Friday, January 15, 2010
Learning Chinese with my chopsticks
One of the delights of living in China is eating Chinese food. For someone who cannot handle her hot food, I have learned to tame the chili pepper. And as my concentration has shifted away from trying to control watery eyes and sneezing from the spiciness, I can now eat meals and listen to the words flowing around me.
The scene from last night: At a restaurant near the school is myself, my upstairs neighbors -- who I call big brother and big sister, my Chinese tutor Mr. Tang and his wife Mrs. Mo, and Ms. Huang and another Mr. Tang, a couple that teaches at my school.
We have a room to ourselves and the table is full. Our dinner: Lamb hotpot with rice noodles and spinach, Japanese-style tofu, eggplant and green beans, beef with hot peppers, pig stomach soup, spicy duck and river fish. Not to mention the three kinds of alcohol: Bai jiu (white rice wine), huang jiu (yellow rice wine) and tian jiu (sweet rice wine.) Yes, Chinese people love their rice so much that they eat and drink it.
My greatest Chinese lessons have come from such dinners. As I stuff my face, my ears stay open. What was once a gurgle of consonants in throats now carry meaning. The stock went up up up and then down down down ... My son is in Wuhan, on break from graduate school ... If you want your child to get better grades, you must tell the teacher to move him to the front of the classroom.
My dinner companions shift from putonghua -- standard Mandarin -- to a variety of dialects. I can't understand every word they say, but the idea is there. I know when they are talking about money or education or food. Usually the topic falls within those three categories. I can follow the string of conversation, from "Ms. Zhou's son has a fever," to, "Did you hear about so-and-so's husband dying of cancer," to "Drinking wine everyday is good for your health."
I only wish my Mandarin were good enough to put in my two cents. On the other hand, being the silent observer has its perks: My chopsticks are always moving.