Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sickness and Joy

Sometimes I have the feeling people in town want to talk to me, but are hesitant at first. I generally eat out by myself (when I say "generally eat out", I mean every single day, twice), which is of great amusement to my students because 1. I freely admit to having no cooking ability and 2. doing anything without the company of at least 1-3 other people is perplexing to most Chinese people. Sometimes I try to initiate conversation in restaurants by asking what a character is called that I've seen on a sign and written on my notepad, which generally fails but at least is educational. Tonight I ate at a restaurant with no customers but a friendly-looking staff of one, who was happy to identify a character called tie and recommend a dish but opted for 15 minutes of awkward silence afterwards. But just as I was about to leave she excitedly came up to me with a magazine, in which she found that character used in a sentence. I'm constantly wishing I was a better conversationalist; this led to all of 20 seconds of speaking practice in wish I confirmed that yep, I teach at Hexi University, and could think of nothing more interesting to say than "studying Chinese is hard, but I like it". Chinese is a wonderfully practical language though; learning the mystery character of this outing confirmed that the little stick-on photo booth pictures that are popular here are called tie zhi xiang, "paste-paper-pictures". The dish I ate had cashews in the name, which I had to look up, but are literally "fruit waist"; sometimes the logic escapes me.

During the last few days I've been sick, for perhaps the first time that I can blame food, though I have no idea what the culprit was. I cancelled my Monday morning class halfway through, as me and my stomach weren't really in the mood for the unenthusiastic class 8, an announcement which was met by great indifference. But as I suspected, motivated student Charlie volunteered to help me visit the doctor on campus. The staff was of course amused to see me, and after 1.5 minutes of translated consultation, loaded with me up with no less than four medications, setting me back approximately $1.12. Seeing my bottle of water, they also warned me at least 5 times that cold water is bad for my health, and to drink only hot water. Chinese people are very insistent in general that cold drinks are bad for you, making them annoyingly difficult to buy sometimes. On our way out, Charlie prevented me from buying fruit ("it's too cold! You must eat hot food"), so I had go out again later to stock up on fruit. The two Chinese medicines looked deceptively like balls of chocolate, but my taste buds were quick to suggest otherwise; they did warn me "it will be bitter". It worked, at any rate.

And in the interest of including a colorful picture in this post, allow me to introduce you to Joy (on the left, Dr. Seuss outfit), the least jaded person I know. Joy is one of the most appropriately named Chinese students I've met, and I recall her saying something like "everyday is sunshine and happiness!" when I first met her. She apparently has been fearing for my warmth and ability to survive by myself, as last visit she presented me with a gift of long underwear and a note that ended "forever and pure friendship!" My cynical nature was wary of her at first, but I've decided I like her after all. She is one of a group of excitable non-English major students me and Andrew are friends with and affectionately refer to as the "teenage daughters", who now that I think about it I think I've mentioned before. Now she is also a second Chinese teacher to me and Andrew, along with our demanding and quick-talking Lina. I like lessons with Joy because she refuses to speak English unless I am hopelessly lost, and because I can say "now let's just chat" after I run out of questions after 11 minutes. Lina's two-hour lessons from my textbook can be intense. Joy is often accompanied by daughter Fiona, who tends to say "I'd like to use your computer!" and disappear for 40 minutes, and never knows what I'm saying in Chinese.

Foreigners speaking Chinese seem to encourage one of two extreme reactions: 1. very complimentary, and very patronizing congratulations on being able to utter "hello" or "I want a bottle of water" (most common response), or 2. the assumption that you are fluent. A few students in one of my most likeable classes announced "let's have a meeting!" to me during the break, and the monitor went on for several minutes to me in Chinese about a plan the school had for helping poor students, of which I understood almost nothing. My guzheng music lessons are made that much more difficult by attempting to process both Chinese and a new instrument, but I do like that they treat me like a person and have the patience to explain everything and help me look up words in the dictionary. I like the girl who teaches me (who, like all the students there, is very pretty, which is kind of distracting to the intense concentration necessary), who has begun going so far as to try to explain the old Chinese stories behind many of the songs. Of course, I infinitely prefer conversations above my level to reaction #1; as Andrew said after seeing a foreigner who spoke little Chinese get showered with praise for saying ni hao! (hello), "sometimes I wonder, what's the point of studying?"

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