The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Chinese Lesson #1: Humility

A few years ago a friend from high school told me that I should devote myself to something really difficult. He said it’d be good for me, character-building or something. Well, I think I’ve found that something.

There are nine of us in my Mandarin class, and we meet on the third floor of a bookstore. We’re a motley crew of ex-pats: two Australians, one Belgian, one Canadian, one Brit, one Frenchwoman, one German, one Indian, and me—the lone American. But no matter where we’re from, we’re united by the fact that we all sound absolutely ridiculous.

Often, I can hear the differences between words, and once in a while, I can almost make a sound that would be recognizable to Chinese speaker. It’s incredibly frustrating when you’re trying to make a sound and you can even hear it in your head, but all that comes out is a pathetic, American excuse of a phoneme. The patient teacher repeats the Chinese sound, and the polyglot group repeats back something completely different. When attempting to speak Chinese, I can’t abandon that American hard ‘r’, and the Frenchwoman—even though she speaks English with a perfect BBC British accent—can’t leave her French vowels behind. I’m hoping by the end of the class I might have the speaking ability of a particularly dense infant, but even that may be shooting too high.

We’ll see what happens next week. We might even start learning whole words.

A Lazy Saturday

Sometime around two today, I walked to my open window and leaned out. I rested my forearms on the window sill, holding a mug of lychee black tea over a twenty-six story drop. There was nothing pressing for me to do, so I just stood there and stared at the view. I smiled and sipped my tea as I enjoyed the breeze against my face. My iTunes played Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B—though not very loudly. I still haven’t gotten around to buying speakers. I looked out and tried to find the apartment building where four of my friends live. The view of the building was blocked by some trees, but I did catch a couple from a neighboring building bringing up tea to their roof. They sat facing each other, both leaning forward until their faces almost touched. I started to imagine what romantic words they were whispering to each other, but my mind soon wandered. I thought about everything that was going well for me here. Teaching is a joy; I live with a postcard view, and I keep going to new, wonderful places in Hong Kong. But most importantly, I have met all sorts of bright, fascinating people for me to enjoy these new places with. I looked back in the direction of where my friends lived and felt pretty lucky. I finished my last sip of tea and decided to spend the rest of my day in tea shop attached to a bookstore.

EDIT: And then I found five dollars.

Free Hugs

After class, I noticed one of my students squirming in his seat as I talked to a handful of his classmates. After all the other students had left, he got up and nervously asked me a question.

“Can I have a hug?”

I was taken aback but agreed. It was one of those short, awkward ‘man hugs,’ where each person does the three-pat back-slap. As soon as it over, he skipped off to his next class. I stood there for a moment and realized that I have a student who looks up to me. I hope I made his day too.

A new Junkie

Lying on the top deck of a Disney yacht, a friend told me after a long silence, “You know, I’d spend the rest of my life traveling on a boat like this.” At that moment, I’d had the exact same thought.

I’d never been one of those people preternaturally attracted to water. Before these last couple of weeks, I would’ve preferred to live in the mountains than on the coast. Then, I went on a series of “junk trips”—a term used in Hong Kong to describe an outing on any type of boat. The first junk trip was also filled with interesting, intelligent people who were a joy to talk with—as well as having five Princeton graduates. We went wakeboarding, which I’d never done before and is an absolute blast. Periodically, we would leap into the bay from the top deck. Mostly though, we just lied out on the roof, shooting the breeze.

On the return into Hong Kong harbour, while everybody else was mesmerized by a rare sunset, I watched my apartment window come into view, and I felt lucky to be where I am. I turned to watch the sunset, which put the Hong Kong skyline into silhouette against an orange sky. A friend turned to me, handed me a beer, and asked, “Ain’t this the life?”

I thought to myself, “Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that this really is my life.” I sipped my beer, watched Hong Kong get slowly larger ahead of me, and chided myself for not bringing my nice camera. Then, I went on two other junk trips the next week.

This really is the life.