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.