Purism, aka, The Near Life Experience

Posted by at 12:40AM

The day before I departed for Beijing, my Father asked me if I was concerned about my Chinese language proficiency, particularly since I hadn’t been to China in a number of years. I was, I explained, but also suspected that the words and phrases would all come rushing back once I set foot on the mainland. Once I needed to speak the language, it would be there, somehow. For me, there is something thoroughly unenjoyable about speaking Chinese in the States, primarily because most of my interlocutors are far more fluent in spoken English than I am in spoken Chinese. When it comes to the question of “your tongue or mine?” I will almost always concede to the instincts of my conversation partner, regardless of how badly I’d like to brush up on my tones.
As it turned out, necessity reared its ugly head even before the flight attendants could press PLAY on the third, crappy film feature. Somewhere over the dead center of the Pacific Ocean – Mapquest “intersection of Terrifying Depth and Total Oblivion” for the precise address – my aisle-mate stood up abruptly, took four belabored steps in the direction of the bathroom, and collapsed in a heap on the floor. She was a middle-aged Chinese-American woman, heavy-set, with a kind but somewhat peculiar personality (in that born-and-raised-in-the-Bay-Area sort of way). At the start of the flight, she struck up a conversation almost immediately, telling me about her upcoming trip and asking me about mine. She was on her way to Beijing to study Mandarin, which she hoped to use with her fourth-grade class (her first language was English, her second Cantonese).


The flight attendants immediately made an announcement over the loud speaker, asking if there was a doctor on board. “You should make the announcement in Chinese, too,” I suggested. She nodded in agreement, somewhat distracted, and then jolted to complete attention. “Ah,” she groaned, “they’re both on break,” referring to her two Chinese-speaking colleagues. “I speak Chinese,” I responded instinctually, and felt my throat constrict slightly as soon as the words left my mouth. She handed me the telephone loudspeaker and rattled off the instructions. Red button, then speak. Red button, then speak? Yes. I depressed the red button, and then spoke in Chinese: “If there’s a doctor on the plane, please come here. If there’s a doctor on the plane, please come here.” I said it twice, in part because that’s how I imagine urgent announcements like that are made, and in part because I wanted one more chance to hear myself say the words, to make sure I had phrased them coherently.
Almost as soon as I had finished, my chest tightened up in fear. Was my translation too literal? This phrase had never come up in my studies or my research! The knot in my ribs finally unwound when a bespectacled, young Chinese woman reported in, presented her medical credentials to the flight attendants, and immediately began to care for my neighbor. Within the hour, she was back in her seat, sleeping comfortably, breathing oxygen through a plastic mask. One hour later, she was completely back to normal, gracefully deflecting the dead-on stares of literally every passenger who passed her on theway to the lieu.
What lesson could I derive from this, I wondered? “Death stalks you at ever turn.” True, but that’s a bit too grim for the Unofficial Stanford Blog. “Before learning how to count in Chinese, best to start with paramedical terminology.” That seems a bit paranoid. How about this:
Perfectionism can kill you or, if not you, then the people who sit next to you on airplanes.
Phrased a bit differently, what I mean is this. Replace your purism with audacity, that precious reservoir of self-confidence that allows a person to plow forward through a life checkered with faults and errors. To live is to live impurely. To speak is to make mistakes. To begin to write is to write badly. Purism is paralysis. Perfection is boring.
Trust me, I’m sort of a doctor.
Thomas S. Mullaney
Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History
Stanford University

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3 Responses to “Purism, aka, The Near Life Experience”

  1. AnlamK says:

    I don’t see how this episode gives credence to the following conclusion:Replace your purism with audacity, that precious reservoir of self-confidence that allows a person to plow forward through a life checkered with faults and errors. To live is to live impurely. To speak is to make mistakes. To begin to write is to write badly. Purism is paralysis. Perfection is boring.
    At best, the conclusion that one ought to draw is that perfectionism (or purism) is not always justified. But this doesn’t imply that “purism is paralysis” or “perfectionism is boring.”
    Consider a different type of context. Imagine that you were writing a paper for a scholarly journal and for various reasons, you had to write in Chinese the exact same sentence.
    Probably, chances are that lax grammar wouldn’t satisfy you and you would go through a lot of effort to perfect the sentence in question.
    In that context, would you again say that “purism is paralysis” or “perfection is boring”? Probably, and hopefully, not.
    Perhaps, the most substantive conclusion one can infer is that some “being a virtue” is a context-relative property. Being a grammatical “purist” in the context of seeking medical help is bad, whereas in other contexts, it is good. Of course, one would need to posit a context-invariant virtue such as “the virtue of being able to evaluate contexts properly” and once one does this ad hoc postulation, one wonders whether there are other context-invariant virtues.
    The mathematician Hardy wrote that only %10 of the people did their jobs really well and he, too, was being a perfectionist.

  2. Allan Barker says:

    Hi there,
    Let Confucius have the last word on perfection:
    “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”
    What percentage would Hardy have put on that. I wonder?

  3. psychologia says:

    Very nice point of view! Respect!

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