I’m not sure when things started going wrong. Or where…or how…well shit, you could put any of the wh-questions in there and it wouldn’t make a lick of a difference. Why is “how” a wh-question anyway? I spent three years teaching English, and that’s the only question I was never able to answer. After all, “which” is not a wh-question, though it often fulfills the same function. The answer is simple really. A quick google search would reveal that wh-questions are actually called “interrogative pro-form” questions. There is no such thing really as a wh-question. Some jackass English teacher, much like myself, probably just made it up one day to confuse poor English students. Eventually I just started lying. “Oh…well actually, in old English, hundreds of years ago, the word ‘how’ was actually spelled ‘whow’. Yeah, we just decided to make it easier. You know, like how colour changed to color.” Fuck it, it’s not like they remembered anything I was teaching them anyway.
Allow me to tell you a story that has nothing to do with what I really want to tell you. One time, around the beginning of 2006 when I had only been in China for a few months, a couple other American friends and I were convinced by our Chinese friend to visit his hometown in Gansu province for the Chinese New Year Holiday. Now, none of us had really been too far out of Beijing at that point…and Beijing, while not exactly being Tokyo, is still a pretty modern place, especially compared to the rest of China. His hometown was a town in Gansu Province. Gansu Province, if you are unaware, is basically the asshole of China, sort of like Chechnya is to Russia, Darfur is to Sudan, Gaza is to Israel, or California is to the US. It’s the only province in China with a GDP per capita less than $1000. So of course you can imagine the answer we gave to our friend. “Hell yeah! Oh boy we’re going to see the REAL China.” The train to the city of Lanzhou took 20 hours from Beijing, and it would have been nice if someone had told us that during the New Year holiday, the chances of getting a seat on a Chinese train were akin to those of a [STRIKE]black man[/STRIKE] woman getting elected president. So we slipped the conductor a few dollars and the four of us crowded around a small table in the dining compartment and proceeded to drink bai jiu for the next 20 hours.
Upon arriving in Lanzhou, it was another 3 hour bus ride through the barren wastelands and snow-covered coal mines of Gansu Province until we arrived at our friend’s hometown. It was 1 PM when we arrived, none of us had slept for nearly 36 hours, and we had already gone from the drunk to hungover to drunk again to hungover again to sober with psychotic tendencies. Our friend ushered us into his uncle’s house, where we would be staying. You see, the town did not have a hotel, because nobody ever visited. His uncle was waiting with the “mayor” of the town. We sat down and they offered us a cup of tea. Something wasn’t right. You can always feel when something bad is going to happen in China right before it happens. Well, to be honest, something bad always happens when you meet someone, so you pretty much always have the same feeling. The word for friend in Chinese is “peng you”, however the meaning doesn’t translate exactly like it does into English. It’s more akin to two mobsters scratching each others backs. In Chinese culture, a friend is a person that can do favors for you, and in return you might also be expected to return favors to them. So you see…our peng you (he will no longer be referred to in the English sense of the word friend), who had been very kind to us in Beijing and had helped us out in many times of needs, had decided it was time for us to return the favor.
“You have done our village a great honor by coming here,” the mayor spoke. “We have never received foreign visitors before, and I hope that we can learn much from you.” “Learn from us?” we thought. What could they possibly want from us? “Please, come, let me introduce you to your students.” The mayor got up and led us out to another building. Inside of the building were sitting 20 young students of all ages. “These are the best students of our village,” said the mayor. “And with your help, all of them will be able to pass this year’s English exam.” If I had been smart enough to bring my swiss-army knife, I would have emptied my veins right then and there, spilling my vital juices all over the dirt-stained uniforms of the village’s best and brightest. Oh, they would have learned alright…a lesson in anatomy. My liver for Ms. Wang, my kidneys for Mr. Wang, the small intestine to Wang junior…of course I would have kept the large intestine to myself because, well, you know…it goes without saying.
We were in quite a bind. What were we to do? We had no idea where we were. We couldn’t cause our peng you to lose face. There was no way we could get back to Beijing ourselves. Our Chinese was nowhere near good enough to do that at the time. We were forced to stick it out, but we had our revenge. We vowed that, for everything we taught them, we would teach them equally incorrect things. I will spare you the boring things we did and leave you with my personal favorite. We taught them that, in English, we often liked to begin sentences with the phrase “vaginally speaking”. The meaning was somewhat of a hybrid between “you know” and “you see”. And we made sure to use it every chance we got. “Vaginally speaking, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of its two sides.” Vaginally speaking, I think you get my point. Somewhere in the deserts of West China, I can only hope young Chinese boys and girls are beginning all of their sentences with “vaginally speaking.”
I’m not sure when things started going wrong. You might say this trip of mine to Gansu might be a good candidate for a starting point, but you would be wrong. Why did I leave the comfort of my homeland? In the case of my peng you, it is obvious why he left. Nobody in their right mind would stay in a place like that if you had the opportunity to get out. I had it all. My own apartment on lake shore drive, a fast car, an honors degree from a top 10 university. I had not one, but two sexy latinas trying to jump into my pants. Leaving was supposed to let me clear my head. I’d drink tea instead of tequila. I’d study the tao te ching instead of the labels on my girlfriend’s underwear. I’d watch the sunrise while starting with my day with a round of tai chi, rather than watching the sunrise to end my day after a round of jim beam. I’d feel the spirit of the universe coursing through my veins, communicate with the collective unconsciousness of every living being that is, was, or ever would be, and thus I would transcend the very nature of existence and being and simply “be”.
Who the hell was I kidding? Within two weeks I had merely traded my apartment on lake shore drive for digs on chengfu lu, traded in my car for a motorcycle, exchanged my curly haired latinas for their straight-haired Asian counterparts, and shots of tequila replaced by its cheaper, deadlier, inbred cousin bai jiu. To put it in economic terms, these were not “value added” trades. I had traded in each of my US dollars for 8 shiny mao bombs. However, when the cost to your soul is also 8 times higher, you will find your new currency takes you no further than what you previously held would have.
There is no answer to the question “Why is ‘how’ a wh-question?” Interrogative pro-form question…admit it. When I said that earlier, you had no idea what the hell I was talking about. But you pretended like you did and you kept reading. Well okay, maybe you gave up reading because you thought it would be too difficult. In which case, you wouldn’t even be reading this right now and I’m just masturbating to my own thoughts. The fact of the matter is, the question itself is a wh-question. A mathematician once said he could prove that 1+1=3. It was simple really. You just had to redefine your own system of numbers that went 1 3 2 4 5 etc… After all, what are they but mere symbols? There is no inherent meaning in the symbols, just the values that we all collectively assign to them for the convenience of mutual understanding. But he was wrong. He could no more change the meaning of 2 or 3 then I could change the nature of my own inner beast.
A wh-question is a wh-question…you could change the language to French if you like. Now you have qui que ou quand pourquoi and comment. The wh is gone, but the significance remains. And I could move to Mars and I’d still only be able to read the Tao Te Ching if it were tattooed on some martian girl’s navel, vaginally speaking.