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.