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.


A.T. Post said...

It's those little breakthroughs we live for, don't we?

I was in a taxicab in Gangnam earlier this evening and I actually had a halfway decent conversation with the middle-aged male cab driver. He asked me the usual questions ("Where are you from? Where do you work? Why are you going to Gangnam Station? Is your girlfriend Korean? Where did you two meet?) and made a few grinning comments about what a huge salary I must be raking in as an assistant professor of English. I actually understood more than 51% of what he said. And could answer his questions. Sort of. Maybe those days of long, awkward, silent cab rides are over for me...

Great post. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to get those tones right. Your family and you are language geniuses.

Charles Gramlich said...

I do like me some fresh tomatoes.

Mirka Breen said...

I've had a similar experience in Paris when I was ten, and lost. Momentarily separated from my Dad, and asking in accented French for help, I was less successful than you.
Obviously all ended well, or I'd be lost still. But you're story is a real peach, err, tomato!

Kim Ayres said...

I'd be showing a picture of a tomato on my phone to the grocer and holding up the number of fingers to indicate how many, while all the time feeling wretched that I couldn't speak the language. My limit is counting up to 10 in French...

Anne Spollen said...

Hi Mary! I wrote this big long comment, then saw you've enabled comment moderation and got all shy.

So..hi ~ just wanted to drop in and wish you a Merry!

Kit said...

Congratulations on the tomato achievement! Oh so satisfying and almost like magic producing the desired fruit from a conjurors hat!

Angela Ackerman said...

Woot! You rawk. Seriously I am always amazed at your boldness when it comes to embracing new places and not letting a language barrier hold you back. :) Good on you!

Mary Witzl said...

ATP -- I blush when I think of all the colleagues I have who REALLY speak Chinese. All I have is dumb determination--and dreams. One is to be able to bargain when the greengrocer tries to fob off junky produce on me, another is to be able to hold a conversation with a cab driver (good on you for managing this in Korean!), and the third is to have a conversation in Chinese with my Japanese friend here. Then I'll have spoken Japanese with Chinese and Koreans, and Chinese with Japanese people.

Charles -- Me too! I suspect if I didn't like tomatoes so much, I still wouldn't be able to ask for them here. Got to start working on chocolate and oranges next.

Mirka -- Argh, trying to communicate with Parisians is no picnic, if my memory serves. But I'm glad you finally got help. The way I managed in Paris was by targeting people who didn't look French, a trick that had very limited success.

Kim -- I know how to write 'tomato' in Chinese now (literally 'red western persimmon', believe it or not), so that's still something I may fall back on in the future. But as for feeling wretched, I do that all the time here.

Anne -- Thank you, and Merry Christmas to you too! (I had to enable moderation, much to my irritation and disgust. I was getting far too many penile enlargement advertisements and 'Wow, we love this interesting content, please buy our product!' spams.) Feeling sad to have missed out on your long comment... (and missing YOUR blog, and so many others...)

Kit -- Thank you, and I blush to accept praise for such a piddling accomplishment. But every time I do something right in Chinese, no matter how tiny, it's a cause for huge celebration. Embarrassing, but 100% true.

Angela -- Thank you! Quite honestly, I feel like such a linguistic ignoramus here half the time, but tiny bits of light are coming through the cracks. FINALLY!

Jackie Nakano said...

I think you are doing great. I've been in Japan for almost 23 years but my Japanese is laughable(my kids roll around on the floor laughing when I try to use Japanese) I had a good excuse not to learn Japanese, a Japanese husband but he passed away last year and although my oldest kids are adults I am determinded not to burden them too much. So 2014 will see me trying to learn.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you for commenting, Jackie. Japanese takes time to learn, but at least you've already got the sound system well ingrained after 23 years. I'm hoping that's what's happening to me right now: that I'm slowly getting used to hearing Mandarin and it will start to seep in gradually. But a little honest effort never hurts either. :) Otagaini gambarimashou!