Sammy is teaching me Mandarin. I am teaching English to everybody in sight. And now Mimi has asked me to teach her French.
Along with “Do you like Chinese food?” one of the questions that invariably follow “Ex-cuse me! Can I prac-tice English with you?” is “Do you speak Chinese?” “Just a little,” I answer, making that pinch-of-salt gesture with my thumb and forefinger. “I can say ni hao and wo hen hao and xie xie and a few other phrases. I’m pretty good with my numbers. But I don’t really speak Chinese.” I can read a few characters thanks to the three years I studied Japanese, which borrowed the ideographic system of writing. I know my numbers because I bought Rosetta Stone’s Mandarin software and finished 11 of the 16 lessons on Level 1 before coming to China. (My first night on campus, when I stopped at the corner store for water and toilet paper, I thought I heard Ashi-san at the checkout counter and thought, “Who’s Ashi? I Am I back in Japan?” Then I looked at the register and realized it was the price — er shi san, or 23 yuan.)
Though every day here is total immersion, it’s possible to survive quite comfortably without knowing the language, in large part because no one here expects a foreigner to speak any Chinese at all. But there are things you can’t do easily, like eat in a sit-down restaurant without an English menu, or a cheat sheet like the one in my notebook, or a student or another foreign teacher of longer standing to order. Or go to a movie and understand anything that depends on words. (I did fine with Tim Burton’s dubbed “Alice in Wonderland,” but “East Wind, Rain,” a visually sumptuous new Chinese film about spies in Shanghai in 1941, was another story.)
So the foreign teachers asked The Boss to arrange a teacher for us, at our expense, and now Sammy Lee comes to Pam’s apartment twice a week to listen to us mangle her language. At this point I am not so much learning Mandarin as learning about Mandarin – how the language works, which to me is at least as rewarding. I may not be able to put together much more than a simple sentence by the time I leave China, only seven weeks away. But now I understand about tones, and a little bit about grammar. (I have an idea how pidgin developed; it sounds to me like a result of direct translation of the rather abrupt Chinese. For example, the greeting ni hao literally means “You good?” ) And I’ve picked up some vocabulary.
Sammy works mainly from vocabulary sheets she has written for us. The first few weeks focused on pronunciation and those four all-important tones. (The same Pinyin spelling can have four entirely different meanings, depending on the tone of the vowel – the quality that gives Chinese its singsong sound.) They have become more complicated with time. Single words led to simple sentences, then to themed lessons – for example, going to the fruit market or, most recently, asking directions.
As we sit with her, repeating the words and making notes as she defines them, it occurs to me that Sammy is doing the same with us as we do with our students. The difference is, we’re true beginners and they’re far more advanced in English. It also occurs to me how much like our students we behave, or rather don’t. We don’t make the time to study and practice between class, as Sammy keeps urging us to do, and then we hang our heads in embarrassment when we’re caught unprepared in class. Our pronunciation is far from perfect; the tones are as hard for us as, say, the short I sound is for the Chinese . It helps keep us humble, and in touch with what our students must be feeling every day.
Still, we study in our own way. One spa day, Pam and I took our fruit lesson to Bubugao, the supermarket downstairs. I had already mastered lemon – ning meng – because a student had introduced me to the refreshing ning meng shui, or lemon water, from a drinks stall near my apartment. At Bubugao, we used our sheets to look for unfamiliar fruits and matching the characters to the ones on signs above the counters. “Is that durian?” “What’s a jackfruit?” “There’s mangosteen.” “Is that li zi or li zhi?” There were several kinds of melon on our list, all distinguished by the same character for melon at the end of their names; the trick was figuring out which was which. I already knew hami melon, the large, elongated yellow melon that looks like cantaloupe inside but tastes much sweeter. When we were satisfied that we had done our homework, we proceeded to Pizza Hut.
There are small moments of great triumph, like the first time I heard — actually heard the word rather than abstract sounds — “Laoban! Laoban!” (“boss,” meaning proprietor) at the salad bar down the street. For breakfast on early mornings, I can order qing wen, er bao zi – two pork buns, please – instead of pointing at the steam tray. At the fruit stand, where the lady’s husband now also knows me and they seem to have adopted me as their pet foreigner for the semester, I can ask for ping guo (apples), though the word and counter for banana still eludes me. One day I found I could not only do the hand signal for six, which also happens to be the Hawaiian signal for “hang loose,” but could also read their hand signal for the price, 22 yuan. “Er shi er?” I asked, winning big smiles and the Chinese equivalent of “Brava!” from both laobans. I repeated the feat on my next visit, and I know they are proud of me.
One Friday night, near my stop on the campus shuttle, the driver turned to me and asked a question I didn’t understand. “He wants to know where you’re from,” piped up a small female voice behind me, then, in explanation, “I’m an English major.” “New York!” I said. She translated; “Niuyue!” he repeated, adding, “U.S.A.” One of them said, “Mei guo,” and I sprang into action: “Wo shi mei guo ren,” I said slowly – my first spontaneous sentence. I push myself one step further: “Wo shi yingyu laoshi.” Of course, I mispronounced ying – I tend to say the Y sound, which is silent — and the student corrected. me. The driver had one final question as the shuttle stopped. ”He asks about pay.” It took two or three tries to understand the question: Do I get paid to teach here? No, it seemed he wanted to know how much. “I don’t know if it’s rude to ask,” the student apologized. I took the out: “Americans don’t like to talk about that. Good night!” If I had told them my monthly salary here, they’d have been horrified, just as horrified as my friends back in New York would be, but for opposite reasons: they because it’s so high by local standards, twice what a Chinese professor makes; New Yorkers because it’s so low, not even enough to pay for a weekend with the pandas in Sichuan, let alone the Yangtze cruise back to Shanghai that I’ve booked for the end of my time here.
It was around that time that Mimi asked if I had been to Paris, if I spoke French and if I could teach her. (She has a friend in Paris and dreams of visiting someday.) At first I was taken aback, but on reflection, I saw no reason I couldn’t teach her French. It is, after all, my second modern language. Though somewhat rusty, I speak and read it with reasonable fluency, and was complimented on my accent as recently as two weeks ago in Shanghai. I have experience teaching true beginners in English – an intense summer in Poland – so why not a true beginner in French?
Mimi comes to my apartment Wednesday mornings to sit on my terrace for an hour or so – any more would fry both our brains – to learn the basics of French. She has borrowed some introductory textbooks, in Chinese, from the university library, and we use them in much the same way Sammy uses her sheets. We started off with the French alphabet as a door into pronunciation. Mimi has little trouble with all but a few sounds: G and J and, like almost every beginner, the French R. She has no trouble at all with the French U, since the same sound exists in Chinese – for example, in the word for woman, nu ren. We moved on to simple exchanges like “Bonjour, Mimi, ca va?” “Oui, ca va. Et vous?” and then to some of the phrases in the book; like Sammy, I read them to her for the sound and then translate for vocabulary and grammar. It’s a little more complicated, since Sammy has only two languages to deal with while Mimi and I have three: the Chinese in her brain, the French she is trying to learn and the English that is our only common language, the medium of instruction. And then, a few hours later, I revert to my normal role as her English teacher in a class where she is one of 32.
It’s not the only French I’ve encountered on this campus. One day I entered my classroom to find Juliet and some of her classmates there early, singing “Frère Jacques” in Chinese. (Similarly, one morning on the shuttle, a grandma behind me was singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” to her little emperor, also in Chinese. Some things are universal.) “You have to write out the words for me before I leave!” I told them. “I can already sing it in two languages,” and proceeded to demonstrate.
They never did, but the subject came up again when Mimi found the words in her French book. I translated and sang them, first in French, then in English. She sang the Chinese for me and wrote the lyrics for me, in both Han and Pinyin, which follows, minus the tone markings:
Liang zhi lao hu, liang zhi lao hu,
Pao de kaui, pao de kuai,
Yi zhi mei you erduo, yi zhi mei you erduo,
Zhen qi guai, zhen qi guai.
Here the song is about two tigers, running fast. One has no ears, one has no tail — very strange, very strange. I told Mimi that if she did well in French, I would sing the Chinese on the last day of classes, after final exams. We both have work to do.