This week at my favorite local Thai restaurant, I experienced a first.
Living in a Chinese-speaking country, I am quite accustomed to the frustration of not being able to communicate clearly. I have a basic knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, but my language acquisition over the past year and a half has been relatively slow. Because Morrison is a “no Chinese zone” for the students who are supposed to be getting an American education, there is little opportunity (or need) to practice Chinese during my work week.
I do, however, try to use as much Chinese as possible when I’m going out to run errands or grab dinner, and I have to say that most of the shop and restaurant owners are very gracious. I think they enjoy the fact that I’m trying to speak their language, and some of them go as far as to teach me as I shop and interact with them. I point to something and say, “guo yu zenme shuo?” (or “how do you say this in Chinese?”) and they say the word for me. I try to repeat it, and I inevitably butcher the tones or the pronunciation in the process. They repeat it for me, slower this time. And so the process goes, and so I learn Chinese little by little. (I learned how to say “rubber band” using this method this week, but that’s another story…) I have really enjoyed this kind of emersion learning, be it ever so tedious and sometimes embarassing.
But often (surprise surprise), I need more language than I can muster with my prolific hand gestures and limited vocabulary. That’s when I call on my numerous friends who are fluent in Chinese and English (of whom I think I will always be jealous). If, for instance, I need to pick up glasses and ask the eye doctor a question, I might have my friend write down the request in Chinese so that I can just show it to the “lao ban” (the boss) and get a clear answer. Or if I want to ask for a certain dish on the menu, my friend can write down the characters so that I’m ready with my order. This is just the way life happens in a foreign country where I don’t really speak the language.
But as I said, Tuesday night at the Thai restaurant was a first. This time, I was doing the translating. It’s kind of a funny story, actually. I went to dinner with Sara and another teacher from Morrison. We ordered our food, and then Sara and I popped over to a tea shop to grab a drink. When we came back in, the lao ban walked over to me and started talking in Chinese. She speaks almost no English, so I put on my Chinese thinking cap and went to work. She told me (in Chinese, remember) that another foreign teacher from Morrison had come in to have dinner earlier that week but forgot to pay. She said that he doesn’t speak enough Chinese for her to be able to ask him for the money the next time he comes in. She asked me if I would write down a note asking for payment that she could show him the next time he comes to the restaurant. After I wrote the note and the appreciative lao ban stepped away, my friends and I spent the rest of the meal wondering which Morrison teacher skipped out on the bill!
For once, the tables were turned, and I was doing the translating and helping. Admittedly, the vocabulary of my conversation with the lao ban was pretty simple, but I was still on cloud nine. I knew enough Chinese to know what she was asking for! Better yet, she expected that I knew enough Chinese to help her out! What a great feeling. As I thought about the conversation later in the evening, I realized that a lot of the vocabulary, grammar, and phrases that I used were ones that I have learned in my year and a half living here. That means that I am slowly but surely making progress.
You know, living overseas and facing challenges doing “simple” tasks in everyday life has made me appreciate the small triumphs so much more. I’m enjoying this little Chinese language victory at the Thai restaurant. Celebrate with me, 好不好?