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.