Sunday, 16 December 2007

Yumi And The Scholars

"Do you know any of the Chinese students?" my landlady, Yumi, asked me one winter afternoon. We were huddled around her kerosene fire, drinking tea. Yumi wasn't your typical Japanese landlady. She ran a quasi-Chinese restaurant, one that catered almost entirely to students and faculty, and she let out three rooms just over her establishment. When I first came to look at the room, it was obvious that she was far less interested in telling me about the rules than in finding out what sort of person I was. She wasn't nosy; she was just fascinated by people. I watched her engaging with the students who came to eat in her restaurant and she always had the same friendly manner, turning to listen to them as she chopped, fried, stirred and served. Yumi was the owner of the restaurant, but she was also the cook and sometimes the waiter, too.

As it happened, I had met all three of the Chinese students at the foreign student section of the administration building. Together we had endured a number of graduation banquets, foreign student welcome parties, and the odd mandatory tea ceremony. One of them disliked tea ceremonies almost as much as I did and we had bonded over this.

"I've met them," I told her. "They're nice guys."

Yumi sat up eagerly. "Invite them over to my restaurant some time, would you?"

Although Yumi had always been friendly to me, my stock had greatly risen when she learned that I happened to know most of the other foreign research students, all of whom spoke Japanese to some extent. Through me she had already met the man from then-Zaire and his Tanzanian friend, two Brazillians, and a British professor. Yumi, whose education hadn't gone past high school, bitterly regretted never having learned English, but what did it matter when so many people went to the trouble of learning Japanese?

"Seriously," she said, "bring them over here. Where are they from?"

"Ko-san is from Beijing. And I think Wu-san is from Shanghai. His Japanese is so good everybody thinks he is Japanese."

Yumi clapped her hands in delight.

I told her that I would do what I could, but I might not succeed. I didn't know them all that well, and besides, the mainland Chinese students took studying very seriously and only rarely socialized, even with each other.

In fact, no one could come close to the mainland Chinese students when it came to academic achievement or zeal for learning. The handful of students from Hong Kong or Taiwan were no match for them, even though, like their mainland cousins, they had the advantage of being able to read Chinese characters when they began studying Japanese (the Japanese writing system came from China, hence the term 'Chinese characters' even in Japan) . Even my friend John, a Chinese-American born and raised in China and an excellent scholar, was not in their league academically. Ko-san had confided that he started studying at dawn and kept at it all day and much of the night, adding that he did his best not to fall asleep with the light on. John studied more than I did, but even he couldn't top that.

"My landlady is dying to meet you," I told Ko-san with some embarrassment a few days later. He was a good-looking young man hardly older than I, clear-faced, wide-eyed, humble in manner -- and intimidatingly intelligent. Talking to him always made me uneasy: I got the feeling he could see right through me and spotted my unserious nature, my lack of attention to my studies.

"Why?" he asked, surprised.

"She just loves meeting foreign students," I told him truthfully. "And I told her how good your Japanese was."

Ko-san agreed to come, and he told me he'd bring Wu-san -- and photographs of China. When I told Yumi, she was thrilled. "I'll make them something good for dinner," she assured me.

Ko-san and and Wu-san enjoyed the meal, but afterwards they asked politely what it was. Yumi explained that it was a well-known Chinese dish and they exchanged astonished looks. "It's nice, but it isn't Chinese," they told her. We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing how Chinese food varied greatly from country to country and Yumi carefully wrote down how the original recipe was prepared. Then we looked at Ko-san's photographs. There were not so many shots of waterfalls and mountains as there were of ferroconcrete buildings and imposing, but ugly, new factories, but there were also quite a few shots of Ko-san's farewell party. I picked up one of him standing next to a man who was the spitting image of Deng Xiaoping and burst out laughing. "Gee, this man looks exactly like Deng Xiaoping!" I exclaimed, pointing, and Ko-san looked embarrassed. "Actually, that is Deng Xiaoping," he said softly.

I was well and truly impressed. The mayor of San Francisco wouldn't have turned up to say goodbye to me. No wonder no one else was in their league: China had sent the cream of the cream -- young men who started studying when the sun came up and finished when they could no longer keep their eyes open. Young men who seldom socialized and made it a point not to fraternize with each other too often, to spend their time speaking, reading and writing Japanese instead. "It's not that we don't like each other," Wu-san had explained, "but we won't be in Japan forever and we don't want to waste this chance."

Yumi didn't want to waste her chance either. She got to be good friends with all of the Chinese students after I left, and they showed her how to make her Chinese food more authentically Chinese. Through them, she met even more foreign students, too. The last I time I saw her, a man from Papua New Guinea had moved into my old apartment.

"He speaks Japanese like a native," she told me happily. "I'll never have to learn English."


A Paperback Writer said...

I had two Chinese girls as kitchenmates with me when I did my MSc at the U of Edinburgh. They were both delighted to find out that I had been to their hometowns (one was from Beijing and the other from Hangzhou).
People naturally gravitate to me when they have questions -- I think it's that teacher aura I have. But I ended up explaining a lot of western concept to both girls. Cheese. Butter. Why they couldn't understand the cleaning lady but I could (eg. Scots is a language closely related to English but it's not the same thing). British spelling and punctuation are not the same as the American versions. The western idea of Chinese food is greatly modified from real Chinese food. And if you call the son of your cousin your "nephew," people will misunderstand you.
I never told them how often I had to throw out the "cookies" and uncooked chunks of a bacon-like substance they proudly brought for me in exchange for my showing them how to sample butter on rice "just to taste it once" and for my proofreading all their essays to catch little foreignisms that do creep in on all non-native speakers. (I know. My Spanish still sounds like a textbook.)

Brian said...

I had met Eileen on the stairs and in the underground garage a couple of times . A petite , friendly and a happy person . Yesterday I met her husband Shu ( sp ? ) for the first time. I make no jokes about the English sound when you add their surname Ting to his first name . My own surname attracts enough jocular comment!

He is a doctor of environmental science at one of our universities -- intelligent , friendly , and nice to know .

We have quite a Chinese ,Viet , Korean enclave all around us -- no Japanese as far as I know -- and all of them good neighbours and , it seems , all much harder workers than your average laid back Aussie .

Education really counts for them !


Carolie said...

What a lovely "slice of life" story, Mary! Thank you! The fact that the students didn't recognize the "Chinese" dish made me smile. When I was with the circus, there was a large troupe of acrobats and jugglers from Nanjing. They decided I was "good girl" and semi-adopted me. The dishes they fed me were astonishing and wonderful...and NOTHING like what I'd eaten at American Chinese restaurants. My favorite Thanksgiving involved my Chinese friends wolfing down turkey and stuffing while I feasted happily on the homemade shrimp chips and spring rolls they'd brought. Though I didn't dare take them out to any NYC Chinese restaurants, I do remember them giggling with one another after being taken by our particularly pompous ringmaster to a very upscale Cantonese restaurant. Though they enjoyed what they'd been served, they found it hysterical that anyone would think THAT was Chinese!

I was in awe of the intense work ethic displayed by the acrobats...just as the Chinese students you describe studied night and day, the acrobats rehearsed nonstop. Each of the women would do a thirty-minute one-handed handstand, ONE ON EACH HAND, every single day. My mind boggles at such determination.

Yumi sounds simply charming...what a great attitude!

More stories please, of that time in your life!

The Quoibler said...


I love your writing! So crisp and alive! You can definitely get your points across in a beautiful way!

Hey, stop by my blog for a Christmas present/surprise...


Christy said...

"Shu" is Xu. I wonder if it is a common name because we have a friend named Xu as well! He's a cook in an American Chinese restaurant. He cooks us both American Chinese food and authentic Chinese food on occasion. Both good, but definitely not the same. But when we invite him to our house, he always requests hot dogs. We can't quite figure out if he's insulting our own cooking or if he just really likes hot dogs. I think it's a little of both.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I've got that teacher aura too. Today I spent almost two hours on the phone trying to sort out the enrollment problems of one of my eldest's friends in Japan: her English is a little shaky, but her Glaswegian is nil. My eldest, who is convinced that she could easily solve her friend's problems herself, managed to sleep right through the three calls I got from Tokyo.

I wish I'd been there to receive those things you got from your Chinese kitchenmates: I can't help but think I would have liked them, even though the meat thing sounds a little dodgy. You're right about 'nephew.' I remember this being a real catch-all, meaning anything from the son of siblings or siblings-in-law to son of cousin, son of cousin's wife, etc.

As for Chinese food, the best way to find out if Chinese food is the real thing is to check out the other customers. Do they look Chinese? If the answer is 'yes,' that is a good sign, but it does not necessarily mean the food is genuine. If those Chinese-looking customers are speaking Chinese, you have a very good chance that the food will be Real Chinese and not Chinese-for-non-Chinese.

Brian -- I taught three men and one boy with the first name 'Shu' in Japan, and I stuck to their last names in class. Fortunately, you tend to use last names exclusively in Japan. The boy was going to the States for a homestay program, and I warned him to expect some ribbing over his name. He couldn't see why it would strike Americans as funny, poor kid. I also taught two boys called 'Yu,' and a girl called 'Mami,' pronounced 'Mommy.' Great confusion potential there, too.

My nephew (sister's son!) in California is a math whiz and he tutored several Chinese students in math a few years ago. You would not believe how this impressed his family. People kept telling him to make sure and put down on his C.V. that the students he tutored were Chinese. I pity any Asians who are not academic: they're sure to have a tough time of it, given how high the bar is generally set by their compatriots.

Carolie -- I'm always irritated with people who 'go out for Chinese' and order the same dopey old things every single time. No wonder you can't get decent stuff on the menu at Chinese restaurants when people expect egg foo yung, sweet and sour pork, or stir fried rice. I had a great Thanksgiving meal at a friend's house once: her parents ran a Chinese restaurant that tended to serve run-of-the-mill stuff, but what they were able to do with the leftover turkey was just fantastic. It made such a nice change from the usual Thanksgiving fare, and I could well understand how happy you were with your shrimp chips and spring rolls! Wish I had some now.

My cousin, bless her, once took us to her favorite Chinese restaurant in L.A. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry: they didn't even have chopsticks there! If you are ever in Holland, you may be thrilled to see Chinese-Indochinese restaurants on every other street. Don't be: the food -- only remotely Chinese in taste -- is often served with fried eggs, a small piece of iceberg lettuce, and pickles, and if you ask for chopsticks ("stukjes"), no one knows what you're talking about. Oh well. A lot of people assume that they know what American food is: MacDonald's hamburgers and KFC. Us and the Chinese -- so gastronomically misunderstood.

I once saw the Chinese National Acrobatic team perform and I have never seen anything like that in my life. The audience never stopped shouting out their amazement at what those people could do.

Quoibler -- Yay! This makes up for my losing the cooking contest to Carolie, even if she did deserve the prize! I will have to go and deflate my ego now! Fortunately, another rejection is bound to come soon, and that will no doubt be a big help in ego-downsizing. Your kind words are a real balm, and I thank you.

Christy -- I like your hot dog story, but perhaps your friend Xu really DOES like the way you make them. In fact, a really well-made hotdog is a treat: the bun toasted just so; the hot dog roasted to perfection, the skin only just split; the relish tart and savory; the mustard with a bit of a bite. Damn: I could eat a couple of hot dogs right this minute, just thinking about them.

Church Lady said...

Mary, I love this story! I know very little about this part of the world, and would like to know more.
Your Deng Xiaping comment made me laugh out loud.
But, it's a sad contrast to the U.S. in some ways...

Ello said...

What a great story! I admit to not being anywhere near that dedicated when I was a student. My parents studied at Keoi University before coming to the states. They too are fluent in Japanese. It is interesting just how many people speak Japanese so well. Although in the case of older Koreans - that is usually not such a good thing given why they had to learn it!

Danette Haworth said...

Wonderful story--full of atmosphere!

A Paperback Writer said...

Ah yes. Speaking English is certainly no guarantee that one will understand Glawegian. I am amused.
Sorry. I didn't explain very well. I picked up my dislike of REAL Chinese food in China. I am not normally a picky eater when in foreign countries, but China turned me into one. Because we were being watched and filmed by the government, we had to act pleased about everything. (Thank heaven the Chinese don't understand sarcasm or we would've died trying to stay serious.) I therefore ate -- and pretended to like -- everything from those uncooked dumplings to stewed and fried duck tongue to duck brain to camel hoof soup to cubed duck grease (served cold) to fermented goose egg (that was the only thing I had to spit into my napkin. I could NOT stifle my gag reflex on that stuff). The only new food I really liked was lotus root.
Whenever it was a banquet and I had a choice and was not being filmed, I tried to pick out the vegetarian dishes -- because I have a much easier time with eating unidentifiable plants than wondering what part of what animal is on my plate. (We were once given skewered baby sparrows, feathers and all..... I found an excuse to leave at that point.)
Look, I'm no food wimp. I like HAGGIS, for crying out loud. I've eaten tripe (not really my favorite) in several different countries, octopus, ostrich, goat, reindeer, and a heck of a lot of stuff I never was able to identify in lots and lots of countries. And the other dancers and musicians on the tour with me were like minded; we wished to be gracious guests in each country. Always. But China did us all in. Never in our lives were we so incredibly delighted to see a McDonald's as we were at the end of our Chinese tour. And most of us gave up liking McDonald's food somewhere in our long-lost teens. But REAL Chinese food got us to the point of drooling over Big Macs.
It wasn't just the Americans, either. The Belgians and the South Africans had the same problems we did.
This is why, 3 years later, I stuck with things like rice from my Chinese roommates. Not that Scotland is the culinary capital of the world, mind you. (What's that line from "So I Married An Axemurderer"? "Try to remember that all Scottish food was originally based on a dare.") But REAL Chinese food is not something I would willingly return to. It made me into a picky eater for the only time in my life.
Sorry for the rant. It's just that I didn't want you to think I was a food wimp, missing out on something great because it was strange to my prissy little American nose when I was really cautiously disposing of items I had tried and nearly gagged on before.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Good to hear of a Japanese lady being so welcoming to foreigners. I've heard it said that the Japanese are xenophobic, so it's nice to read something that counters the stereotype.

Mary Witzl said...

Church Lady -- Thank you for saying that you like hearing about this; I fear that these stories will be pretty boring to those who aren't interested in this sort of thing.

All the American exchange students tended to socialize with each other. We made Japanese friends and did our best to learn spoken and written Japanese, but compared to the mainland Chinese students, we were goof-offs. They were delighted with things we took for granted, too: electricity that was always available; heating even during the early months of winter and spring. Going into book stores sent them into raptures.

Ello -- I would love to know more about your parents' story. I knew many Koreans in Japan, and to this day people tell me that I speak Japanese with a Korean accent, though I don't think I do. When I traveled in Korea, I was able to use Japanese to communicate, as long as I picked older people; I always explained why I was using it first, and apologized for not knowing Korean. I was thus able to have some incredible conversations with people and find out more about the whole colonial and wartime history than I ever could have done otherwise. Many older Koreans happily showed me the scars on their legs from where their senseis had lashed them for speaking Korean in class.

Danette -- Thank you. Though looking at your Christmas hat I am feeling that I ought to be working on the atmosphere in this house...a tree, perhaps, or a few wreaths. The guilt is really beginning to get to me: the Christmas that didn't happen because Mom was writing!

APW -- You've convinced me: anyone who can sit down to a meal of baby sparrows and live to tell the tale is obviously not a food wimp! I'd have to be pretty hungry to eat some of the things you mentioned, though I have no doubt at all that I could eat them. Even the baby sparrows would go down well if I were starving. Thank God I'm not starving.

My husband lived in China and has similar food stories. Friends from Hong Kong have assured me that after the revolution, most of the good cooks left China for Hong Kong or other destinations, leaving the least talented cooks behind. I've had cubed duck grease before (not a real favorite of mine), and I think I've had duck brains too (I love ducks, so felt awful about this), but you are right: fermented eggs can be an acquired taste, and while I've had them, I can't say they were something I'd be eager to try again. I'll bet good Chinese cooks could do them well, though. Good Chinese cooks can probably cook anything and make it taste right. As for lotus root, I love it too, and did you know that you can make Christmas decorations out of it? Just slice the pieces thin, dry them out, then sprinkle them with glitter and hang them on your tree as icycles. Scouts' honor: they look as good as they taste.

GB -- Yumi looked and talked like a peasant, but she didn't have a xenophobic bone in her body. She was one of the most interesting, compassionate people I've ever met and one of the best role models a young woman could have. Some Japanese women I knew went through the motions of being welcoming and friendly to non-Japanese, but from Yumi it was the real thing.

Eryl Shields said...

This is a marvellous story, Yumi sounds tops: cheery, friendly and eager to learn. Lucky you to have such a landlady, the word landlady always fills me with foreboding I've had some real humdingers in my time.

The food chat here in the comments is very interesting too. I love Chinese food but as I've never been to China I'm guessing I've never had the real thing. Though I do always choose restaurants that have mostly Chinese (and Chinese speaking) customers. Sadly I've yet to find a good Chinese restaurant in Scotland, the nearest is Manchester.

Kim Ayres said...

When I was in Canada as an exchange student I joined the Chinese Club as their introductory evening was a pot-luck supper where everyone brought along something to eat. As there were only about 2 of us who were not Chinese, the food was superb.

-eve- said...

Very very well-written, as always :-)

A good reminder, too; this is what Chinese have to be (our parents drill it into us). I've been lazy lately, lounging around online. ;-) Shouldn't waste my chances...

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I've had my share of not-so-wonderful landlords and landladies before, so I feel that I was due someone like Yumi at least once in my life. She really was a great person, though she would have been amazed to hear herself described as such.

I've found a fairly reasonable Chinese restaurant in Glasgow where you can always find a Hong Kong soap opera being shown on t.v., and where all the customers aren't just Chinese, they are Chinese speaking. It's a bit of a hole in the wall, but probably all the better for that.

Kim -- Just hearing about that club makes me want to join. If only I could find one here! The local university in my hometown used to have international nights where everyone brought a dish from their own country. It was weird, but fantastic: Indonesian, Tanzanian, German, Australian, French -- nothing went with anything else, but it was all fantastic. Sigh.

Eve -- I hope I haven't discouraged you from blogging! However admirable it is to spend every waking hour studying, you really have to have that zeal stamped into you pretty relentlessly not to rebel. Is it all worth it eventually? Maybe, but it's still not how I want to live MY life...

I can imagine that a non- academically oriented Chinese or other Asian would find this cultural stereotype a sore trial, especially when by trying to deny it, s/he would only fall into another stereotype: humble and modest Asian.

-eve- said...

*Bursts out laughing*

You've got it down pat, Mary :-) That's the pro of being multi-cultural... hehehe