I’m feeling good about fatherhood. I’m doing research and actively trying to be the best parent I can. I love my daughter, read as much as I can about parenting and adoption, and talk to other parents for pointers. There’s one area I feel so deficient in I can’t imagine catching up; Chinese history and culture.
In 2006 I started taking Mandarin classes at the Atlanta Language Institute. The instructor, Kai, was friendly and helpful. His smile is indefatigable though he’s going over the rudiments of his mother tongue. I don’t think I could teach English every weekend to students who seemed to make little progress. Two years later I used ChinesePod’s guided instruction and met Vera. Like Kai, Vera remained patient and helpful during our Skype sessions which lasted off and on for several years.
I feel comfortable enough with the language to say “hello” and “where’s the bathroom?”, but not much else. My knowledge of the spoken language is like a million piece jigsaw puzzle of the ocean, of which I have two pieces. I suspected this for a long time and confirmed it while in China. Returning home I realized I would never be fluent in Chinese until immersed in it. Unless we hire an “Ayi” or move to China, I won’t be bantering with any native speakers any time soon. It was great asking the restaurant staff a question in Chinese and the surprise that would register on their faces.
Which leaves history and customs. My knowledge of Chinese history primarily comes from mainland China cinema, specifically the films of Zhang Yimou. I’m not referring to “Hero” or “House of Flying Daggers” either (though I loved both). I’m talking about “Raise the Red Lantern”, “Not One Less”, and my favorite film of Zhang’s, “To Live“. When Jenn worked at Whole
Paycheck Foods our schedules were converse. That gave me a lot of time to watch movies, which is exactly what I did.
After all that cinema my knowledge of Chinese history was simple: before Mao and after Mao. The concept of “losing face” and the absolute turmoil of the Chinese during the last fifty years were clear. I don’t know if it’s what westerners would consider “art house” cinema, but it seemed every movie I watched was dense with emotion. If I ran a video rental store (remember those!) dedicated to mainland Chinese film’s I’d sell Kleenex by the truckloads. I would tell patrons “You’re going to need this” as they checked out “King of Masks” or “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles”.
Now we have a beautiful daughter from the other side of the world. Though it may not matter to her, it matters to me that she know something of the land she came from. I love history and spent many years reading about American history, WWII history (both of my grandfathers fought in the war), and random stuff (“The Professor and the Madman: Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” and “How the Irish Saved Civilization”) come to mind. Nothing about China, or at least nothing I can remember.
I’m not a proponent of forcing Penelope to become an expert on all things Chinese, but I do feel a responsibility to educate myself. When she gets older and if she asks questions, I would like to, at the least, be able to answer some questions and point her in the right direction. As an added bonus I’ll be able to place Chinese cinema into its historical context.
A quick search for “China” on Stitcher Radio brought up “China History Podcast“. I wasn’t expecting much since so many of the podcasts I discovered are low quality and boring. If you bring up a show on health and fitness and the run time is close to an hour you can forget it. “China History Podcast” it turned out, was informative and entertaining. The host, Laszlo Montgomery, has spent decades working in the Middle Kingdom and lived in Hong Kong for several years. The earliest episodes were twenty minutes or so. As Mr. Montgomery picked up steam his programs got longer, running close to 45 minutes. A few months after listening to the first Stitcher podcast (on Sidney Rittenberg) I’ve gone through every episode he’s done. I’ll be going back through them soon, starting with his extended series on the dynasties of China.
Mr. Montgomery is quick to direct listeners to other resources. I just completed the fourth episode of Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” series on Genghis Khan, “The Wrath of the Khans”. I’m still reeling from his description of the Khan’s total devastation wherever they went. Imagine the US Army being transported back in time to fight stone throwing tribesmen. That level of destruction. Carlin mentions one story of a relative of the Khan being killed in battle. After the Mongols subdued the opposition, Genghis got every man in the city and beheaded them, in front of the widow of Genghis’ relative. That story was mild compared to many of the others Carlin relates.
For current events I rely on the regular updates of “China Report“, a Facebook feed covering all things China. Not a day goes by I don’t read some illuminating article posted via this feed. Human rights violations, daily living, politics, and human interests are all covered. A must.
Any additional resources a reader would like to share are more than welcome. Take a moment to post a comment with your recommendations.