I am no longer the token foreigner who is able to arrive-and-immediately-integrate-chat-flirt-make-jokes-and-discuss-politics in the local tongue. In China I am lost and stare vacantly when someone speaks to me in Mandarin. I am thrilled to find that I can extrapolate occasional words and phrases but I panic when people deviate from the set dialogues that I have learned. I envy the foreigners who are fluent (although anyone who can babble a few words seems fluent to my novice ear) but I do recognize that none of them landed in China and learned by osmosis. In terms of language ability, the foreigners tend to fall into sub-groups under the principal Foreigners who Speak Mandarin group:
- Not a Word - Foreigners who do not bother learning any Mandarin at all since they think “why bother, I am eventually leaving and will no longer have any use for this language”
- In and Out - Business people who travel frequently to China and master a few phrases which are sycophantic enough to flatter their local counterparts
- Sexually Inspired - Foreigners who learn the vocabulary needed to conduct a massage related transaction that ends “happily”
- Pseudo Intellectual - Foreigners who are so pedantic that not only do they study Ancient Chinese poetry but insist on reciting it at cocktail parties
- In Love with Anything Chinese - Foreigners who refuse to associate with anyone who is not Chinese and this extends to the food consumed and habits assumed
- Tai Tais and Guy Tais - Foreigners who have followed their spouses and speak enough Mandarin to survive daily life (take a taxi, negotiate the price of a Gucci in the counterfeit market, and argue that, despite the shop keepers’ proclamations, the Gucci is indeed counterfeit)
-Fluent and Normal - Foreigners who have been studying Mandarin for years
I met Elizabeth, Will and some of their friends for dinner at a Hunan restaurant. They fall into the Fluent and Normal group and claim that they were not comfortable with the language until 5 years of intensive study. Perhaps they are saying this to make me feel better about my limited level. I am not willing to invest multiple hours a day to learn Chinese (unless I know that there is a lovely job waiting for me at the end of the road) but I determined to reach a level in which I can communicate with people; even if I do sound like Tarzan speaking to Jane.
The restaurant is a great place to start. In order to practice the few words I know, I am afraid that I begin to harass the waiter with my continual requests "Please can I have some water.....please can I have some napkins.....please do you have any salt...thank you, the food is very good." He probably just grouped me into the Sub Group Foreigners that are Invasive-Demanding-and-Never-Satisfied when I am Very Busy. He was too busy to engage in a conversation so I was spared the humiliation of not being able to respond to any inquiry or comment which deviated from my Chinese 101 Language Course Book. Many Chinese tend to assume a foreigner is fluent in the language if he manages to spit out a few memorized phrases. For example, our Ayi at home is convinced that I miraculously learned Chinese over my Christmas holiday because I am now able to say "Hello-how-are-you-it-is-cold-today-would-you-like-some-tea." Without fail she bounces into conversation and chatters away laughing but always remembers - as a Chinese woman should - to cover her teeth with her hand. Her teeth are yellowing and uneven and I suspect that she probably spent her life, as many people from the villages, swishing Green Tea in her mouth rather than using a toothbrush. Her hand, bloated with deeply furrowed and cracked skin around split and dirty nails, is the hand of a woman who has spent her life toiling in the homes of others. But she too has the right to be a lady.
The restaurant was large but cramped with large plate glass windows to let passersby know that it is popular. Hunan Cuisine is known for its liberal use of chili peppers, shallots and garlic and one is blinded with pain and fear after consuming the blood red chilies that are scattered throughout the platter. Their cumin encrusted ribs were decadent but really, eating ribs with chopsticks was a challenge for me. While recommended, we were not daring enough to try either the fish heads served with green chili sauce or the steamed frog legs.The restaurant was raucous and the tables were filled with patrons shouting Gambei (bottoms up) to one another. The Chinese feel that food and drink bind a friendship forever and as such, it is typical to have 10-20 Gambei toasts at a meal, people inhaling glass after glass of warm beer. It was already late in the evening and I was observed the group at the table to our left. Their faces were glowing red, sweat visibly collecting by the collar of their shirt, their suit jackets had been tossed to the floor and lay in a crumbled heap, their speech was slurred and the person presenting a toast struggled to stand upright, one hand pressed firmly on the table to prevent them from falling over. Beer lapped over the edge of the glasses, accumulating in a sticky mess on the tablecloth which was already crowded with massive amounts of food that had spilled from the platters, dirty napkins, beer bottles, and bits and pieces of discarded (read – spit out) food.