It was only fitting that I sat on the steps of the Public Theater last night eating jiaozi.
Jiaozi — in English, potstickers, those crescent-shaped Chinese dumplings so named because they stick to the pot when fried — used to be my dinner en route to weekly Mandarin classes (Triangulingual, May 18, 2010) when I taught at Hunan University of Science and Technology in Xiangtan, On the food street near my apartment, I would pick up a bag of them, maybe a dozen, hot sauce poured into the plastic bag, and eat them as I walked the dusty, barely paved streets to class. I was actually dexterous enough to walk and use chopsticks at the same time. Three years less agile, I took to the steps en route to the evening’s performance, “C’est du Chinois.”
Last night’s potstickers came from a cart — A-Liu’s Taste, “Originally From Taiwan” — often found on the south side of Astor Place in the East Village. As New York street food goes, potstickers make a nice break from hot dogs and halal, and I usually look for them when I’m in the neighborhood. They come in four varieties: pork, chicken, Korean beef barbecue and Japanese vegetable. They can be mixed and matched: $3.50 for a snack of five, $6 for a very filling 10, and I don’t even want to think about what $9 buys. They’re bigger and less crisp than the ones in Xiangtan, but they do the trick. The cart also serves “Chinese spaghetti,” that equivalent of Proust’s madeleine that I first encountered in Roanoke, Va., with some doubts about its authenticity, and later learned was for real at Will Long in Xiangtan. (Red, hot chili peppers, March 6, 2010.) I hope A-Liu’s isn’t just plain old lo mein.
The Public, right around the corner from A-Liu, has spiffed up considerably since my last visit — could it be two years ago? The last performance I remember attending there was Tony Kushner’s “Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide . . .” in 2011. A sleek oval bar now dominates the lobby; the box office has been moved behind it. The counter gift shop is gone. As for the restrooms — well, any woman who ever stood in line for one of four stalls in the freezing-cold old one will swoon. (But it’s as hard as ever to squeeze into the elevator to the third-floor Martinson Theater.) I was afraid outside food might not be tolerated in this new environment; hence the steps. But in the new loft lounge called The Library (named for the building’s previous incarnation), a couple ate from a plastic-foam carton identical to mine containing, yes, potstickers.
“C’est du Chinois” — roughly translated, “it’s all Greek to me” — was having its last performance as a presentation of the Public’s Under the Radar series. Conceived and directed by the Hungarian-born, Amsterdam-based Edit Kaldor, the play has been performed widely in Europe and in Brazil. It tells a story in the form of a language lesson, or maybe it’s the other way around.
Five Chinese actors, each wearing a pitch pipe on a lanyard, take the stage. “Ni hao,” one begins, then indicates the audience is to repeat it. After this initial lesson, a voiceover informs the audience, in English, that the actors represent two families from Shanghai who have recently immigrated to New York. “We have developed a good method to teach you Mandarin,” the voiceover continues. It urges the audience/students to follow along carefully: “Otherwise you will get lost — completely lost.”
With each new word, an actor blows into a pitch pipe, the audience’s cue to repeat the word. The vocabulary was simple: phrases like ni hao and hen hao and zhong guo. “Zhong guo hen hao” (“China is very good”) — yields to an admission that New York is also hen hao. Seeing mei guo (the United States) pointed out on map reminded me that I am mei guo ren — I mean, wo shi mei guo ren. Watching the actors demonstrate the words for eat, drink and sleep was a lot like doing Rosetta Stone, my only instruction in Mandarin before leaving for China.
As the story progresses, the prompts trail off and comprehension becomes the goal. The girl (nu er) in one family marries the older brother (gege) in the other. He is hen kuai le (very happy), she less so. They have a baby, which nu er bu ai (doesn’t love). Gege becomes a businessman; nu er becomes a hippie. Gege drinks. There are in-law tensions. Blood is spilled before the family comes to an uneasy resolution.
The lesson reminded me just how foreign a language Chinese seems to Westerners, with its ideogram characters and the tones that pinpoint a spoken word’s meaning. I didn’t get completely lost, though by the middle some developments were eluding me. For learners like me who need to see words written before they can hear them properly, it would have helped if the Chinese characters accompanied by pinyin (Roman letters) had been projected on the upstage wall. Still, I got the gist — a giant step in acquiring a new language.
Instead of a blackout and a traditional curtain call, “C’est du Chinois” ends when gege opens the door and the family gathers at a table of the language DVDs he sells: Ni Hao $5.99. What could I say on the way out but two phrases they didn’t teach: “Xie xie! Zai jian!”