Thursday, March 20, 2008

Being Laughed At

I had my third week of teaching English yesterday. When Mrs. Xiong picked me up, there was another woman in the car, so I sat in the backseat. It's really difficult to talk in Chinese when there are two people and only one of them is engaged. It's especially difficult since here in Chengdu, people naturally speak Sichuan dialect (named after this province), which, although similar in structure to Mandarin, has a totally different feel with a totally different vocabulary. I have picked up a few words, and since my tones aren't great, it doesn't phase me when their tones aren't standard either, but in general I have no idea what they're saying. That means that when people are in a group, they're either talking to me in Mandarin, or they're talking normally. I'm not good enough to follow a conversation, so them speaking in Mandarin while talking just so I'll be able to understand some parts doesn't get the reaction they want, and they just talk to themselves in Sichuan dialect.

While I was in the car, then, they talked in Sichuan dialect and I looked out the window. It didn't bother me too much, because I like to look out the window, but it was unfortunate that I couldn't spend the time trying to talk to Mrs. Xiong.

Teaching went pretty well, I thought. The kids were really rowdy, and I was teaching really little ones (3-4 year olds) so they were even more lost than normal. I tried to get them active, like teaching them "stand up" and "sit down" and "clap your hands" by having them do the motions, but either they were too young or they were too tired, because my tactics only had limited effect. I taught three classes, and then I was supposed to head back to Chengdu immediately, because I think Mrs. Xiong had planned to eat dinner with the woman.

Once I was done teaching, though, Mrs. Xiong and the woman had to talk for a while about something, and then they got my assistant, Tina (Mrs. Xiong's cousin) and a few other girls and talked to them privately too. I asked what was going on, and Tina told me that the woman thought Tina had been too harsh to the kids and had a few words for her. I didn't think Tina had acted out of the usual, but she told me that the woman's kid had died a few years ago and now that she had another kid maybe she was too involved in making sure everything went right. The woman is on the older side of middle-aged, with lots of wrinkles and a naturally critical look.

They talked for at least half an hour, so that by the time they were done, they abandoned plans for their dinner and stopped somewhere with me on their way back. Over dinner, the woman explained in patronizingly slow Chinese (I admit, my Chinese isn't good enough to tell definitively that her tone was patronizing, but I'm pretty sure it was) how I could have done a better job. I didn't understand everything she said, but she wasn't very patient with me and I wasn't going to stop her to hear a more detailed critique. I hadn't paid attention to whether she had been watching me teach or not, but if she had she would have seen that everything she was recommending to me was stuff that I did.

On the way home, Mrs. Xiong and the woman were talking for a while about something, and since I heard "Pan Wei said..." a few times I thought that maybe Mrs. Xiong was telling the woman things about America that I had told her. I was thrown off, then, when Mrs. Xiong asked me a question that didn't seem like it had to do with anything. It took me several repetitions for me to interpret her questions as, "You don't like going places alone, do you?" I wasn't sure how I was supposed to answer, since this seemed like the kind of question that would follow from the conversation I hadn't been following.

The woman was not helping. Every time one of them asked me a question with a word I didn't know, the woman would shake her head, laugh, and say, "He doesn't understand." This bothered me so much that by the end of the hour and a half car ride I was clenching my fists and was tempted to try to say, "I don't feel like talking any more." She had laughed like I was an amusement, like communication was an accidental by-product of her fun. It's like when you see an old computer and start to test it out just to see how badly it performs, so you can be so grateful about the capabilities of your own computer.

It was the first time I've gotten really mad at somebody in China. I'm so glad I haven't met more people like that.


Virginia said...

Dear Will,
Being in a foreign country and being laughed at! Not fun. I am sorry and I, too, hope you don't meet other people like that.
It does, though, raise my level of sensitivity about how I treat other people. It doesn't just have to be about understanding the language. Your insightfulness about the situations you find yourself in, makes your trip not only a chance to travel, but to take a look inward. Thanks for that.
Love, Virginga

Aunt Gwen said...

I think your blog should be required reading for people considering going overseas. It is a great reminder of the cultural differences and frustrations of the language barrier.

Sheri said...

Stories like this remind me that people who are mean are unhappy in themselves, and were likely victims of meanness themselves. Too bad for that lady that she is so small and petty that she had to have a laugh at your expense. Too bad for you too.

Mel said...

i miss you.

you're doing great.

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