Sunday, May 31, 2009

In Which We Speak the International Language of Camera

The staring has never really bothered me. I know how tall I am, how pink, how American-looking. I know my brown hair, so average in the United States, is startling here. If I were truly rotten, I know I could scare the crap out of people by making a sudden movement in their direction.

Instead, I smile. A lot. I smile to say, "Ni hao!" And I smile to say, "See? We're so alike! Both of us human!" And I smile to say, "Have no fear. I am not a gorgon come to eat your children."

Sitting on the train from Korla to Kuche -- a journey of four hours, made mostly with Uyghurs returning home -- I smiled my mouth very nearly off. People strolling the aisle glanced at me and then did a whiplash double-take: What the... ? I began noticing the same people walking by again and again, slower each time, unblinking. They dragged their friends along with an implied, "See? And you didn't believe me!"

So, I smiled and smiled. I said, "Ni hao!" I said, "Wo shi Mei guo ren! (I'm American)." And I pulled out my camera to take photos of them, because they were beautiful and because I wanted to demonstrate that Americans are so friendly -- like highly trainable puppies.

They blushed and waved their hands, then posed. Others approached shyly, proudly holding babies, clearly wanting their pictures taken, too. I'd take a picture with my little point-and-shoot, then turn it around so they could see themselves on the LCD screen. There was gasping and exclaiming and laughing. I demonstrated the camera's use, then lightly placed it in a few hesitant but eager hands.

Well. After this, all shyness was gone. A few adults invited me to pose with them, pointing to the camera, to me and to themselves, and I understood perfectly. Soon, nothing would do but I must sit down while various children were deposited in my lap to have their picture taken with me, in the manner of a department store Santa Claus.

I fretted that I had no way to get these photos to the various parents, but I don't think that mattered. The taking of the photo was the thing. This is why there now are quite a few children in Kuche who know exactly one English word: cheese.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

In Which I Eat the Bread and Hope for the Best

Not five minutes before, I had watched those grubby little hands being licked clean. And previous to that, they had wiped the dirt from the soles of small purple sandals. Now, they were reaching toward me, grasping the piece of bread I was being offered.

Her enormous dark eyes, which had dimmed with fear when she first saw me -- she'd never seen a foreigner before, her mother explained -- were friendly little gingersnaps now. I was a singer of songs, a maker of silly faces and a shameless tickler. We were pals, this 4-year-old and I. Her mother had given her piece of flat bread, and she tore off a piece for me.

And now it was waving in front of my face, held in the hand that I knew was very, very dirty.

A strident voice in my head sputtered and tut-tutted and implied that I deserved for every amoeba, parasite and germ in the world to take up residence in my intestines if I even thought about eating it. "Are you insane?" the voice screeched. "You're in rural China! You'll get sick! Just look at those hands!"

"Yes," echoed a gentler, quieter voice. "Just look at those hands, those sturdy, sweet little things with their dimples and grime, hands that rarely rest from playing." This voice, this nicer voice, reminds me that after all I can do -- after getting every shot before I came here and taking every health precaution I can when I'm by myself -- sometimes I just have to take a deep breath, eat the bread and hope for the best. This is the voice that won't let me say no to a little girl sharing her lunch.

So, I grinned and took the bread, making a great show of eating it with rapturous delight and nummy-nummy noises. I may have even patted my stomach.

Wise? Probably not. Before I came here, I vigilantly read everything the CDC has to say about food safety, and can sum it up thus: Just don't. Don't drink the water. Don't eat the street food. Don't eat the uncooked vegetables. Don't even consider anything that's been touched by ungloved hands. Don't look directly at uncooked meat. Don't talk about raw fish in anything louder than a whisper.

This is excellent advice, and I've done my best to heed it. But I'm conflicted over what I should to do when I'm out hiking with my new Chinese friends, and we've stopped for a rest, and they're passing around the cucumbers, and it's such a friendly, convivial moment. Most likely, the cucumber was rinsed in tap water, rather than soaked in iodine water in my kitchen. I should refuse. But... I can't. Reckless and foolhardy, I know.

So far, Providence has been kind and my immune system is champion of the world. This may not always be the case, but I hope the universe smiles kindly on those who try to consider the feelings of others, only occasionally practice food safety relativism and don't act like big, American jerks.

Perhaps this is why I was offered another piece of bread after the first, and then another piece after that, each accompanied by a friendly little smile.

Open wide, chew chew chew, big swallow and bigger grin. Mmmm-mmmmm, nummy nummy.

This is the girl who gave me the bread. I mean, really: those eyes? Like I could refuse.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Which English Is a Bit Clever

In the gentle mists of vagueness through which I sometimes wander, where laziness or manners prohibit specificity, there is no more "kinda." My old friend "sorta" is gone, too, along with "oh, well, you know..."

Instead, there is "a bit."

Rachel, is it hot today? A bit. Are you hungry? A bit. Do you enjoy playing ping-pong? A bit. Are you, yourself, starting to sound like a beginning English learner? A bit, a bit, a flipping bit! And a British one at that.

My younger students know "a bit," thanks to the British textbooks from which they're learning English. And I've discovered that it's so much easier to speak in the vocabulary my students know.

When they do well in class, when I'm happy and they're happy and everyone's swaddled in the rosy cocoon of understanding, I want to bubble, "You guys are so smart!" Except they don't know "you guys" or "smart." So, I settle for, "Students! You are clever!"

Clever? Clever? Since when? I say! So veddy, veddy clevah! I've taught them smart, but they're getting "clever" three times a week from their Chinese English teachers and "smart" once a week from me. So, clever it is.

And naughty: Any bad behavior is deemed "naughty," from talking in class to running out into traffic. On more than one occasion, I have shaken my head disappointedly and murmured, "So naughty." Like a twittering debutante with a fan and a dance card and the attentions of London's most notorious rogue.

It's a little easier with my older students, though I consistently praise them for being "cool" and "hard-working." They know these ones very well. And whenever I ask them for a noun, I can count on it being "banana." I don't know why, it just always is.

The thing is, I catch myself talking this way all the time now. "The problem is," I told my sister on the phone the other day, "the boys in that class are a bit naughty. And they're clever! They're just not hard-working, is the thing."

*Sigh* I need a banana.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Which the Stylist Almost Has an Aneurysm

One solution to this belligerent insistence hair has on, you know, growing is baldness. I wondered if that's what the stylist was thinking, too, because it had been 15 minutes and he was still back there combing, combing, combing with shaking hands. He could comb me bald and I'd never traumatize him again.

It seemed like such a simple thing, getting a trim. My hair was a little shaggy, I had some wayward split ends and I'd solemnly vowed to several people that I would stop cutting my own hair. So, I'd have someone else do it! No big deal! Twenty minutes, in and out!

China, as usual, found my notions to be charming and laughably quaint.

There's a salon near my apartment -- next to the store where I don't buy Oreos every single day, even though I want to -- and it seemed like a nice, friendly place to get a haircut. I spent half an hour writing the appropriate speech: I'd like a haircut, please. Please cut 3 - 4 centimeters. I like this style I have now, with the layers.

Striding confidently into the salon, I smiled winningly and declared, "Qing, wo yao yi ge lifa (Please, I want a haircut)." The lady nodded. Then it went precipitously downhill, as usual: "Qing... uh, qing (frantic scissor motion with my fingers, jabbing choppily at the lock of hair I was grasping)..." Finally, after repeated spasms of pidgin Chinese, I just handed her the paper with my speech. She read and the corner of her mouth trembled. What had been the straight line of her mouth began dancing like a sound wave.

Then it was an open grin. She called to the other stylists, what I assume was the Chinese version of "Y'all! C'mere and git a load of this!" They passed my paper around like it was a mash note, pointing out the particularly juicy bits to each other. Haw haw, lookee there.

So, I was feeling a little defensive. Just cut my hair, OK?

But they meant no harm, and a small crowd of stylists and other customers led me to a chair. From the crowd, one stylist emerged. A black utility belt was wrapped around his waist, from which protruded various scissors and combs. He wore an expression of determination mingled with terror.

At this point, it's important to remember two things about getting a haircut at the salon near my apartment:

1. Foreigners are very rare in Korla.

2. Chinese hair is extremely textured and uniformly black. It's gorgeous -- a rich onyx that catches and holds light -- but very different from my own disobedient, medium brown hair.

Through charades, we determined how much I wanted cut (thumb and forefinger held 4 centimeters apart) and that I wanted layers (flat hand chopping up my hair). He read my note again, just in case. He adjusted his shirt. He flexed his fingers. He smiled weakly at the other stylists who were hovering nearby. And then he began combing.

And kept combing. Combing, combing, combing in long, even strokes. He adjusted his shirt again and squared his shoulders. And combed, combed, combed. Deep breath. Comb, comb, comb. He got a stool so he could sit behind me. Comb, comb, comb. He pulled a pair of scissors from his belt and combed some more. Then he decided those scissors would never do, which called for more combing. Different scissors! Comb, comb, comb. He clipped portions of my hair up, then combed the hair beneath.

Comb, comb, comb. Comb. Comb... comb.

Finally, with the delicacy of Indiana Jones exchanging a golden idol for a bag of sand, he raised the scissors to my hair.

Snip. Snip... snip.

I could feel my hair growing back between snips. He trembled onward, growing almost imperceptibly more confident with each cut. The photos probably helped.

As he cut, other stylists approached with their cell phone cameras. At first, they stood at a distance, recording their Brave Comrade in his Valiant Dealings with Caucasian hair. He was a hero. He was a rock star. They inched closer, standing to my side, venturing in front of me, snapping pictures with every snip of the scissors.

Then I cut my eyes to the left and saw another face beside my ear. Photo opportunity! Hi, mom! The stylist grinned and flashed the peace sign while her co-worker took her picture. My haircut: fun for everyone.

And the man cutting my hair braved resolutely onward. My bangs, with their impossible cowlicks, caused him particular pangs. Cutting a molecule at a time, then stopping between times for some soothing combing, he sighed and fretted. I wanted to tell him, "You're doing awesome!" And I wanted to tell him, "Dude, don't worry. No matter what happens, it'll grow back." But all I could do was grin like a lunatic and declare, "Hen hao! Wo hen kuaile! (Very good! I'm very happy!)" He smiled wanly and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his cuff.

Anyway, he worried for nothing. Two hours later and I had a great haircut. As he whipped the cape from around my shoulders, several other stylists applauded, like he was a chef who'd just set the baked Alaska on fire. Ta da!

They all saw me to the door, and I don't know whether I made his day or ruined it when I said I'd see him next time.

Friday, May 8, 2009

In Which I Celebrate Life-Giving Water

The dance might have been a little much. Twirling and leaping around in ecstasies of joy were forgiveable, possibly, but curtsying to yourself in the mirror, Rachel? Have a little dignity.

And have a little water! Bottles of it! Guzzle it with reckless abandon! Splash it on your fevered brow! Soak a washcloth in it and wipe that ridiculous grin off your face! There's more water where that came from!

Yes, I ordered my own water. On the telephone. In Chinese.

I had been loath to try. The person on the other end of the telephone line can't see my imploring eyes or my pleading expression. They can't see my helpful mini-game of charades, a mime-on-meth routine with flailing arms and jazz hands. They only can hear a horrific accent saying, "Qing, wo yao shui (please, I want water)" -- and possibly wonder if I'm calling from the middle of the desert and am taking my dying breaths.

So I chickened out. I skulked downstairs to Mrs. Chen's, the building manager's, apartment and handed her the big, empty bottle from my water cooler. I told her "Qing, wo yao shui." And, saint that she is, she called the water people for me.

But she wasn't home this morning! And I was thirsty. Desperate times, you know. So, as usual before I say anything in Chinese, I wrote out a little speech: "Qing, wo yao shui. San qu, er shi si dong, er ling er gongyu. Qing. (Please, I want water. Area 3, building 24, apartment 202. Please.)" It wasn't as polite and chit-chatty as I would have liked, but it represented the sum of my abilities.

And then I spent five minutes wringing my hands and pacing around the coffee table, receiving bossy lectures from the voice in my head.

"Would you just call already?"

But, but, but...

"You're not calling to read your Chinese translation of The Iliad."


"It's just water."

Finally, I snatched up the receiver and dialed before I could think better of it. I said ni hao and got down to the business of my speech. And the lady on the other end repeated what I'd said back to me! She must have understood, because within the hour a man showed up with my water!!

I couldn't decide whether to dance or to drink, so I did both and ended up spilling the water down my shirt. But that's OK! I can always order more.

Friday, May 1, 2009

In Which Tony Is Triumphant

Tony never had raised his hand in class before, not in the two months I've known him, so I was shocked to see his skinny arm among the many waving eagerly for a turn.

We were, this third grade class and I, learning the numbers 11 through 20. I had written the numeral and the word for each number on separate pieces of paper, and students were coming to the blackboard to match the two. And Tony wanted a try.

"Tony! Come on up!" I called, not knowing what to expect, frantically hoping he wouldn't need my help.

Slowly he made his way from his desk at the back of the classroom, this fuzzy-haired little string bean navigating past the backpacks bulging into the aisle. Usually when I call students to the front, they bustle foward in a jabbering flurry of importance -- there's English to be learned, after all -- but Tony can't speak, so I had no idea what he was thinking.

Until that moment, I actually didn't know the nature or extent of his disabilities. He can't talk, but whenever I see him in the hall and grab him for a little tickle, he grins hugely and makes sounds of delight -- before remembering, holy cow, so embarrassing. Teacher, go away. I'm practically a man.

He can walk, with a bobbing, halting gait, but P.E. class is kind of tough. To keep his head still, he often bites the sleeve or collar of his jacket. And because his fingers fold into his palms, writing isn't possible.

But what lay underneath this surface was a cipher. I didn't know what he could do, and I'm extremely ashamed that I had babied and expected far too little from him.

Now, though, he was at the blackboard. The words and numerals were in a jumble, and Tony had to find "14" and "fourteen." With laser focus, he first honed in on the numeral, swiping at the magnet holding it to the board and missing. He swiped again, then grabbed it on his third try. Clutching the magnet in one hand and the paper in the other, he slowly walked to the other side of the blackboard, where the numbers were lined in columns. He gave himself a second to plan his strike, then quickly and deliberately brought both hands to the board to stick the paper in place. He repeated this process with the word "fourteen."

I had been staring open-mouthed, and it took me a split second to realize he was finished. Fluttering my hands and sputtering, I managed to babble, "Good job! Good job! Good job!" But Tony, Mr. Cool, was all nonchalance and English fluency.

The rest of the students, though -- and it was the only time they did this all period -- began clapping.

They applauded as Tony returned in triumph to his desk.

This is Tony. I ask you, is he not the most grab-and-tickleable little dude ever in the history of the universe?