Wednesday 14 May 2014

How I Ended Up Learning Chinese (Part One)

How I Ended Up Learning Chinese
Divorce and Consequences.

I couldn’t come up with a good way of putting this into a video, and I’m reluctant to post reflections of this kind online as text, partly because the written word may lack the same sense of sincerity, and partly because I’ve really lost my faith in anyone having the ability to read without adding to or disregarding what the text really says.

I also lack the most basic conviction that helps egomaniacs become great entertainers: I just don’t think that my own story and experience are significant for much of anyone else, and I’m not really motivated to make an impression on anyone, one way or another.

However, there are two strong motives that shape what I'll now say, and what I don’t say: I’m aware that one day, eventually, my daughter could be seeing this, and I’m aware that (even now) my ex-wife could have co-workers and bosses seeing this --and so if I say too much, it could cause problems for her.

For the sake of my daughter, though, I don’t think I can say nothing at all.

The question might be asked by her (or by anyone) of how she ended up being born, and then separated from me a little less than one year later, and why she grew up without me, while I was (strangely) learning Chinese, all alone, in Taiwan.

The answer is interesting, but like many stories that are true, it’s composed entirely of extraneous parts that are not drawn together by any single theme or direction.

So, what follows here is a set of autobiographical reflections that may be of interest to only one person many years from now; however, it explains the circumstances of that one person’s birth, and of my separation from her.

When we left Cambodia in April of 2011, my wife and I made a significant stop in Taiwan, lasting until the end of June, before we moved, together, to Canada.

Toward the end of my time in Cambodia, it was clear that none of my work on Laos, Cambodia or anywhere else in Southeast Asia had any future in it (that is, of course, something I could say more about, but I’m just noting it here very briefly).  From that perspective, it seemed that the only way to proceed further in my own life and research would be through learning Chinese, and, in the short term, that I’d most likely survive by teaching English to earn a living (possibly in Yunnan or Taiwan, places I had lived before).

I did research other options; at every stage of this story, I was researching other options, and speaking directly with people in institutions connected to those possibilities.  However, with all that information and my own experience up to that point, it seemed that learning Chinese was the only option left --although my own interests in life were largely unrelated to it.

When my wife was offered a job in Canada (as a professor of Anthropology) it wasn’t immediately clear that I should give up my work on Asian studies entirely.  Chinese was a language that I could study in Canada (a place where languages like Pali and Burmese are not options, and where research into Cambodian politics is not appreciated, and so on).

My wife was offered the job while we were still in Cambodia, and she accepted it partly because it seemed better than moving back to Yunnan or Taiwan together.  However, it was also, clearly, a step up and step forward in her career; it wasn’t nearly so clear what kind of a step it would be for me, or in what direction.

At that stage, the idea of switching to work on First Nations languages was already interesting to me, and the possibility of returning to Canada was always morally and politically linked to First Nations issues in my mind.  It’s interesting that I actually have some slight evidence of this, where First Nations are mentioned in the lecture I delivered at Oxford on Theravada Buddhism; as I’ve mentioned in a few other comments online, the issue did come up (again and again) during my years in Asia, and the shadow of genocide in the British colonies continued to haunt me and continued to shape my interests in other fields.

There were some reasons to hesitate before really deciding to commit to First Nations.  I was aware of the warning I’d often given to others myself: nobody was inviting me to get involved, so whatever good I could do was --at least-- uncalled for (and possibly unwanted, easily resented, etc.).  An outsider, even with the best of intentions, is still an uninvited presence; and this is true in both Cambodia and Canada, both in a context of absolute poverty and relative poverty.  My impression was (and remains) that First Nations need every honest intellectual they could get supporting their cause, especially where endangered languages are concerned; however, they still have every right to refuse that help (on the smallest scale and the largest), and on a case-by-case basis you can see evidence that they do.  Most communities already have the experience of feeling deprived of their dignity after some interaction with a linguist, an anthropologist, or one of a thousand shades of charity; conversely, most outsiders who are trying to help are unaware of the extent to which they can tread on someone else's dignity in the act of helping.

To skip ahead in the story for a moment, every time that I was invited to participate in Cree religious ceremonies, I politely refused.  In one case I remember I said, simply, “If I were there, it wouldn’t be a real ceremony”.  I, personally, do not believe that the way to respect indigenous culture is to transform it into a tourist-attraction for people who neither believe in it nor understand it; and I had to refuse, on my own part, to ever play the role of such a tourist.

So, in looking ahead to the possibility of such a future from Cambodia, I wasn’t sure that there was an approach to the language and politics that could work for me, as an outsider who intended to remain on the outside (I neither wanted to appropriate nor assimilate myself into First Nations culture in any way).

At that time, my own willingness to switch to First Nations reflected my own certainty that Canadian departments of Asian Studies were a dead-end (and departments of Buddhist Studies were even worse).  It also reflected the extent to which my own research has always been motivated by ethical and political concerns; and while Buddhism in the context of modern Asia is burning bright with those issues, I knew all-too-well the disengaged darkness (and self-selected obscurity) of “Western Buddhism” that would be dominant in Canada (inside and outside of academia), lacking in all those humanitarian aspects that had (formerly) made my work rewarding, even when all other aspects were disappointing to me.  However, this wasn’t a simple or short-term decision: it was a decision with tremendous, long-term consequences, that I took very seriously.

So, stopping in Taiwan for a few months (after leaving Cambodia, and before arriving in Canada) was a crucial stage of transition: I arrived in Taiwan (in 2011) thinking that learning Chinese was the best option I had --and I departed from Taiwan (a few months later) convinced that it wasn’t an option at all.

What I found in Taiwan during that trip was all bad news.  I was already familiar with how bad the situation was for Buddhist Studies on the island to some extent, but I had thought that my own willingness to begin from scratch (in a new language, in a new discipline, from the bottom up) would open some doors for me.  It didn’t.

So, I arrived in Canada willing to completely cut off my prior history in Asia, and looking to start a new career via Cree.  There was no way for me to continue work connected to Pali, Cambodia or any of the rest of it if I relocated to Canada; and I was relocating to Canada to support my wife’s career.  So, starting a new career myself seemed to be in order.  I didn't have a home in Canada to return to; conversely, I didn't have a home anywhere in Asia to go back to, either (not then, not now, not ever).

It was still a sacrifice.  My wife knew then, and she still knows now, that I was making a sacrifice to support her career, her ambitions, and her interests.  She had just finished her own PhD (within days of being hired as a professor) and she now promised (publicly and repeatedly) that she was going to support me as I earned a PhD of my own, in the next stage of our lives together.

That was a promise she would both break and forget the significance of many times over, in a fairly short span of time.  It’s a simple point that I don’t want to be lost in this long account: I returned to Canada in order to get a formal education, with a degree attached to the end.  I gave up everything that mattered to me in Asia, and supported my wife in her new job, with the explicitly stated promise that she was going to help me return to university and pursue a higher degree.  That was a contract between us, and it was the basis for my ending one life, and starting another.

If the word “life” in that last sentence seems too vague, I’ll mention just one feature that is (for someone like myself) very telling: I stopped reading the news from places like Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, and I began following First Nations news (including Canada’s A.P.T.N.).  I stopped reading the history of the British Empire in Asia, to turn my attention to the history of the same empire in Canada.  In terms of what my “life” is, the political history that I’m reading (and that I care about) is a large part of it; and, at this time, it changed, along with my idea of my own long-term future.

I didn’t have a single friend in Canada waiting to meet me, and I didn’t have a single relative in the country on speaking terms with me.  I didn’t have a home to go back to there, and I didn’t have the prospect of a job.  However, Canada did give me the option of returning to university, and getting another degree of some kind.

That unwritten contract was already discussed in great detail while we were still in Cambodia together, and after I saw just what a dead-end my options in Taiwan really were, I found myself researching the different options and implications that a return to Canada would have (with the assumption that I would never return to Asia at all).  I was sacrificing everything meaningful in my life to support my wife; and she was going to support me in gaining access to education, and, eventually, returning to the workforce.

We agreed, also, that my wife would probably try to have a child within 10 years, and that we thought she would keep the job (as professor of Anthropology) for about 10 years, but that she would not have a child until after I was well-established in some university program (or, perhaps, finished it entirely).  We discussed this at length (even at the earliest stage) because we both knew that any diploma I could get would require us to live in separate cities for significant lengths of time, and our own lack of family support (on both sides) would require both of us to devote all of our time to a child, whenever it was that we decided to have one.

That was, from the first, a clearly articulated part of the plan: the closest option for me to earn a PhD was probably 800 km away (at the University of Alberta), the rest being even further.  The distances between the major cities of Canada are huge, and for the first time in my life I was seriously considering buying a car, if my education and research were (now) going to require it.

The plan wasn’t bad.  Being married to a professor of Anthropology is already a fairly good excuse to devote oneself to First Nations languages; and for someone who is burdened with a diploma in political science (from a Canadian university) First Nations politics is pretty much the most meaningful thing you could do with the next 10 years of your life, whether or not you'd been studying Pali for the prior 10 years of your life.  Further, if I had any talent at learning obscure languages, this was a chance to test it, and to work to reverse the course of cultural genocide in a way that would be --at a minimum-- meaningful to myself, and probably meaningful to some community, or to some handful of intellectuals that I might meet along the way.

The plan, also, was flexible: I didn’t really care if I ended up with a PhD in politics or a teacher’s certificate and a diploma in education (there is a lot of work to be done in First Nations education, and, of course, there’s an intersection with endangered language research, preservation, and so on).  There were many, many institutions I could work with, and many different languages within the Algonquian family that I could work on (starting from a basis in Western Cree, that I enrolled in immediately).

However, the plan did place tremendous trust in one person: my wife.  I was relying on her, simply, to keep her promises --and not any kind of implicit promise, but commitments that she had explicitly made.