Unexpected Friendship and Opportunity

Trip Start Aug 13, 2010
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Flag of China  , Hunan,
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    As the cliche goes, life is full of surprises. Everyday here is a surprise. I can and should always expect the unexpected--because to live life, thinking that I'm in control-- that I know what will happen-- that I can plan everything-- well, that's just crazy. Opportunities in life are so plentiful, coming in various ways, in various forms. Life is about seizing those opportunities-- grabbing hold and recognizing them and appreciating them. Meeting Tina on the airplane, having dinner with Qing He and her boyfriend, conversing with taxi drivers in Chinese... and then tonight. Oh what a night:

 After dinner, I was walking up the stairs to my apartment and I saw an elderly woman. Somehow, we began to talk with me using my very limited Chinese. I know, I've told this story a million times-- I explained to her my background, about my parents and basically didn't really understand anything she said. As we were talking (we had paused on the third floor), another woman comes up and I introduce myself to her and the three of us sort of converse for a couple of minutes. The second woman soon leaves the conversation to go into her apartment while the first older woman and I must trudge up more stairs to our apartments. When I stopped at my apartment door, the woman asked me if she could see my apartment. Or, that's what I think she asked me. She asked me if only one person lived there and guiltily, I said yes. In Chinese, I said something along the lines of "too big-- one person," trying to show that I knew this was a lot of space for one person. Then, here's where a bit of tricky communication came in-- where, if I had been wrong, it would have been extremely embarrassing-- she said something to me that made me believe she wanted me to come up to see her apartment. Using all of the Chinese that I could think of, I tried in several different sentences to verify that she did indeed want me to go with her to her apartment. I uttered such phrases as "Me? Go? See?" and "I come with you?" and "We go?" It's awkward thinking about just going to her place uninvited, but thinking I had been invited...
    So, the two of us go to her apartment, which is on the fifth floor. I met her grandson who very cutely said "hello. How are you?" which was pretty much all the English he knew. I entered their apartment, which looked the same as mine except with more stuff. She told me that 5 people lived there... 5 people! In the same amount of space as me! I felt really bad. Anyway, wondering how long I would be there, I sat down rather uncomfortably where the woman gestured me. She gave me a small juice-box-like container of warm low lactose milk and set a bag of un-shelled peanuts in front of me, gesturing for me to eat. Very awkwardly, I sipped the milk, which I actually don't like to drink, trying to be polite. Actually, this is probably the first bit of calcium I've consumed since I've been in China. I would sip a bit and then put the box down and after a while, she would push the box toward me, encouraging me to drink up.
    We spent a lot of the time looking at this English book that the grandson (Hu Hu? I think was his name...) I'm not exactly sure what they were wanting me to do with it. It was very basic English-- Hello, Good-bye, I'm Mary-- which I was able to explain in Chinese. But seriously, I had no idea what she was wanting me to do. I read the words out loud and explained what they meant in Chinese-- but beyond that, well, I don't know what we were doing. This went on for a bit-  probably a good 20 minutes. She asked me some questions in Chinese--which, surprisingly, I was able to answer a lot. She asked me how much money I made-- which I felt sort of uncomfortable answering. I was afraid that my amount would be more than the amount that her son made as a teacher. I wrote down 4000 Yuan-- and then I asked how much Chinese teachers made. They told me that the boy's dad made 5000--which I hope is true. I really hope they didn't make a bigger number to save face or something-- Actually, even though it is a bigger amount, it's to support 5 people. My 4000 is all for me... That was definitely an uncomfortable moment.
    We talked a little bit about my Chinese name and English name. She asked me how old I was, which took a bit for me to understand. She actually wrote it in Chinese for me to read-- to which I explained to her that I couldn't read Chinese. I actually said several times that I couldn't read but she continued to write things down in Chinese characters. I figured out that she wanted to know my age and told her. I also figured out that she was asking if I had siblings-- and told her I had a younger brother. Luckily, the Cantonese word is very similar to the Mandarin word.
    One interesting thing-- I think she had a different dialect-- sometimes she would say stuff and then her grandson would pronounce it slightly differently, as if he knew that I would probably understand the standard dialect better. And I always did. He was a very bright little boy. Very cute. I think that we will be able to learn from each other quite well. I taught him the word 'teacher' and 'student.' He taught me the Chinese word for 'student.' I told him that I could be his English teacher and he could be my Chinese teacher.
    Towards the end, after perhaps an hour, the elderly lady asked and wrote down "Can you study English with Hu Hu everyday?" She wrote it in Chinese and asked me to write it in English. I wrote it literally in English-- a literal translation from Chinese which was something like, "Teacher Trinh Hu Hu everyday with you study, ok?" I tried to explain that the word order in English would be different but it was impossible to explain with my limited English. I actually was surprised that I understood what she said. Actually when she wrote it down, it helped a little bit-- because I recognized "Everyday" and "okay?" The combination of speaking and writing was actually quite effective, even though I can't really understand or read. It's amazing how much I was able to communicate with the little amount of Chinese that I know. It was really helpful that all of us were very patient, especially the kid and his grandma.
    So, after we kind of talked about what the grandma had written, she said something about a family member-- so i tried to draw a family tree and have her explain which member it was but this led to some weird confusion with the little kid running around trying to figure out how to write down what we were saying. Then she asked if I could meet with her grandson everyday to study. I said not everyday but tomorrow would be okay. I actually have a very busy day tomorrow but I really want to do this! So, we set up a time-- thanks to Pimsleur's Mandarin lessons, i was able to ask "What time?" and "7:00 is okay." Then, she asked me if I wanted to eat dinner with them. This was another awkward issue where I had to verify a few times that I was invited to dinner. I asked things like, "We eat tomorrow?" and "I eat with you?" and "I come here?" and "I come to eat?" So, we'll see-- tomorrow at 6. This will be interesting.
    Everyday -- more surprised. What a random thing! I'm so thrilled that it happened- and in such disbelief. Did I really just communicate in Chinese for almost two hours? How was that possible? What luck! What fate!
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