Sunday, 1 June 2014

Belly-dancing in China

My daughter and I are at our very first belly-dancing class. "Are you sure you want to do this?" I ask her as we enter the gym.

But she can't hear me. Not only is Arabesque music pounding out of the loudspeakers at full volume, but in China people are used to loud noise and everybody just talks over it, creating a cacophony that has to be heard to be believed. In a country where you can expect firecrackers going off at seven in the morning, making every dog in town howl its lungs out, where some drivers lean on their horns just to let off steam and street vendors holler out their pitches to passersby all day long, a roomful of people screaming to make themselves heard raises no eyebrows.

My daughter and I are intimidated by the number of women wearing proper belly-dancing outfits: those little belts with tinkling metal bits that jingle when you shake your hips, sexy tops in bright, sparkly colors, and wispy-thin Princess Jasmine-style trousers. On top of this, although this is a belly-dancing class, we seem to be the only ones in the room who have anything close to real bellies: all the women in the room are svelte, willowy, and rail-thin. I try to remind myself that the Turkish belly-dancers I knew were of all sizes, that we should fit right in. But in fact we stand out like guppies among goldfish. Also, we're not Chinese, and everybody else in the room is, including the teacher.

"We'll just watch the teacher," my daughter argued when I pointed out our language problem. "We don't need the language just for a dance class. And besides, it'll be a learning experience." And I allowed myself to be convinced. But the truth is, although we've both been studying Chinese furiously, we still have a long way to go even just to follow the Chinese a belly-dancing class.

The class begins. The pounding Arabesque is cranked up a notch and we all concentrate on following the teacher, who starts with stretches--easy enough. Then she moves on to simple movements: we all stand tall, feet together, arms held out, and move our feet rapidly, jiggling the entire body. Then we move on to more simple moves which branch into more moves, complicated ones too --arms held up, arms held out, arms reaching in different directions, turn steps, moving forward, moving backwards, turning one way, turning the other way, all the time the instructions barked out in Chinese that we cannot follow. Given the pounding music, the sound of 40 feet pounding the floor, and the shimmering tinkle of belly-dancing belts in our ears on top of our linguistic ineptitude, it's tough to follow her.

And then right in the middle of it, when we are both dripping with sweat, panting for breath, screwing up 65% of the moves, and cringing at the sight of our flushed, uncoordinated selves in the mirror, I hear it: zuo jiao. "Left foot!" I almost cry out, in the joy of understanding. "Left foot!" I mouth to my daughter, who is too exhausted to see it. Not five minutes later, I catch another one:  Youshou--right hand. I could whoop for joy. Who cares if I'll never belly dance properly? If I can get even a few words of Chinese in this racket, I'm making progress. And I know that I really am getting better: just yesterday I understood somebody who said Is it okay if I sit here?; last week, I was able to understand the cashier when she said 320 yuan; will that be by cash or credit card?--and a while back, not only was I able to tell the lady who got on the elevator after me that I wasn't responsible for the pee on the floor, I could understand her chuckled response: Yeah, a kid did that.  Clearly I'm on a roll here.

Later in the evening, when we have showered and nursed our aching arms and legs, my daughter and I practice our Chinese. Tonight we have a song all picked out which should help us, too: heads, shoulders knees and toes (hair, shoulders, knees and feet here in China). It's a simple enough song, and I know from painful experience that my daughter will learn it a lot faster than I will. But never mind: I already know foot.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Key Inside

The receptionist is wearing a tight-fitting purple leotard and a butterfly hair clip, but she is all business. She repeats herself and looks from me to my husband, her eyes flashing impatience. We have no idea what she's saying.

"Sorry, could you say that again?" I say in a squeak, managing to trip over my words. It's my turn. My husband has already been stretched over the linguistic rack and it's not fair to expect him to do all the work.

The woman repeats herself,  using the exact same words, and predictably, we still don't understand. I forgive her: not everybody is a language teacher. But it still drives me insane.

"Could you write it down?" I try next. I'm still very much a beginner when it comes to speaking Mandarin, but thanks to over two decades of Japanese and eight months of toughing it out here, my reading is intermediate. Unfortunately, it fails me on this occasion. All I can pick out is you can't-- today-- didn't come-- one to two days-- maybe.

We are trying to join our local gym. We've been told by foreign friends that the registration process is straightforward: all you need to join is cash and very basic Chinese. So here we are with both, but we're getting absolutely nowhere.

My husband, ever the pessimist, thinks we should cut our losses and go home, but I'm dying for a work-out and determined to make it through this. And I remember Oba-san, a Japanese man I once knew in Amsterdam. If they handed out medals for linguistic bravery, Oba-san would have been in line for the gold.

I met Oba-san through the owner of the Japanese restaurant where I was working as a dishwasher. Oba-san was a graphic artist working on a project in the Netherlands, and he and his wife and adult son had been in Amsterdam for only a few weeks. None of them spoke Dutch or had more than the merest smattering of English, and I had been asked to help them practice conversational English. This was not easy for any of us: both Oba-san and his wife had gone through school during the war years, when there was no English language instruction at all, and had gained what tiny bit of spoken ability they had through their son, who himself spoke little English. Week after week, we plugged away at the kind of English I thought they might need for shopping, getting around town, and meeting people. It was slow going, but the Obas never seemed to get frustrated with their lack of ability.

During the months I knew them, one event stands out in my mind as a shining example of the best possible attitude a language learner can have. I had assumed that the Obas primarily needed me to help them translate and interpret, so one stormy day when I turned up at their rented house and learned that their roof was leaking, I prepared myself for a conversation with their landlord. Instead, Mr Oba waved me away. "I'll handle it," he said, hunching over the telephone.

Listening to Oba-san's side of the conversation, I was both appalled and highly impressed: his grammar was all over the place, his intonation was off at least 50% of the time, and he butchered every vowel and consonant he spoke--Rye-in is fall down, is very strong. Floor I step, water, my feet, my socks, water-- as I listened, I found myself wondering if his landlord had any idea what he was trying to say. Or if his landlord, who like most Dutch people was almost certain to speak excellent English, had any idea that there was a native English speaker nearby who could have explained the situation much more efficiently. But here is the wonderful thing: Oba-san got his point across. Soon after this phone call, the landlord sent somebody to the house to repair the roof and inspect the soggy carpet. When I told Oba-san how impressed I was with his bravery, he waved his hand. "If I don't try, I'll never learn." He then told me a marvelous story about an older Japanese friend of his who had gone abroad with even less English. This friend had locked himself out of his hotel room one morning and had puzzled over how to explain this to the receptionist. But on the elevator ride downstairs, he had worked on a strategy. "Me outside, key inside," he explained to the woman behind the desk--and in less than a minute, he was back in his room.  Me outside, key inside. Hardly eloquent English, but in an emergency, quick wits are often more useful than grammar and vocabulary.

One thing I know: if Oba-san and his friend could do it, so can I.

I point to our fitness bags. "Can we?" I ask, praying the receptionist will understand from the context. I mime running. "Can we today, here, now?" 

The receptionist nods and her butterfly clip bobs back and forth. "Yes, of course," she says. She fishes out her mobile phone and jabs buttons, then presents it to us: Card cannot get today, can get next week maybe. Sports can do today.

Ah yes: Google Translate--sometimes it works, and undoubtedly it comes in handy. But I'll bet Oba-san and his pal would have thought it was for sissies.

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.