*Light. Easy. Eerie.*
Her head tilted slightly to the side. She blinked twice and looked perplexed, almost lost. Then her head straightened, her eyes narrowed and her cheeks turned down.
“No?” she asked in astonishment.
“No” I repeated.
Maybe she had never heard it before or maybe it was the way I said it. Maybe she was still getting used to talking in a foreign language to a stranger. Maybe she thought I was the “White Devil”, a term sometimes used to describe white people, “imperialism” and the dangers of democracy. Whatever the reason, she looked utterly astonished and genuinely perplexed. It was as though no one had ever dared to question or deny her a formal request.
After a few moments she repeated her question “No?” This time it sounded more like curiosity, like a sincere attempt to understand, not what I was saying, rather why I could possibly be saying it.
“Boo (Mandarin for ‘no’)…no” I repeated.
Instead, the look of curiosity vanished and in its place was one of astonishment once again. If I could see inside her mind, I imagined gears coming to a screeching, grinding halt, puffs of smoke rising, sirens blaring and a flashing red and white sign repeating: “Does not compute…Does not compute.” It was in English, though the rest of her was Chinese. In my mind’s eye, her sign spoke clear, audible, sensible English. Sadly, her mouth did not.
One of the most alarming observations I’ve made in China is that while many people (especially young adults) speak English, few of them speak intelligibly; their accents are so thick and their pronunciation is so poor it’s hard to understand a word, let alone a sentence. Reading and writing are taught in schools, speaking is not and pronunciation is almost entirely ignored. Even when I select “2, for English” when calling McDonald’s for a morning delivery (yes they deliver here) of an Egg McMuffin with Sausage, the English-speaking representative does not speak clearly enough for me to understand. I have to have things repeated repeatedly. This happens much less now that I’ve ordered a dozen times, but when I first called, I thought I had mis-dialed and reached the regular, Mandarin-speaking, line.
Additionally, some time ago, I told you the story of how my students were told by administrators at the high school after I left and was replaced with a Chinese teacher “Chinese teach English better than Americans.” Such seems to be the prevailing attitude here in China. In fact, not long ago, I had a successful businessman as a student for private English lessons. He came to me for help with his difficulties. Once he opened his mouth, I knew what they were. He had, quite possibly, the thickest accent of any Chinese I had heard. His vocabulary was extensive but his pronunciation unforgivably poor. Often times, this reflects and reveals a number of things, little time spent talking and listening (especially to native English speakers), poor study habits, the age when the language was first learned, etc. Provided the student learns the language as a child before the age of about 11 or 12 (from a native speaker), the student can speak both languages natively, without an accent and with the same fluency as someone who has been speaking their first language since birth. It has to do with the brain and our ability to recognize and reproduce the sounds we hear. My 44-year-old student, well beyond the 12 year threshold, I was convinced, had learned English very late in life. I was wrong. He had been studying English since the age of four. “But as a child, never from a native English speaker. Correct?”
It’s likely that observation that got me the job.
As a result of this Chinese approach to teaching English, ordering my Egg McMuffin meal isn’t nearly as simple as it should be.
Fast forward to today. I had lost my ATM card and needed a replacement. I navigated my way to the nearest branch of my bank with the help of my soon-to-be-travel-companion to Beijing, and requested a new card.
“Yes, sir” Sue-Ping (whose English name was “Tomato” when I arrived and “Sue” when I left) accommodated. Ten minutes later, I was presented with a new card.
Things are made quickly here. In the States Len’s Crafters prides itself on an hour or less. Down the street, the optometrist took 30 minutes.
Sue-Ping (I can’t bring myself to call her “Tomato”) started to explain, “This is your new card. It is better than your old card. It has good security. The fee is ¥20 (about $3.00). You will pay now, yes?”
That’s when today’s troubles and this piece began.
Sue-Ping eventually understood that our dilemma wasn’t one that could be solved by simple repetition. A supervisor arrived. Though I wasn’t able to understand Sue’s explanation, I was able to understand her supervisor’s reaction. I had seen it on Sue-Ping’s face about three minutes earlier. The gears grinded, the smoke rose and the sign flashed. The head tilt, the two blinks, the look of astonishment, it was all eerily familiar. It struck me as a combination of partially funny, partially innocent, partially sad and partially Stepford Wives. That reaction was soon replaced by a different one. While Sue-Ping was perplexed, her supervisor seemed to get angry, at least that was the expression on her face. She stood by and oversaw Sue-Ping’s resourcefulness. My teller started reaching for phones, her cellphone, the one on the desk, her cellphone again. Each time, she’d dial a number and hang up before the call would connect. Finally, her look was one of exasperation. It was as though bolts were going to blow and springs “sproing!”
Then, a moment later, the gears started to turn again.
She spoke up: “Sir, this card is safe. It has protection.”
She pointed to a square gold insert in the front of the card.
“It is better than your old card” she continued. “That is why you must pay fee.”
“No” I repeated. “I don’t want the protection.”
Her gears started to grind again.
“Protection is good, yes?”
Her face grew hopeful only to be followed by disappointment once she heard the rest of what I had to say, “No, I don’t want to pay for it. I’m happy with my previous card.”
“But this one better” she rebuffed.
“I don’t care” I said.
I don’t use my ATM or “Union Pay” card (as it’s called here) often. Since I’ve lived in China, I’ve used it less than a dozen times, mainly to make an occasional ATM withdrawal. I don’t care about extra security or a gold square on the front of my card. I care about getting home to watch more Game of Thrones. I just started the second season on DVD and I’m hooked.
I could say more about my dance with Sue-Ping. I could tell you details and they would be no different from the ones I’ve already told. This dance lasted about ten more minutes until I decided I had had enough. Game of Thrones was still calling and my $3.00 in time was already spent.
“Ok, Sue-Ping. I’ll pay the ¥20.”
A look of relief swept over her face. No longer were gears grinding. It was as if they never had. Even the supervisor’s expression changed; it went from an angry, frustrated frown to a smile…immediately.
I took comfort in sensing I had just witnessed another event that I would likely write about when I got home. I was right. This eerie interaction left an impression.
I got my card, thanked Sue (by now she had adopted my suggested new English name) and headed for the door. On my way out, I asked the greeter, Vivian, for help making sure my card worked. It did.
“Thank you, Vivian” I said.
“You’re welcome, sir. I am happy your card works. Can I help with anything else?” she asked (her English was much better than Sue’s).
“No, thank you, Vivian. Have a great day. I’m off to my computer.”
“Computer?” she queried. “Do you have e-banking?”
“I don’t! Thank you for the reminder, Vivian!”
She smiled and I rushed back to Sue.
“Sue, I’m sorry. I forgot. Can you help me with e-banking?”
“Yes, of course sir. Please sit down.”
I sat down and she continued:
“For e-banking, I must take your picture. Yes?”