Why I’m learning Chinese

On my first leg of the journey from Cleveland, Ohio to Harbin, China, I sat next to a man from Brooklyn who would not stop complaining about everything: the minor delay in take-off, the noise the plane engine made, how much he hated flying, the disrespectful people in New York City, etc., etc.

“I actually love flying because it gives me time to be unplugged from my phone, relax and read a good book in peace and quiet,” I said and tried to continue reading, but the guy could not catch a hit and kept talking. He said that I’m young, so I can handle travel for now but assured me that once I hit my forties, like him, I’ll be tired and sick of flying. I just nodded and turned back to my book, but he continued to complain.

“Cleveland is nice, people are actually friendly here but in New York City everyone is rude and impolite – I hate it,” he said in a thick Brooklyn accent. “I’ve lived there my entire life and I can’t stand it.”

“Why don’t you move to Cleveland then?” I challenged. But he just shook his head and said he couldn’t move because the minor league baseball team he owned was in New York. Then he grumbled about how no one in New York speaks English anymore.

Eventually the guy left me alone and I was able to read for the second hour of the flight but when we landed, he started whining about how far he was going to have to walk to get to the exit of the JFK airport. I told him that the walk would be a good workout, but he just sneered and said he’s too old for that.

Long after waving the man goodbye –  as I was boarding my 16-hour flight to Guangzhou – I still couldn’t stop thinking about his negative attitude toward life. Although he was irritating, I felt sorry for the guy – it really seemed like he really found absolutely no joy in anything.

On the Guangzhou flight I watched a Chinese romantic comedy called “前任3: 再见前任” (translating to “The Ex-Files 3: The Return of The Exes” in English) about a recently broken-up couple. Young entrepreneur Meng Yun was very focused on his career, which made his girlfriend of 5 years, Lu Jia, feel like he didn’t love her or have time for her, resulting in their break up.

The whole movie revolved around how much Meng Yun and Lu Jia missed each other despite their efforts to date new people, so I expected the finale to culminate in a heart-wrenching moment in which the two realize that they’re “soulmates,” but to my surprise, the last scene fast-forwarded 6 years and showed that the two had moved on with their “rebound” partners. Meng Yun ended up with a colleague who shared his passion for design and Lu Jia had a child with her old high school classmate.

In Chinese there’s a saying “好马不吃回头草,” which translates to “it’s better not to graze on old grass” and means that one should not get back together with an ex, so this mindset might have something to do with the ending of the movie but regardless I thought it was refreshing to see Meng Yun and Lu Jia realize that even though they loved each other, they might not be the best fit for each other.

Once I got to Guangzhou I had to wait nearly 7 hours for my next flight to Harbin because it was delayed. I grabbed some pork wonton soup, started a new book and sat next to the other travelers. A large group of people waiting next to me were Chinese. I couldn’t hear any of them complaining, nor see anyone making frustrated facial expressions – instead they chatted and ate the free boxed dinner that the China Southern airline provided us. I thought of the Brooklyn man on my first flight – he would have thrown a fit if his flight was delayed by 3 hours.

Well to be honest, I was also a little annoyed at the delay – my orientation for the intensive CET language program began the next morning at 9am and once I arrived in Harbin I still had to get money from the ATM, get a taxi and then carry my broken 50-pound suitcase to my dorm at the Harbin Institute of Technology. After all that, I probably wouldn’t get to sleep until 2am or later and I was exhausted.

And sure enough, I didn’t end up getting to campus until 3am, but since China is only on one time zone (in an effort to unite the country), the sun was already rising across the empty streets. A poem I had once written suddenly popped into my head:

My answer to “why did you major in something as difficult as Chinese?”

wéijī = crisis

huì = opportunity

The Chinese characters show that every crisis sparks an opportunity. Meng Yun and Lu Jia’s break-up was devastating but it ultimately enabled them to pursue more fulfilling lives that did not require them to sacrifice their dreams. The flight delay was annoying and worrisome at first but actually allowed me to see the serenity of the HIT campus at dawn. Too bad I didn’t share that poem with the pessimistic man on the first flight…

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Harbin Institute of Technology at 3:30am
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My dorm
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8 RMB ($1.20) for these noodles at one of the many cafeterias

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