Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sweet Understanding

It's hot, and my husband and I are in a hurry. As we approach the shop where we get our weekly order of western food--bread and cheese today--we meet an irritated-looking colleague.

"She doesn't have the order in yet," he tells us.  "Or maybe you'll do better than I did understanding her Chinese."

My husband and I look at each other in dismay. This man has been in China a lot longer than we have--he's bound to know more Chinese than we do. But we go into the shop anyway because we have other things to buy--and besides, despite countless frustrating encounters with people who cannot understand us and who we have no hope of understanding, we have become cautious optimists. Because we have to be getting better. Every day we make a point of spending at least twenty minutes on Mandarin. At some point, this has got to pay off.

We keep careful track of our tiny achievements in cracking the linguistic code: the taxi driver who got what I was saying on my first try; the cashier who rattled off a total that immediately made sense; being able to recognize red-cooked tofu on a menu; making out what the recording on the bus is saying. Any intelligible exchange with strangers brings us great joy:  the man in the elevator who told us it was raining, the waitress in our local restaurant who asked us how we were doing, even the kid in the parking lot who pointed a grubby finger at us and whispered the word foreigner. The day one of my students yawned and groaned to her friend that she was tired, I'm sure she wondered why I grinned so maniacally. Because after months of understanding zip-all, we're thrilled even when mere words and phrases make sense.

In the shop, the woman behind the cashier shakes her head when we ask for our order and rattles off something in Chinese. We can't understand a word she says. Dejected, we turn to leave when I suddenly hear what she is saying, clear as day. Wait here for a minute and I'll be right back--it's arrived, but I can't leave. Overjoyed, I turn to my husband and see that he too has gotten it.

"She wants us to wait here!" I practically scream. "She's going to go get our order!" 

We fall all over ourselves to say that yes, we will wait for our bread and cheese--five minutes is fine--we will wait longer if necessary, no problem.  Five minutes later, the woman is back, and hallelujah, she has the bread with her, proving that we have indeed just understood an entire fairly complicated (for us) exchange.

We carry our bread and cheese home, grinning like fools. Helen Keller holding her hand out at the water pump has nothing on us.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Getting The Tone Right

It is late at night, and I am spectacularly lost. I have just been out for sushi with colleagues on my own, and although usually there is someone with whom I can share a taxi home, tonight nobody is going my way. I have been given good instructions, but somehow I still have managed to get myself into a neighborhood I find totally unfamiliar.

All the buses have stopped running and taxis are thin on the ground. And even if they weren't, there would be the problem of having to explain where I want to go to the taxi driver in Chinese. I can do this pretty well now, but what I still cannot do is make myself understood; apparently, I'm still butchering the tones. The way it usually works is this: my husband and I get into a taxi after one of us, usually my husband, has worked over a laborious spiel explaining our destination, honing it and repeating it ad nauseam. We then give the instructions to the taxi driver, who gapes at us uncomprehendingly and asks us to repeat ourselves. Which we do. After half a dozen tries, he finally seems to get it and we drive off, most of the time in the right direction. It is, to say the least, very frustrating.

The last time I had to do this on my own, it  took me over ten tries before the driver understood. Tonight, I am reluctant to go through the misery and humiliation. So I retrace my steps and go back over the bridge I've just crossed. I go past the gated apartment building with the giant stone lions in front and along a path bordered by willows. When I get to the Korean restaurant I remember from ten minutes ago, I try going left instead of going straight on. And I walk for more than fifteen minutes, but I can't see anything familiar. So I try a different route, then when that one culminates in a dead end, a different one. I end up on a vast road that is utterly deserted--weird in China--and rather dark. I suck my breath in and squeeze my eyes shut. There is no alternative: I've been walking for over an hour now and my husband, home marking papers, will be starting to worry. I've got to find a taxi.

Ten minutes later, I spot one and hold up my hand, my heart pounding in my throat. For once, I have no competition and the driver obligingly screeches to a halt. I get in, clear my throat, and tell him where I want to go. He gets it the very first time.

I am, as it turns out, less than a minute away from home. This is how bad my sense of direction is: even when I'm almost home, I have no idea where I am.

I end up paying full whack for the taxi, of course. But for once, I don't care one bit.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Holding My Breath

Zhi is a nice young man with a friendly smile and a refreshingly honest way of speaking. He isn't a student of mine, but we got to know each other through a university club and instantly bonded over a shared liking of cats, travel, and the fact that we both come from cities known for their air pollution. Zhi is from an industrial center in the north of China, and I am from Riverside, in Southern California's infamous smog belt. We are comparing notes on our respective hometowns right now, and so far Zhi is winning, if you can call it that.

"We're famous for our particulate matter," Zhi tells me. "Most cities have high particulate matter in their air, but ours is the very small kind that is most dangerous. You can't see it."

"You could see ours," I tell him, embarrassed that I can't remember our town's exact air quality index. Zhi remembers the air quality index of his city and can quote it on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. This week it's 489, which is more than 20 times over the acceptable WHO maximum standard of 20. On days when people set off fireworks, it reaches a level that is right off the charts.

"What kind of particulate matter does your hometown have?" Zhi wants to know. He is a science student, and these things matter to him.

I am a rather unscientific person and this question makes me squirm. "I'm not sure. But it was very bad."

Zhi nods. "My city has small particulate matter--" He frowns and picks up a pen and starts writing a complicated equation that goes on and on (< 2.5µ is all I can remember).

"Very small," Zhi adds superfluously.

I feel irritated with myself for not being able to describe the consistency and composition of Riverside's smog, as if I'm letting our side down somehow. "I don't know if our particulate matter was that small, but because of our smog, you couldn't see much of anything," I explain, pointing to a building close by. "For instance, that building would be hard to see if we were in my hometown."

Zhi wrinkles his forehead. "That building would be impossible to see in my hometown."

"When we were kids, we couldn't run on bad days," I say. "They made us stay inside because the air was so bad. One boy even died after running half a mile on a smoggy day."

Zhi nods. "Some people die in my school too."

"You mean this happened in your school recently?" Zhi's tenses are a little shaky sometimes.

"Yes--recently, also before."

My own face mask is hanging over the arm of my chair. Zhi points to it now, a look of astonishment on his face.

"Why do you have this? Do you need it?"

"I brought it just in case," I say, feeling like an utter wimp. Today the air quality index in our city is only 65, just over three times the maximum limit.

Zhi picks my mask up and examines it. He does not look impressed.

"My mother, father have disposable respirator, N-95 and P-100, change filter every day, wear every day."  He regards mine with amusement. "This one like scarf. Not good."  

At this, I give up. Zhi's hometown has worse air pollution than Riverside ever did. We spend the rest of our time discussing effective clean air filters and alternative energy.  


Friday, 10 January 2014

Miss Polite

It is seven o'clock in the morning and I am waiting for the bus. It is raining and cold, and I have been standing at the stop for a good fifteen minutes, chilling myself, and getting sprayed with gutter-water by cars, trucks, and e-bikes that whiz past. At last the bus arrives and, to my delight, stops right in front of me--almost a first. I step forward as the doors wheeze open, but before I can get on, a couple of students beat me to it, one of them so enthusiastic about getting out of the rain that she almost puts my eye out with her umbrella. One after the other, the students pile onto the bus ahead of me, talking non-stop as they completely ignore me. I am the last one on, and sadly, there are now no more seats. I stand all the way to the university and ponder the differences in manners between cultures.


It is five o'clock in the evening and my last student has left. It has been an especially long and grueling day as I've been seeing students for private tutorials in my office and giving them advice about their various compositions since early in the morning, and I worked right through my lunch break to accommodate a student who needed to be squeezed in between appointments. I'm dying to see what there is of the sky; and I need a brisk walk, a cup of tea, and something to eat. But more than anything else, I just need a break. I've seen so much head-achingly bad English, I feel like whooping and hollering to finally have reached this point of no more students.  Just as I start to lock my office door, however, a girl appears from nowhere, clutching a composition. My heart sinks, but I stand my ground. "I'm all done," I tell her. "I'll be back at nine o'clock tomorrow morning."

The girl's eyes widen and her mouth drops open. "But I have appointment!"

"Not at five o'clock, surely."

"Nooo!" the girl wails. "At four I come here!"

"And did you knock on the door?"

"No, you are busy so I wait."

I stare at this girl in dismay. "Didn't you see the sign?"  I point to it. IF YOU HAVE AN APPOINTMENT, PLEASE KNOCK ON THE DOOR AND ANNOUNCE YOURSELF.  It is accompanied, for good measure, by the equivalent in my shaky Chinese. I put this sign up because too many of my students were waiting outside, twiddling their thumbs while I talked to their classmates, instead of letting me know they were there. This way, the students who have appointments with me can stay a little longer if they need extra help--and I don't end up twiddling my own thumbs waiting for no-shows.

The girl shakes her head. "I see, but you are busy so I wait."

"Well you shouldn't have waited if you had an appointment! If you have an appointment, it's perfectly fine to expect whoever you are meeting to stop what they're doing and see you!"  My voice sounds obnoxiously strident, but I want to be outside, on my way home. I want to be smelling the roses and feeling the bracing air on my face, not quibbling with this girl about appointment protocol.

"But you are talking," the girl points out. "To other student."

"Only because you didn't knock," I say. "If you'd knocked, I'd have known you were there. I'd have told her that I had an appointment and she would have left."

The girl stares back at me. "But I cannot do that!"

"Why in the world not?"

"Because-- that is mispolite!"

An hour later, I am waiting at the bus stop again. When the bus arrives, once again, a throng of students pushes past me as though I am not there. Once again, I am the last one on the bus.

All the way home, I ponder the differences in manners between cultures.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Missing Our Girls

I am standing in a mall, waiting for my husband, when I see them: a woman about my age and her grown-up daughter. They are window shopping, their arms linked, and they are deep in amicable conversation. The daughter--she has to be the woman's daughter; they have the same high forehead and wide-spaced eyes--is about four months pregnant, The expression on her mother's face makes me want to cry. She is obviously so happy to be with her daughter, and so proud.

They stop in front of a window display of clothing for toddlers and admire the tiny coats, sweaters and shoes. The daughter laughs and points at a stuffed zebra the size of a panda. 

Suddenly I miss my daughters! My husband and I have missed them ever since we arrived here, in late summer, but at this moment, seeing this woman and her daughter together, I miss them so much I can hardly stand it.

Earlier, I looked for presents to give my girls for Christmas. I browsed through trays of carved hair ornaments, rows of sweaters on plastic hangers, stacks of tee shirts I thought they might like. I found so many things I thought would please them, but I stopped myself from actually buying them. I want to see my girls trying these things on--see them wearing the sweaters, frowning at themselves in the mirror--Do you think this is my color? Would a smaller size be better? I want to drink coffee with them afterwards, take them out for lunch, try on lipsticks and perfume with them that we have no intention of buying.

We are generally happy here, my husband and I. We are doing interesting and demanding jobs; we are struggling to learn Chinese, which is as engrossing as it is frustrating; and we are gradually getting to know this country. But being away from our daughters is so hard!

My husband rejoins me and we take the elevator to the basement. There, we walk past a huge play area where children tumble about on brightly-colored mats and climb plastic honeycombs. One kid is bawling his head off, kicking the floor. His exasperated mother watches him, arms crossed over her chest, a look of irritated resignation on her face. Ever so often, she bawls out something that he is making too much noise to hear.

"Been there," my husband murmurs as we watch the struggling toddler, and I automatically echo, "Done that."  We continue walking, but the toddler's screams are still perfectly audible from quite a distance.

And yes, we feel a little bit better. But we still miss our girls.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Triumph Of Tomatoes

There is a greengrocer's near our apartment. It is a small shop along a busy road, run by a bustling, no-nonsense middle-aged woman wearing an apron. Up until last night, my husband and I have pointed, gestured, and sometimes drawn air pictures of what we want to buy, always to the amused reaction of the greengrocer. Once in a while, we have tried to use Chinese--to the even more amused reaction of the greengrocer.

But last night, a small breakthrough occurred. I went into the shop as usual, picked out the produce I wanted -- apples and pears -- and then I stopped and frowned, unable to see any tomatoes. And I really wanted tomatoes.

"What are you waiting for?" my husband asked, anxious to get home.

"Hang on while I get some tomatoes," I said. He shook his head. "I think you're going to be disappointed." He gestured around us. "Do you see any tomatoes?"

I approached the greengrocer, my heart pounding. "Xihonshi yomeiyo?" I managed to squeal, working hard to get my tones right. At first she just stared at me, then she asked me to repeat it.

I said it again more slowly and she said ah! For a second I couldn't believe she had actually understood. Then she walked over to a box of pears and lifted it up. Underneath were tomatoes. Glossy little ruby-red tomatoes with tiny green tops.

We went home and ate them, along with the apples and pears I bought, which were very sweet. But the tomatoes were sweeter still.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Cracking the Code

Learning how to speak Mandarin, it turns out, is not easy.

Decades ago when I first moved to Japan, I must have gone through the same agony, but however frustrating it was then, I can't believe it was anything like this. In China, I have been in a number of 'situations'. Times when being able to communicate with the people around me was hugely important, but woefully beyond my capabilities. Like when I forgot to weigh a few pieces of fruit at the supermarket and my husband had to run back to do this, aggravating a man behind me who turned red-faced with rage and began to rant. I knew what he must be saying: What happened? How could you possibly have forgotten to weigh your fruit? How dare you keep me waiting? Again and again he seemed to be demanding an explanation which I was, of course, unable to give him. Or, on another occasion, when I tried desperately to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go, having rehearsed it at least a dozen times--to find that he still could not understand me. Or when I answered the phone in our office and could not tell the obviously agitated woman on the other end that a colleague was away from her desk. I could manage "not here now, five minutes," but that just didn't cut it.

My frustration at this lack has a lot to do with the Great Expectations I came here with: I thought that given my ability to read some Chinese, learning to speak might be easier for me. But I was wrong--so wrong! Despite the fact that I spent decades in Japan learning how to write kanji, or Chinese characters, learning to read in China is a whole new ball of wax. Characters have been greatly modified here, and the ones I'm familiar with have often been changed beyond recognition. Even simple ones like push, pull, east, and car were mysteries to me at first. Days of the week, pronouns, verbs, nouns--all were woefully mystifying. Then there's the pronunciation. The vowels make me want to weep--no clear, easy-to-follow a-i-u-e-o like there is in Japanese; certain Chinese vowels change with certain consonants, and I can never remember which. And the tones are murder.

But lately, I have been having breakthroughs. Tiny ones, it is true, but breakthroughs nevertheless.

Breakthrough 1:  My husband and I are buying persimmons from a man who is selling them from a cart. As we pack them into a bag, the man, assuming that we don't know how to eat them, indicates that they must be peeled first. I take a pen from the counter and scrawl on a piece of newspaper in Chinese: In my country we also have persimmons. I like them very much. He reads this out loud and nods slowly, then gives me a broad grin. Eureka! He understands!  

Breakthrough 2: I am with a Japanese friend, applying for a courtesy card at a local department store. The woman asks my Japanese friend to fill in my address for me, but I shake my head and write my address in Chinese in the space provided. The woman reads it and looks up at me with a hint of respect in her eyes: Oh, she says, you can write Chinese. And eureka! I understand her!

Breakthrough 3: We arrive home from work to find a handwritten note in Chinese on our front door. It has been scrawled in haste and it takes me ages to work through, but with the help of a Chinese-Japanese dictionary and my husband's character-recognition software,  I finally piece it out: I am your upstairs neighbor. Recently my toilet pipes have been blocked. I need to gain access to your apartment in order to fix the pipes. I came today, but you were not home. Can you please phone me to let me know when you will be home so that we can unblock our pipes? Thank you very much. By the time I've worked this out, my husband has already photographed the note and texted it to our real estate agent. She texts back the following message: Your neighbor needs to get into your apartment because her toilet is blocked and she needs to fix it. Sweet hallelujah! I was right!

I'm thrilled with these tiny breakthroughs. So thrilled that the idea of perfect strangers showing up on our one day off to tear up our floorboards and fiddle with the pipes to unclog a blocked toilet hardly gives me a moment's pause.