From Learning Chinese

When life imitates textbook

rnGreat Wall
My view of the Great Wall on a trip to Badaling in March.

While I was reading a wonderful book called Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach (also the author of the equally fascinating Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers), I experienced what one scientist who studies the afterlife described to Roach as a “dazzle shot.”

You see, this scientist, Gary Schwartz — a psych professor at the University of Arizona and the founder of a lab that does research on mediums, including Alison DuBois, the inspiration for the American TV series, Medium — has asked dead people a lot of questions. And since Gary Schwartz is not himself a medium, he uses mediums to ask relatively mundane questions about the afterlife. Do you eat? Can you see me when I’m in the shower? He’s also conducted studies that asked people to rate a medium’s accuracy in describing a loved one. They had four rating options: hit, miss, questionable, or “dazzle shot” — in other words, so accurate it was spooky.

Although my experience with the “dazzle shot” did not involve dead people, or the afterlife or mediums for that matter, I still think “dazzle shot” is the perfect phrase to describe the accuracy with which my Chinese textbook portrayed my very own life one morning not so long ago.

As usual, at 7:40 a.m. I walked downstairs to the bike parking area in front of my building. I tried to unlock my bike, but couldn’t. I stood there and scratched my head for a second. Wait. That’s not my bike. It’s silver like my bike, but not mine. I have a different basket. I stood there gaping at the five or six bikes locked up in front of me. I didn’t want to believe my bike wasn’t there, so I just kept staring. When I realized how incredibly late to class I was going to be if I didn’t immediately head for the bus stop, I snapped out of it. I had just bought that bike two weeks before. I seethed on the bus on the way to class — it was the second time this year I had had a bike stolen.

I arrived 20 minutes late to class, opened my textbook to the day’s lesson and started reading the text with the class. Halfway through I realized that the character Da Shan (hopefully no relation to the Canadian Da Shan of CCTV9) was living my life. In the text he explains to his friend that he’s been having a lot of bad luck lately.

Here’s a rough translation of the part of the text that would have made me check “hit” on a Gary Schwartz medium survey:

Da Shan: Someone “rode away” on the bike I just bought, and until now he hasn’t returned it.
Ai De Hua: And you’re still waiting for him to return it? (Read this with a sarcastic tone and the whole text makes much more sense).

And here is where the “dazzle shot” comes in:

Da Shan: Last week I went to the Great Wall with a friend. When
we left the weather was so beautiful. As soon as we arrived, it started to rain really hard. We hadn’t brought an umbrella and were completely soaked.

The week before that fateful lesson I had in fact been in Beijing and attempted to visit the Great Wall. And while I succeeded in making it to the well-touristed Badaling portion of the wall, I felt like the trip was such a failure that I should immediately start planning another trip to Beijing just so I could actually see the Great Wall the next time I visited. The weather, as it was on Da Shan’s trip, was terrible, except even worse. It was snowing. And just like Da Shan, it wasn’t snowing in Beijing when I left in the morning. It was a little overcast and grey, but I did not expect snow. The fog was so thick I could barely see 50 feet in front of me, so although I was standing on the Great Wall, I did not actually get to see the Great Wall.

All of this of course means nothing. My textbook is about as psychic as the gold fish that swim around in a tiny bowl in my living room. It just shows the obvious: that bikes are stolen often enough in China to warrant a chapter in my textbook (the same textbook that had a chapter devoted to diarrhea and food poisoning). But just for a moment, before the “dazzle shot” wore off, I imagined Gary Schwartz starting a new study that measured language textbooks’ psychic ability.

Great Wall Painting
Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see something more like this on my next trip to the Great Wall.