Monday, March 07, 2011

Basso Profundo

I survived my first day back at work. Even had a plan to help someone out after work. On the way to do that a girl stopped me to ask directions. I must at least look like a New Yorker still.

In China every activity was peppered with questions of interpretation. I spoke zero words of Chinese when I landed. I now speak three (spelling appoximated): Nie hao (hello), Xie Xie (thank you) and Zai Chien (goodbye). Almost every person we interacted with in China spoke at least that many words in English and the large majority spoke it fluently. It's a matter of vocabulary, though, and once you start talking about specific foods, asking cultural questions or discussing the finer points of 2,000 years of a country's history you're bound to come up against situations that require some deductive reasoning to find the right words.

My favorite was in the car one day after Mr. Li got a call from Sister Bee's company. It was a woman we'll call Derry. Mr. Li explained, "Derry is my secret." We had been discussing personal lives a bit so that actually seemed plausible but we had no idea how to respond. It was a much more intimate thing than we expected to hear blurted out. "She is my secret," he reiterated, confused by our silence. One of us probably muttered, "secret what?" Finally he gestured like he was writing and said something about schedules.

"Secretary!" Queen Bee declared, "I am a secretary, too!"

"Me too," I added.

Being a secretary wasn't nearly as juicy as being a secret but we were pretty proud of ourselves for working that all out.

The woman who stopped me in the subway for directions was Asian. She said excuse me. She asked if I could help her. Then she asked where the...bassa station was. Now, you've probably already got it but I had nothing. I'll blame it on the jet lag but it was frustrating. I'd spent two weeks interpreting words, phrases and descriptions into specific English terms and after three days on American soil I had nothing for this woman. I pointed out where she could see the exits. We talked about what intersection we were under.

"But this is where the bassa station is?" she asked again.

I hated not being able to get it. I was about to walk away.

"Bus station!"

She kindly didn't look at me like I was an idiot. I explained, probably far too fast, where she had to go on the train to get to the station and explained that it was called the Port Authority. I hope she understood what I was getting at.

Maybe it's the jet lag. Maybe I just need to keep working on my listening skills.

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