Monday, August 2, 2010

In Which Eggplants Are Beautiful and Delicious

By the time I mentioned that eggplants are purple, all hope was lost. The house built of my Chinese flash cards was about to topple, with me inside it.

I offered a winning smile to my mystified audience and tried not to betray my hysterical internal monologue: THINK!! What else are eggplants? Oblong. Like I even know that word in Chinese. Actually, they're shaped like my old piano teacher. Maybe I should mention that? And they're delicious, but I've pointed that out already. They're cute, with their little green caps, and shiny if they're fresh. Ha ha. Ha. WHY ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT EGGPLANTS?? AAIIIEEEEEEE!! They're so pretty.

What began with bananas and good intentions had come to this.

Before me sat the headmaster and vice-headmaster of my school, the school's Communist Party representative, some guy I didn't know and Alena, the long-suffering foreign affairs liaison who hired me. They'd come to my apartment bearing gifts -- two cases of milk, three dozen bananas, some mangos and a bag of oranges -- and sympathy. It had been officially decided that Life Is Not Easy for Foreigners in Xinjiang Right Now.

And they were right. After the July 5, 2009, riots in Urumqi, internet service to the whole province had been blocked, as well as phone calls dialled to or coming from outside Xinjiang. By December, the other foreign teachers and I were feeling varying degrees of isolation.

Hence the goodwill visit. They filed into my apartment, borrowing from the News Anchor's Big Book of Emotions: So sad you can't talk to your family (frown, mournful shake of the head). But (smile, encouraging nod)! Here are some bananas!

They sat down and beamed at me. The headmaster offered a brief speech about, essentially, how nice it was that I hadn't broken my contract and fled the province (I'm reading between the lines of Alena's translation). Then he threw my second graders in my face: They love you and you love them, right? Right? Please don't break your contract.

I tried my best to reassure him in Chinese: "I don't! I don't!"

We all smiled and nodded in "yep, yep, yep" fashion, and an unwelcome silence blossomed and grew. Finally, Alena asked me in English whether I often cook at home.

I thought, since they'd been so kind with the bananas and all, that I should do my best to reply in Chinese. I mean, I'd been studying and I knew a lot of nouns...

"Sometimes," I answered. "Sometimes I cook tomato and egg. Fry them. Delicious!" They nodded agreeably; tomatoes and eggs are, indeed, delicious. "But sometimes after school I tired, you know. I don't cook. I eat chocolate and bread." Why chocolate and bread? Who even knows. It was all I could think of.

"But yesterday!" I continued. "Yesterday, I cook eggplant. I love eat eggplant, but in America I don't eat eggplant. I don't know why not." They shook their heads, mystified. They didn't know why not, either.

"In China, I want eat eggplant every day! Too delicious! Ha ha!" The ha ha helped, I think. "Yesterday, I cook eggplant and garlic together. Also, tomato and ginger. Maybe onion? I think so. Also, white rice. Delicious!" They glanced at each other and nodded. Yum.

By now, I was sweating and panicked. I'd charged down the eggplant road without a map. "Um," I said. "Eggplant best beautiful vegetable! I think! Purple! Also, healthful."

That was all I could do. I slumped back in my chair, vapor locked, and offered a wan smile to my perplexed audience. They glanced at their watches: Hey, would you look at the time! As one, they rose and offered me best wishes for health and prosperity and happiness and... whatever. Bye-bye.

Ha ha! Bye-bye! Let's eat eggplant together sometime! Ha ha! Ha.

Back to the flash cards.

In Which I Take it Back

Donkey, when prepared correctly, is tasty.

Donkey skin, on the other hand...

Friday, February 19, 2010

In Which I Eat Donkey

I thought it was beef with an unseemly past.

It was not delicious.

And that's all there is to say about that.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Which, Um, Yes?

I knew it was coming before the word even left their mouths -- the fleeting hint of panic flashing across their faces, the momentarily closed eyes clearly indicating a brain screaming, "AIEEEE!!! DON'T PANIC! THINK!" and then the face quickly arranged into one of three expressions:

1. pathetic, woebegone hound dog-style hopefulness
2. let's-roll-the-dice pluck
3. owlishly wise

And then they'd say the same word one of three ways, depending on their expression:

1. Yes?
2. Yes!
3. Yes. (This one was accompanied by a knowing nod.)

At which point I'd inwardly sigh and repeat my question: "Where... are... you... from?"

I was midway through oral exams, done one-on-one with each of my students at the end of the term. I asked students questions from what we'd studied during the previous months, they (in theory) answered and we had a nice little conversation. And sometimes it worked out that way. Sometimes my students and I had great little chats and I wrote A+ in my grade book with an ecstatic flourish.

But then there were the Other Times.

I could always tell it was going to be one of those Other Times when a student slunk into the teachers' office with all the enthusiasm of a visit to the oral surgeon. They'd slouch into the chair near mine and either avoid eye contact or tremble pitifully. I wrung my heart out for them and tried to be gentle.

"What's your name?"
"Where are you from?"
"What do you like?"

Um, yes?

I tried not to sigh. But sometimes... *sigh* If I paused or wilted even a little, they quickly amended to an emphatic "No!" Then I just smiled, said it slower, nodded encouragingly and, finally, whispered hints in Chinese. In the end, everyone got a sticker on their hand and encouraging pats or squeezes to convey my heartfelt message of, "You! Good-ish job, you!" I knew they were trying their best.

Plus, I'm not exactly in a position to judge. Like my students, I'm a congenital guesser.

Sometimes, it's the only thing to do with these impossible languages. As hard as I study Chinese, it remains my Waterloo. In my darker moments, I believe it's the most elaborate practical joke foisted on the world, and that these alleged "Chinese" speakers go home, lock their doors and have a merry laugh, all the while speaking a normal language.

Fortunately, Mandarin Chinese has a sentence construction where people end a thought with "dui bu dui (right or wrong)," "shi bu shi (yes or no)," "you mei you (have don't have)" -- things like that. For example, I could go to a store and say, "Wo yao suan nai -- you mei you? (I want yogurt -- do you have it or not?)" (Which looks really aggressive, but I'd say it nicely.)

So I figure, when people talk to me -- and I don't understand all or most of it, of course -- all I have to do is guess right. My odds of saying the correct thing are 50 percent, odds I can live with.

Unlike my students, however, the only expression I can muster is pathetic, woebegone hound dog-style hopefulness: "Um. Shi? You? Dui?" Like my students, I always start with the affirmative. Positivity must count for something! If I'm met with a weird expression, I quickly amend my answer. Bu dui! Mei you! Bu shi!

Sometimes I even say the right thing, and mentally put a sticker on my own hand, awarding myself an A+ for effort and praying the conversation ends there.

In Which I Become That Person

It was such a subtle transformation that I didn't notice it happening. Over what seemed like the space of a long sigh, I went from being Fun Aunt to being That Person.

That Person, who eats enough fiber, who never wakes up with confetti in her underwear, who doesn't think burps are funny, who could stop a steamroller with one stern "ahem."

That Person doesn't wear frivolous shoes. That Person gets eight hours of sleep. That Person would never guzzle sugared soda or cram an entire donut in her mouth.

That Person spots three boys lurking behind a door and is filled with world-saving purpose.

I couldn't help it. It was time for the Monday morning assembly, when everyone in the primary and middle schools lines up on the football field to be harangued (I'm guessing -- it sounds like haranguing) by the principal and endure the middle school band's rendition of the Chinese national anthem. I was a bit late arriving from the other campus, so I scurried to my spot in line by the other teachers.

But that's when I saw them, three sixth-grade boys half-hidden behind a door. They should have been out on the football field with every other student, but instead they were hunched over a Gameboy.

Here is where I should make clear that they were not my students and therefore not my problem. Rather, they were not Fun Aunt's problem.

That Person, however -- an Atlas with the world rightfully balanced on her righteous shoulders -- had to Do Something. This Lurking and Hunching and Skulking was not to be endured.

So engrossed were they in their miscreance that they didn't hear my approach.

"Ahem," I said, all raised eyebrows and thin lips.

They jerked around with fearful eyes, hyenas caught in the act of eating a cute baby zebra.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

The sputtered and stuttered, the Chinese equivalent of "hubba wubba."

"Go," I said, pointing a Zeus-like finger toward the football field. They scuttled away at, I would estimate, 40 miles an hour.

Well. Indeed. That was that. I mentally dusted off my hands and continued to my place in line, That Person in all her beige, rule-abiding glory, radiating sensibility and virtue.

And elsewhere in the universe, a handful of confetti died.