Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spring and Company

We had Chinese guests for the past five days, which has been an interesting experience. Steve is an English teacher from Daniel’s first Chinese city, Changzhou. He brought his wife, Spring, who speaks about as much English as I speak Chinese -- limited. Their 14-year-old son Mike speaks English but is hobbled by the fact that he’s 14. So he speaks with adults in any language with great reluctance. I wouldn’t say he’s sullen -- that seems to be a special talent of American 14-year-olds-- but he only speaks if he has to.

Despite these somewhat daunting handicaps, it's been a good China moment. Steve is easy, affable and chatty and rousing his family first thing in the morning to go see the Beijing sights. I made dinner the first two nights they were here. As we sat around the table, Steve said, you can ask me anything. So we talked about education, the study of Mao, politics. A couple of days later we covered Ai Wei Wei (Steve had never heard of the world’s most famous artist), the Cultural Revolution, and other seemingly sensitive subjects.

That was actually easier than communicating with a quiet adolescent. But I found a way:  through the universal language of Fruit Ninja on my iPad. I actually think I'm something of a 14-year-old when it comes to silly games that involve slicing fruit so it makes a nice splat. For the first day or so, I beat him. And then he figured out that if he wrapped a tissue around his finger, he could swipe the fruit much more smoothly. His record of 511 is going to be a tough one for me to beat. But the grin on his face was worth my defeat.

As for Spring, the communication was harder. She wanted to make dinner for us one night. She bought most of the ingredients she needed, but kept asking for things I didn't have. My pleco app on my iPad helped me figure she needed cornstarch. And spicy tomato sauce.

In any event, I watched Spring and now can make jiozas: filled dumplings. This is not so different from making ravioli. In fact, it's a little easier because you buy the dumpling wrappers and then just need to do the filling.

The other way Spring and I communicate is through massage. Every time I sit down, she offers to give me a shoulder and neck massage, and I never refuse. One afternoon when the boys were all out having a ping pong tournament, Spring clearly wanted to tell me something. I pulled out my handy Pleco. She carefully picked out words in pinyan that then translated into Chinese characters and English.
Nimen: you
Ganxie: thanks
Bangzhu: assistance.

Oh! Thank you for your help! I understood.
Whenever Spring tried to type something on the Pleco, she’d say “ABC! ABC!” so that I could make the English keyboard appear. It worked really well.

Her son, Mike, was “haixiu” – shy.
I told her Mike’s English was “xianjinshuiping” – on an advanced level.
She told me I was “congming” – clever – to be able to communicate this way.
I’m not sure I agree that I was particularly clever, but I do think the technology is pretty cool. The interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel says that God made the people of Babel speak a different language. Genesis says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

And God had a problem with that? My feeling is that if I can tell a Chinese friend that her son is smart, her jiaozi are delicious, and her shoulder massage feels great, something good is happening. I also think that if the communication involves making a bright watermelon go splat, that works too.
Just connect.

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