Questioning Reality in Mandarin
A windy, rainy, shitty day in early April. The worst kind of day to ride a bike. Puddles accumulate directly in front of sewage drains because this is still a developing country. I skid across the zebra crossing and into a little alley. A convenience store, a key-maker, a delivery pickup site, a dumpling spot, a lamb soup shop, a shop that sells things that they advertise as hamburgers.
I drop kickstand in front of the dumpling spot. It’s a national holiday—Tomb Sweeping Day—and a few kids are sitting at the tables, hovered around a cell phone.
“Long time no see,” the proprietress says. “Eat what?”
I walk into the tiny, fluorescently lit shop and slowly pass my hand in front of the children’s cell phone screen in a minor, annoying act of Luddite rebellion. They gasp and one of the younger ones begins to sob uncontrollably before threatening to murder my family.
“Mushroom wontons, medium.”
“Great. I just made them last night.”
Only in China would a chef divulge this information with pride.
“Where is Old Wang?” I ask.
“His Aunt died. He went back to Anhui. He should be back soon.”
Old Wang is the owner of this shop. This is his wife. Old Wang is a bit of a patriarch, a bit of a dumpling shop owner, and very much a follower and promulgater of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
With Old Wang’s wife making my meal and the kids otherwise occupied, I mess around on my phone while I wait for my dumplings. I scroll my WeChat moments feed---essentially a rip off of the Facebook news feed, but with fewer political rants and more pictures of food.
As my wontons arrive, so too does Old Wang. He looks distinguished, like a man who has just been at a funeral. His current dress is one you find all across the country. It might be called tacky or perhaps aspirant. A button-down and dress pants and slightly scuffed dress shoes. His coat is gray and slightly tweedy. It is, to be only frank, the look of someone who cannot afford—or cannot quite understand—the look that they are attempting to emulate. Such is poignantly metaphorical for the time and place—China, mid-2018.
Old Wang exchanges a few words with his wife and one of his granddaughters hugs his leg. He beams when he sees me shivering over my wontons. He takes off his jacket and sits down on a stool.
“Ahh,” he sighs. “You still haven’t met Jesus.”
“How can you tell?”
I believe that, when I first met Old Wang, he was certain that I was a Christian. I believe this because Old Wang believes that all Americans are devout Christians and that America, being the richest and most powerful country on earth, is a very obvious validation of Christianity.
As time has gone by, I have slowly divulged my truth to Old Wang. And he has been not so subtly trying to explain reality to me, a pursuit I can see that he enjoys, so I have resolved never to speak ill of his religion or laugh discernably at what comes out of his mouth.
Old Wang likes me, because, as a product of the Christian nation, I at least know all the names and shit of the characters in the Bible and he likes that I’m a Jew. He told me that, because neither my mother nor, by extension, me, are pure-blooded Jews that it was OK if I did not return to Israel before the apocalypse, but that my father should go ASAP.
“I tell you, I’m just trying to save you.”
I am writing in English, but it is safe to assume that anything taking place between quotation marks occurred in Chinese.
“I know, I know, Old Wang. It's nice of you to want to save me. Everybody has their way of looking at the world.”
I eat a dumpling.
“Sure. But, of course there is only one truth.”
Old Wang begins a discourse on creation and I slurp dumplings.
“So, let me ask you, the Bible says that God rested on Sunday and that Sunday is the day of rest. If God isn’t real, then why does everybody all over the world rest on Sunday?”
“I don’t know,” I say, chewing, “Probably because they adopted that tradition, perhaps by force. And anyways, there are actually a lot of cultures that rest on other days.”
“Yeah, but most rest on Sunday. How about this, do you believe that humans are descended from apes and monkeys?”
I rub my arms. “Yeah, I’m quite certain of that.”
“Ha ha,” Old Wang retorts, “But why are we smart animals and they dumb?”
This is where I start to get a little upset about my ability to elucidate in Chinese. Because I know, simply by the virtue of me sounding eleven years old, that Old Wang thinks he is winning.
“Well, evolution takes time. I would also argue that, simply that chimpanzees are, as you say, ‘dumb’ animals and humans ‘smart’ does not qualify as justification for believing in…--dictionary check—believing in Creationism, Old Wang.”
“You see, you are not an authentic American. Tell me, does an authentic American believe that human beings are descended from apes and monkeys and dumb animals?”
I smile, “I’ll tell you Old Wang, these dumplings are delicious today. Most Americans believe in evolution.”
“I’m not so sure about that. I’m sure most Americans would disagree. Yes, they are better without vinegar and you usually pour too much vinegar on them. How about this? If apes and monkeys become humans, why are there still apes and monkeys and why aren’t they becoming humans now?”
“Old Wang, that’s a pretty good one.”
Old Wang winks and smirks and rubs his granddaughter’s head.
“I think evolution takes a very long time. I also think that we evolve because of different environments and monkeys in, like, the rainforest are better off as monkeys than as humans, you know? Anyways, I’m not a scientist and, me saying I don’t know doesn’t mean that your story is right or wrong.”
“I’m just saying, if you were an ape or monkey, wouldn’t you rather be human?”
“I don’t know if it works that way. But, in any event, you may be right. You may be wrong.”
“There is only one truth.”
“On that, we agree.”
“No, no, I won’t take your money.” Old Wang says this every time.
“Just give me four.” Old Wang says this every time, too.
I scan the QR code on the door and give him five, as usual.
“Next time, no money,” He says this every time, too.
“OK, Old Wang, Next time.”
In the beginning, it is impossible to communicate, simply because you cannot make words. And everything is fully foreign. As you learn, as you have more conversations, you begin the slow process of de-differentification. You revel in the fact that, without having acquired certain linguistic skills, you would never be able to converse with this taxi driver, or this farmer, or this dumpling shop owner. You marvel at strange phrasing, your brain fully illuminated with the novelty of comprehension. Wow, they say it like that. You are still new. Everything is new. And strange. But, the kind of strange that you can begin to make sense of.
And you learn more, your conversations become more substantial, roomier. And it is then, when you can actually know someone through your new language, that you realize how fucking not strange it is. How each society consists of these types and those types and language is simply a tool for communication. We eat different things. We all eat. We have different systems of government. We are all governed. Some of us drive on the left. We all drive. It sounds like we’re saying different things, but we’re just saying the same shit at different pitch, with different inflection. Some among us can roll our r’s.
You learn and you learn and you learn. You stuff yourself with the world. You become expertly proficient in differences. And you find that the purpose of all this knowledge, the true value of learning how different we are from them and you are from us and we are from them, is so that you know damn well that despite what you read and despite what you hear on TV and despite what you may even want to believe and despite what you learn, we are all pretty much the same. We are all descendants of monkeys and apes. We are all God’s Creation.