Of all the things I have learned in Chinese class, one of the first was that the rest of the world is not politically correct — and they’re OK with that.
And I’m becoming OK with that. In fact, in a room of people ranging in origin from Mexico to Japan to Spain to Senegal, I’m beginning to take a pure and unabashed delight in noticing the eccentricities of certain groups and individuals. For anyone who dabbles in the unscrupulous pleasure of people-watching, it’s a veritable paradise. Let’s start with the Germans.
They bring food to class every day. What’s more, they seem to be bringing increasing amounts of food.
At first it was maybe some fried dumplings, a steamed bun, or some other delicious snack from a sidewalk vendor. Now, as they seem to be longing for a taste of home, it’s turning into bags of rolls, whole sacks of chocolates or an entire sub sandwich. A few days ago, one guy spread on his desk a loaf of bread, a jar of jam, a butcher’s knife (ostensibly to spread the jam?), a French press of coffee, and a kitchen mug with a blue floral pattern. Extravagant? Maybe. Delicious? Yes! By the 9:00 am break period I was in the crowd with everyone else throwing elbows for a spare morsel. (It should be noted that eating is “not allowed” in the classroom.)
Though unabashed in public feasting, the Germans are shy when it comes to public performances. And who can blame them? Well known fact: we citizens of the Western world don’t sing in public unless we’re good at singing (or we’re drunk at a karaoke bar). Lesser known fact: this is simply not true in the East. And as both teacher and host country of this class are Chinese, it was only a matter of time.
Recently the teacher stopped a marginally useful lesson on musical vocabulary and proceeded to a completely unproductive exercise of asking each nationality to sing a folk song from their home country. (How is this relevant to learning Chinese?) As the Germans, the French girl, the Australian, the Italian, and I made one silent, collective sink into our chairs, the three Korean girls acted with immediate, silent unity — four, small right hands hanging patiently in the air. “Can we sing first?” I think that was the first time I heard them speak.
The next thing I know our teacher was clapping her hands giddily. The four girls stood swaying slightly with their hands dutifully folded in front of them as they chorused a wistful little tune that came close to convincing me that pure innocence really does exist in the world. Getting the rest of the nationalities to sing took two days worth of class periods punctuated by long periods of silence and desk-staring. The second day I finally soloed a very poor version of “This Land is Your Land.” (Is that considered an American folk song?) The Germans were the last to cave, and I wish they hadn’t. It was a horrendous performance I’ve tried my best to forget.
So while the Korean girls have no problem singing in front of the class, making regular conversation with me during a break is another thing. “What was the song you sang about?” I ask in Chinese, according to the classroom rules. They look at each other and break down into giggles. I know they understood but I ask in English anyway. This leads to mild hilarity. I wait for a minute to see if they’re going to dignify me with an answer. (I’ve never felt more isolated.) They didn’t.
I’ve decided that their song must have been about something very scandalous, or they have a serious social disorder. Vermie, the Filipino-German who sits next to me is bubbly enough, but even she shakes her head and puts it simply, “I don’t understand them.”
Vermie deserves a paragraph of her own, because she’s my desk-mate and has taken on the most character of anybody. This dainty native of the Philippines, who has spent most of her life in Germany, comes to an impressive 5’3″ and maybe 99 lbs. But contrary to her stature and pretty face, she drops some of the most devastating criticisms one can put into a sentence. I can’t tell if it’s a fierce attitude thing or just a German bluntness exacerbated by 2nd-language-style-English. Examples:
-Teacher makes us read the practice paragraphs out loud in class. Vermie drops out about halfway through and (louder than the collective reading volume) says, “This is so stupid.” The class stutters. A few shoulders turn. I cough.
-I point out to Teacher that there’s a mistake in the English translation of a vocabulary word. Vermie affirms my correction. Ten minutes later, the Turk (an ambitious young man of about 20 years who ran uncontested for class monitor) raises his hand and points out the same mistake. Vermie’s verdict? An audible, “Shit, he is always so slow!”
-When one overzealous student from the other side of the room keeps shouting answers to questions addressed to other students, Vermie sighs, “I wish he would shut up.”
-Yesterday, when Teacher begins to announce a laborious, and of course, unhelpful homework assignment, Vermie says, “Damn.” Pause. Then quickly, “Damn, damn, damn.”
I want to tell her that I agree and add that she might keep her voice down, but I’m interrupted by a rattling classroom door. After a small battle with the knob, in stumbles our beloved Mongolian. Always late. Always enormously late. This time ten minutes before our two-hour class ends.
And it’s not that one can just sneak in the classroom, because our door handle is very broken. When you push down on the lever, the latch is still caught in the door. For the in-classroom observer, every late entrance has a defined sequence:
-Furtive click comes from the door and sound of a small shove. Door bangs against frame.
-The class takes notice while Teacher pretends she doesn’t.
-Noticeable rattling begins.
-Long pause. (At this point the late-comer on the other side is staring in confusion at the handle.)
-Begin second set of rattling. (Rarely successful.)
-A face is pressed against the narrow pane of glass, mouthing “Is it locked?”
-Rattling resumes. Teacher stops talking and all turn to vibrating door frame.
-Teacher and the Mexican who sits near the door simultaneously move for the knob.
-During the three or four false starts where both are confused over who is actually going to get the door, the late-comer finally gets the knob and falls through the door only to bump into Carlos or the teacher.
Of the non-native speakers (and I’m the only native speaker) Carlos has by far the best English in the class. He’s head and shoulders above the others, and this gives him the edge in wit and charm with the ladies. He may or may not be overusing this wit and charm on the young Russian woman who sits next to him. His signature move (I know because I sit right behind him) is to crack a joke and then in a “Ha! That was funny” manner leans over and rubs her shoulder or back, as if some touch was needed to diffuse the humor. Sometimes if he’s really trying to get a response, he’ll snake his arm all the way around her and give her a little shake. Charming.
Vermie doesn’t think so. She scowls at her book. But before she can raise her voice to the usual insensitive volume and sentence Carlos to eternal insignificance in the world, she is called on by teacher to describe the seasons in Germany.
Vermie manages the task, and now each nationality must contribute by electing one poor sap to narrate the seasonal climate of their home country. I start preparing my vocabulary when I run into a bit of unexpected nostalgia . . .
How to describe that the autumn isn’t the same here without the smoky smell of pine and blaze of red leaves? What’s the word for pumpkins? Football? And how to describe the way a whole nation’s mood tilts and shifts its weight into the coming holidays? Suddenly I’m stolen from my reverie by the class bursting into applause.
Sanba, the student from Senegal is explaining the rainy and the dry seasons in eastern Africa. Teacher is utterly stunned.
“Wow!” Teacher says. “How fun! Only two seasons? Everyone come and clap for Africa.”