The Rambling American: Why Do We Ramble?

In the tradition of Hank Williams (or the Allman Brothers, depending on who you ask), Locke McKenzie, an expatriate working as a freelance English teacher in Germany, introduces his new column, The Rambling American.

As I wait for the train at my local subway stop, I amuse myself by reading the graffiti scrawled on the walls. China = World Villain. Ten stops later, I see a similar message. China tortures men until they sterilize Tibetan women.

Over the last few months, the number of etchings criticizing Chinese politics has become uncountable.

With the Beijing Olympics establishing China’s role as a world power, the country has been unable to avoid its daily presence in the press and on the streets. While they were hoping to use the Games “to inspire national pride within China, and… to reassure the world that a rising China poses no danger,” it seems that their big entrance has evoked criticism rather than understanding.

Are these wall etchings true? Does China really force its men to sterilize Tibetan woman? I have no idea. I do know a few things. I’ve heard that they hoard information away from their people, suppress solidarity movements, and carelessly put lead into children’s toys. We’ve seen the footage, read the papers, and heard the reports on NPR. Why not believe they are castrating women, even if the source is scrawled on the subway wall?

It was not until recently, when I heard a little Chinese woman’s ramblings, that I understood another point of view.

Last week in an English class I teach, one of the six participants raised his hand.

“If it ok with zee group, I likes to ask somesing about China, because I going thair next week.”

The man’s question, I assume, had something to do with the fact that Congsu, a woman from Beijing, had joined the class.

He wanted to know about the political situation. He posed questions relating to the most prominent accusations, including China’s censorship of information and the problems in Tibet.

In response, Congsu said, “What you read in papers only half true. Many things not so correct. I have no problem when I live in China. It not so bad like everyone think.”

How could she say this? This man was certainly not a fool. He was not asking baseless questions about irrelevant or unfounded topics. Everyone has these questions, about the issues that have been in the papers for the last six months. The problem was, as our Chinese friend pointed out, he was only reading the German papers. [1]

She, on the other hand, had first hand experience. She grew up there, had family there, and flew back once a year. She had an understanding beyond ours, and exposed us to some of the finer social and cultural truths behind what we, as outsiders, can understand.[2]

Congsu’s attempted explanation – no matter how vague – embodies one of the many reasons why we ramble. To ramble is to move from place to place, to encounter people who may not understand our values, and to speak endlessly so our differences can be heard and understood.

That’s what this column, The Rambling American, is about.

In a recent article I published on the Fulbright website, I spoke about what it really takes to understand a culture. In many ways, it’s no different than getting to know a significant other. It takes years of holding that person in your arms, listening to them yell at you when they are mad, and smelling their stinking morning breath when you wake up. Becoming familiar with a culture is a process that requires time and energy. Problematically, it’s much easier to understand the simple caricature of a country than to get to know its people. This is why we ramble.

I ramble to keep from getting stuck in a shoebox with George Bush and Dick Cheney. Congsu rambles to place a wall between herself and Tiananmen Square. Sure, we ramble for many different reasons, some more serious than others, but it’s always worth listening if it gives us a glimpse into something we didn’t know before.

So, welcome to my column – a smorgasbord of information from politics to pop culture. I’ll greet you with my thoughts and hopefully provide a little bit of insight into my home culture and that of those around me.

1. If, for example, I pretended to know everything about the American presidential election based on what I read in the German newspapers, I’d think that Obama was the only candidate. Who ever heard of John McCain? It wasn’t until I vacationed back in the United States a month ago that I realized that the race is not a landslide. For a long time most Germans I spoke with thought the election was between Obama and Hillary.

2. This was not the first time I had spoken to a person (or overheard conversations with people) from China, who seemed shocked and defensive about how we perceive them. It is the same as an American trying to explain to Germans that we don’t all love Bush. (“but you elected him twice!”)

Read more from The Rambling American.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.