Sunday, April 22, 2012

We All Laugh in the Same Language

It was difficult knowing exactly what to pack when I filled my suitcases in preparation for China last July, although I did pack with considerably more knowledge and foresight than I had back when I packed for my year in Korea.  This time around, I knew well the value of "sacred objects": a treasured teddy bear who has been with me since I was eight, the dragon who accompanied me to Korea, the memory book my Virginia friends put together for me, the afghan my dear friend Rachel crocheted for me.  I knew that any weight those took up in the suitcase was weight well spent.  But what to spend my remaining limited pounds of weight on?

I knew that shoes and clothing would be hard to come by, with my "curvy" American size -- I would have to bring as much as possible.  And necessities like medications, deodorant, and, er, "western-style feminine necessities" were certainly worth the space they took up.  Books were a tragic situation:  I knew there just wasn't room for them, but I also knew I couldn't live my days happily without some Sayers (still not on Kindle, sadly), my Common Book of Prayer, and a couple of other favorites.  My old movies on DVD are valuable stress relievers (and, as I have found over the past several months, Chinese friends really enjoy them).  The rest of the packing was headache-inducing as I struggled to place the appropriate value on all of the things that had suddenly sprung from the woodwork, as it were, and seemed to tapdance about me singing of their various merits.  How to narrow it down?  It was all "just stuff" -- but some of that stuff can really make the difference between a stressed-out Stephanie and a relaxed one.  More importantly, I needed to assess what would hold the most value for achieving my goal of bonding with those around me.

In the end, I made the right decisions this time.  I reasoned that games, though they take up weight and are not used daily, nevertheless spark social interaction and could help in relationship-building with Chinese people.  What better way to bridge a language/culture gap than through laughter?  And so, even though it weighs about five pounds and meant leaving behind several other things that I wanted, Qwirkle made the cut.

Qwirkle is a shape and color matching game that is equally fun and challenging for both children and adults.  Best of all, by its very nature, it is easy to teach to someone who does not speak the same language (or who just doesn't speak it as well).  As I learned tonight, Qwirkle is a perfect game for mixed groups of foreign and Chinese people, kids and adults.

I had been wanting, for some time, to have my teacher Theresa over for dinner.  She took me out for coffee on a Saturday a few weeks back and basically voluntarily gave up about three hours of her time to teach me Chinese (we chatted, reviewed vocabulary, and then played some games in Chinese -- in other words, I had a wonderful time).  I couldn't wait to give a return invitation.  Finally, I had my chance tonight.  I had Theresa, another close Chinese friend Maggie (the one who gave me my first Chinese nickname, 老三), two foreign friends, Edith and Angela, and the kids of another set of friends (Edith was babysitting them).  With such a varied group of people, I was concerned at first about how to ensure that everyone had a good time.  My efforts seemed initially doomed when the local stores suddenly decided to stop carrying the ingredients I needed for the meal I had planned (that happens a lot here).  Fortunately, my creativity rallied at the last minute:

I decided to introduce my two Chinese friends to nachos (I knew the foreigners would be happy, particularly the kids).  Although cheese is not so loved by the Chinese as it is by Westerners, I knew that the two friends I had invited are both fans of it.  And, it struck me as wise to have a meal where people could pick and choose the ingredients they wanted to include, since I was trying to please the palates of two quite divergent cultures and two equally divergent age groups.  Nachos, as I had hoped, were a tremendous hit!

For entertainment, I wanted a game that would let the kids be involved without forcing the adults to pretend to have fun while actually being bored.  Even more importantly, I did not want Theresa and Maggie to to feel uncomfortable -- some Western games can have the effect with Chinese people, if they are not confident enough with their English (Maggie and Theresa are both pretty fluent, but modest).  I wanted a game where everyone would have as close as possible to a fair shot at winning.  Qwirkle was perfect for my purposes!

Since it involves matching colors and shapes, it is easy enough to pick up that explaining the game is easy.  However, there is a lot of strategy involved, which keeps it interesting for everyone.  At the same time, it is simple enough that you can easily keep up conversations while playing.  To make it even more interesting, I decided to add a rule:  if you made a mistake, the people on either side of you got to make a rule for you that lasted until your next turn (for example, having to act like a bird or only being able to speak with an accent).  The kids got MORE than a bit crazy with the added rule, but hey, at least they had fun (their parents are in America at the moment, so I figured something crazy would be good for keeping the missing-Mom-and-Dad-tinglings away).  After the kids left to be put to bed, Maggie and Theresa decided to stay for one more game with me, which was also a great opportunity for them to make me speak more Chinese (ALL of my Chinese friends LOVE to do this).

It was nice to find yet another game that crosses cultures, languages, and ages well.  It always feels great to clean up after a successful evening like this and know no one was excluded, and that everyone had fun together.  These are my favorite moments in China:  when East and West meet together and realize that they are not so different after all.  We all laugh in the same language.

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"