend we do, but in reality, American English is a mutt of a language with way too many in-jokes.

[1] Hah. I have cut off my escape route to being shy about this. Which I really, really, really am. Unless a teacher or someone gives me explicit permission to mess up, I'm absolutely hesitant to speak a language I don't know because I am afraid of making mistakes. So this is intended to be a public statement of accountability to make sure I don't cave in to that fear. Yarr! LINGUISTIC MASOCHISM!!!

[2] Except it can be, but it would be very hard. Hypothetically, I could learn the peculiar Taglog-English-Fookien mashup my family uses, but only if people patiently sit down and teach me - it's not like there's a textbook for that sort of Creole, and I've been told all my life that it's not useful/good to try and learn that because "nobody speaks it" ("but you do!" I point out) and that I ought to learn Mandarin instead. So I continue with my hobbled patchwork understanding of our odd little dialect, and try to shoot in as many "what does that word mean?" questions on the side as possible, and have slowly started to piece together bits of vocabulary and grammar over the years. Very little. But some.