The Noodling Narratives of Our Lives

By Liz Carter

Several years ago, though I can’t remember when exactly, my Chinese language learning took a turn for the serious. I went from barely reading anything regularly — skimming a few pages of a novel or reading a few news articles, taking breaks to look up unfamiliar characters — to reading voraciously, sometimes for hours at a time. I was learning new characters left and right, and even my conversational Chinese was improving.

I owed it all to people complaining about their lives on the internet.

The complaints I read were mostly on SMTH BBS, a forum run out of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and one of the oldest such online spaces in the country. There are various corners of the site set aside for discussion about online shopping, the stock market, studying abroad, and — of course — interpersonal drama. People post all day long about their problems, their dreams, and their frustrations, while others chime in to offer advice and comfort, sarcasm and snark. A friend of mine who scours the web for online shopping deals first pitched the site to me as a place where people shared e-commerce tips and tricks. I came for the Taobao sales, but stayed for the good old-fashioned gossip.

The beauty of studying Chinese in such a way is that you’re simultaneously learning about people. The “Family Life” subforum often shines a light on how people deal with their problems, and no stone is too mundane to be left unturned. Take, for instance, one 79-character complaint from earlier this month about a bowl of noodles. The original poster wrote that she was upset her mother-in-law hadn’t cooked a nicer dinner when she and her husband arrived in town.

Even with the picture of the noodles in question attached, this complaint could have fit into a tweet. But it triggered a 1,438-post debate in that thread alone about entitlement, love, self-awareness, and regional traditions. (It’s customary in parts of Shandong province to serve family members dumplings before they leave on a trip and noodles when they return home.) In the end, analysis from all angles often reveals to the original poster a truth found in the best literature: we are all the unreliable narrators of our own lives.

Lurk long enough on forums like these, and you’re bound to learn a little more about humor as well. Much of it is quite similar to quibbling on English-language sites, though no less pleasing: “What does everyone worry about at 35?” one thread asked recently. “We’ll I’m not even 30,” another user replied. “I didn’t ask about your IQ,” the original poster retorted sharply. But some of it is downright educational. Even the slang used tells you more about social realities than most news articles. Posters often lament their status as diqing, “underground youth” who can only afford subterranean rents, or sanwunan, “three-no men” possessed of no house, no car, and no money. The matchmaking board is vicious toward men deemed to have zhinan’ai, or “straight-man cancer” — symptoms include a sense of entitlement, a lack of self-awareness, and incredibly high standards for potential mates. These men lash back at the perceived pickiness of women by saying they have gongzhubing, or “princess-itis.”

And then there is the unexpected literature. Browsing a subforum dedicated to matchmaking earlier this year, I stumbled across what seemed to be a prosaic request for love advice: “Let’s say you have a boyfriend, and you’ve been together for five years,” it began. “You’re well-matched and love each other. This guy is healthy, decent-looking, reliable, and hard working. You’re getting to be that age where you talk about marriage, and both of your parents are on board.”

This forum is rife with such posts. You’re expecting, “Should I marry him, even though I prefer spicy food and he can’t stomach anything hotter than wet toast?” or “Do you think we should get married first and then buy an apartment, or wait until we’ve got the apartment before we tie the knot?” Instead: “One day, your boyfriend suddenly begins to feel funny. You go with him to the hospital to get X-rays done. Under the light of the X-ray, your boyfriend’s flesh suddenly undergoes a dramatic transformation, and in the blink of an eye he becomes a 6-foot-tall giant worm before your eyes.”

Ultimately, the post asks, do you marry your worm-boyfriend? Yes, he’s a worm, but he still loves you — and he’s been offered a well-compensated position at a museum of natural history.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of traditional reading habits, just arguing that a diet of classics alone is not enough. Too often, we assume that the pleasurable and productive are mutually exclusive — but in my own experience, lurking on message boards has been an education in its own right. And perhaps, if I’m being honest, it’s not just about getting a well-rounded education or increased language proficiency. Perhaps, like the boyfriend-turned-worm of the aforementioned debate, I find myself strangely transformed through these encounters with the mundane, the sublime, and above all, the unexpected. And perhaps even more strangely, I like it.

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