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.