Culture and idiomatic English

This is a piece that I wrote for my memoir and I am sharing it with you today, timely as the Chinese Lunar New Year is just past.  It is sort of long and somewhat humorous.  I taught in Beijing in 2001 and 2002.  I am currently working on writing a book about the experiences.

 

Many of the students in China who wanted to perfect their conversations skills in various languages went to a place called English Corner, or French Corner, etc.  This was a street corner where, on certain days, all sorts of people met to speak the language of their choice.

My husband attended a couple of these and since he was a native English speaker, he became the focus of these sessions.  No longer were the attendees speaking in conversation to one another, but all were vying for Bob’s attention in order to practice with a real English speaking person. It was tedious and very tiring.

What could we do with our students that would help them improve their English speaking skills?  I used several methods, including debate, tour guides, plays, but the most popular by far was the soap opera.  I have to explain that in Beijing, soap operas are very popular, taking up a good percentage of broadcast time on many of the local television stations.  They are maudlin, with a good deal of intrigue to carry your interest to the next episode.

I used the soap opera was used in my classes for both semesters.  These performances were at the beginning of each class session; especially the ones after lunch, as it excited them and brought them fully awake from their postprandial stupor. I had noticed students in other classrooms sleeping after lunch.

When arriving in class, five students were told they were the stars for the day.  These five would go out in the hall to prepare for their performance.  They had ten minutes to work on their episode. Sometimes I would give a topic and sometimes I would allow them to carry on in their own way continuing the story from the day before.

I wish I had recorded these scenes as they continued to unfold over the term.  It was interesting to see what they would use for their own ideas, but also fun to see what they would do with the ones I presented them. Many had preconceived ideas of “the American Way” and it was interesting to see these ideas in play form.

One class originally started with a Chinese family that lived in the United States.  When I asked them to describe this family, they told me that they lived in a big house, had a red convertible.  This comes from watching too many American movies.  “Well what kind of family do they have?” I asked.  “Oh, Miss Deon, they will have twelve children,” they replied. My response to this was how do we fit them in the little red convertible when it is time to take them to the movies or school?  They hadn’t thought this through.  So in one episode, we went on to find an appropriate vehicle for this family, shopping for a vehicle for a large family.  (The large family is the Chinese couples dream as they have been so limited to one child for so long.)

After we had fashioned the U.S. family, we created a Chinese couple with a child who were coming to the U.S. to visit our newly created family. One episode included piling into the new fifteen passenger van the family had purchased (financing was never figured out) to meet the Chinese family at the airport.

We had engagement of oldest daughter, guys night at the bar watching football (read soccer), one child who wasn’t doing well enough at school, a neighbor whose daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, sightseeing to Yellowstone Park, Grandmother who gambled too much at mahjong, and many more.

After a while they became very talented in creating scenarios for these vignettes.  They were so comfortable doing this that I decided to occasionally throw in a monkey wrench to scenes.  During the one were the guys were in the bar watching football, I had arranged for one of the women in the class to enter the play and go up to her “husband” and say “Where have you been?  It is our anniversary and you promised to take me to dinner and here I find you playing with your friends at the tavern!”  You should have seen the actor’s faces.  They were mortified. The students in the audience already knew this was going to happen as I had arranged it while the actors were in the hallway working on the plot.  We all laughed hysterically.  If course, the carefully arranged plot needed to be modified and the rest of their play changed to an impromptu, extemporaneous skit.  They really had to think on their feet to finish their ten minutes of fame on stage.  I must say they managed to pull it off well.

Toward the end of the term, one group of actors, who now knew that I might throw in something anytime, arrange for a surprise of their own.  The pulled me into their plot from the audience.  I’m not sure they got the responses they wanted, because I made it more difficult for them to hold to the plot by playing around with their addition of me to the game.

Needless to say, this whole exercise really pushed them to learn casual conversation.  After the skit was over, we would talk about the cultural inaccuracies they had portrayed, like fitting fourteen people into a red convertible.  Since I was teaching Western Culture as well as idiomatic conversation, it was a learning curve all around.

My husband’s class decided to put on a play.  They chose, of all things, Snow White. Well, this seemed pretty straightforward and probably not too difficult.  They would practice their parts in class as well as in their dorms.  However, in China, all the important parts should be played by men.  Snow White is an important part; therefore, it should be played by a man.  Chinese men normally do not have much facial hair, if any, but the gentleman chosen to play Miss White had a full beard.

Well, if a man could play the main woman then women could play the men.  The whole play was done with cross dressing! All the dwarves were women dressed as men.  The wicked queen was a man, the prince (another important part) was the only part played without cross dressing.

So here is Snow White in a dress he borrowed from one of his classmates.  He is wearing Bermuda shorts underneath, thankfully, as he sits with his legs splayed in front of his audience,  the dress being hiked up to a level as to be too revealing. Well the whole play was a riot.  Though they practiced a great deal, the glitches, such as the queen tripping over the hem of his gown, and the dwarves singing “hi ho, hi ho” off-key, it was wonderful.  They invited all my students to come for the audience as his students all had parts and they needed an audience.

My students chose an abbreviated version of The Merchant of Venice, so abbreviated that it was a little hard to follow and the audience, Bob’s students, got a little bored with the whole thing. They had a good time doing it and developed elaborate costuming from their limited wardrobes, but they did get a chance to practice their English Conversation.

Needless to say, this was just a couple of more examples of my quirky way of teaching conversational English and Western Culture.

 

Pedicab travel in Beijing

https://i1.wp.com/www.tour-beijing.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Rickshaw-31.jpg

(typical pedicabs, though the ones we used (twice) had now awning and the man who pedaled was much older)

LiuLiChong was a beautiful old street on the edge of a hutong, a village within the city, walled all around and possessing its own zip code.  Most of the water related facilities in hutongs were used in common, wells, restrooms, showers and such. Some had as many as 10,000 residents. Anyway, it was a picturesque area with large, mature trees lining the streets and many stores with the old fashioned facades that sold to artists.  There were also galleries and “antique” stores.  I needed a couple of paint brushes and nearby there was a Korean BBQ area where we liked to eat.

It was a really hot day and rather than walking from the subway station (loop line) we opted to use a rickshaw or more accurately, a pedicab.  This one had two seats mounted on the back of a bicycle.  We only used these twice in China because I felt them to be somewhat demeaning to the drivers, though it was the way they earned their living.

We are moving along at quite a clip through traffic, the driver was older with mostly white hair and beanpole thin.  He wore a wife beater and tan shorts with flip flops. The breeze felt good in the heat.  Bob had on Bermuda shorts and I had on a skirt.  One thing you may not realize is that most Chinese men lack any body hair, even on their faces.  My husband is very fair having been a red head in his younger days.

We had seen the driver look back at us a couple of times and I was trying to keep my skirt decently in place as we traveled. Suddenly Bob feels something moving up his leg.  He looked down and the driver was reaching back and running his hand up and down Bob’s calf feeling the bristly reddish hairs on his leg!  We both laughed and the driver laughed and then he looked at mine.  I shave mine and he must have thought that I was more “normal” like the Chinese with no leg hair.

Trains in China

(The writing group I belong to assigned the topic “trains” and I decided to share it with you. The photo is a nicer train than the one we slept in where the shelves were wood and it was very dark.)

Hard Sleeper Carriage

When I lived in China, I had the opportunity to travel almost the full length of the country by various forms of transportation, plane, train, bus, rickshaw, but never on a boat.  In January, February, and March of that year’s spring break, we would travel by train for the first time in China.

I had a foreign affairs officer who became good friend, and whose primary job was to answer questions and make our transition of living in China an easier one.  So who did I turn to for lessons on how to travel? Zhou Wei.  Help, how do we make a train reservation?  What are the options?  How can I tell them the destination? And a hundred others.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to keep to a schedule on the trip, so if we missed a conveyance or took one to the wrong place, we could just continue on anywhere we wanted.  We did, however, have a bit of a plan.

I had tried to think of all the things I might need to ask someone while we travelled, soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat, where is a hotel and more. I wrote all the questions on flash cards and had one of my students write the phrase in Chinese characters on the other side, that way I could ask and hopefully understand and get the right answer.

Zhou Wei took us to the train ticket office near the university where we taught and showed us how to purchase a ticket, something that cannot happen more than three days ahead of your travel date. Spring break, millions and millions travel in China.  Students have more time off, but business people and workers only have a short window of a week for vacation, thus transportation would be packed and overloaded during that time.  We would try to stay in one place when this was the most difficult.

When it came time to leave for Xi’an, our fist stop, Zhou Wei went with us to the train station to show us how to find our train.  All the schedules have the names of the destinations in Chinese characters.  This meant I would have to memorize all the city names on our route in Chinese.  Fortunately the times were written in western numbers.

When we were getting on the train, we had to surrender our ticket.  I was a little worried that I didn’t have proof of the stop where I was supposed to exit and might be asked to leave earlier, but I was given a metal, dog tag type device to keep until my time to get off.

We had reserved a soft sleeper for the first leg of our journey.  This was even more comfortable than the bed in our apartment with four bunks.  Our roommates were two men who did not speak any English.  They immediately stripped to their long johns so as to not wrinkle their suits.  Luckily there was no smoking in the room so they needed to go between cars to do that.  Toilets were at each end of the car, one western and one Chinese. There was a washroom adjacent to the conductor’s cubbyhole.

Everyone was wandering around the train partially dressed.  They would sleep in their long johns.

A large thermos of boiling water was provided and the conductor kept it full for us. I had brought teabags and our dinner.  We sat at a small pop-up table below the window and watched the world go by through lace curtains until dark.  This train was the most luxurious of all in our travels.

People were polite and tried to engage us in conversation.  On another leg of the journey, they watched us play canasta and tried to figure out the game as they are big card players who always want to gamble on them.

On one leg of the journey, I made a serious mistake while reserving our accommodations. I chose beds #3 and 4, wrongly making the assumption that they would be above and below each other in the same compartment. Wrong.  They were in two different compartments.  I went to mine and with charades, asked the man above my bunk would trade with my husband who had a lower bunk.  He agreed in a minute as the lower are the more desirable.

On one leg of the journey we could only get hard sleeper.  Hard sleeper is a little fancier than a cattle car.  Wooden bunks are stacked four high.  I didn’t see any chickens, but some livestock are allowed to be carried in this compartment.  We slept on a board with the ¼” thick pad like we originally had for a mattress in Beijing.  We didn’t sleep much due to discomfort and the general hubbub in the car.  The people were very kind and gracious to us but someone was up the whole night talking or eating or calming crying infants.  I could have throttled the two young me in the two top bunks playing video games with companion sounds (read noise), the whole night long. One man wanted to talk with us, but he didn’t speak English.  He left for about two hours and came back with someone he found in soft seat who spoke English and could act as a translator.  We spent quite a while answering his questions.  It was fun and he was sooooo happy.

When you are nearing a town and it seems like about the time that you should arrive at your destination, start watching for the signs for the name of the station, only a few had their names in pinyin (western characters).  Here is where I really had to read fast and had needed memorize the name in characters.  I wouldn’t have much of a glimpse and I needed to see if it was our stop.  We travelled for two and a half months and we didn’t get off wrong anywhere.  We carried our baggage with us so there was no need to locate it when we arrived at our destination. I suspect that there was no baggage check as everyone carried their piles of bags, luggage, animals and more and dumped them in aisles, under seats on the foot of beds.

Now China has high speed trains that can travel from one end of the country to the other in just a couple of days.  It used to take five.  The trains from Beijing to Xi’an, Shanghai, TianJin are more luxurious than the ones that deal with other Provinces.  A professor friend of mine said he slept on a board stretched between two seats for his bed on the train. He kept falling off.  We traveled in comfort, even in the hard sleeper section.

Though some were crowded, it was very festive and the people were kind and helpful.  The conductors/conductresses were attentive, maybe more so to us as we were foreigners.  All in all, trains in China are the way to go and my preferred means of travel.