Today, Mani and I had our very first meetings as English conversation tutors at the public library. The woman I was paired with is a grad student from China, here working towards her Ph.D. at UMass. She is in her late 20s, with a wide-open smile and sunny personality. Her English is choppy but not terrible; at one point early on, I asked her what year she was born, and she immediately started telling me that yes, she did have a boyfriend, but they broke up next year. Wait, make that last year.
We had a good laugh when I returned to the original question, and I could tell within minutes that we were going to get along famously — an expression I’d have to be sure to write down and explain if I said it to her.
There were several times throughout our hour together that required such a slowing down; one of the gifts of speaking with someone whose first language is different from your own is just this — suddenly you notice your own speech. How quickly you speak, for example. How often you say “like” or use idioms that a newcomer to your language might now know.
When I suggested we try meeting at Starbucks next week, she asked which kind of coffee drink I prefer. I said sometimes I get a caramel macchiato, since I have a sweet tooth. “Sweet tooth?” she asked. Ah! I pointed to my tooth, ad explained that this means I like sweets. “Me too!” she said.
This was just one of many moments of connection during our introductory meeting. We also talked about sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and ants, babies and bellies, middle names and nicknames. We talked about first words — “mama” is common in China, too, she told me.
While telling her about my family, I had to explain “coming out of the closet,” which was fun. I asked her what happens in China, when someone is gay. It would be a secret, she told me. And then, looking at me across the little table, she said: “I think we have this one life, and…” she trailed off, searching for the words. “Love is not only for man and woman, but also man and man, woman and woman.” I smiled at her. “Love is love,” I said. “Yes!” she nodded in agreement. Then I learned that her name is just one letter away from the Chinese word for “pig,” adding a word to my teeny-tiny Chinese vocabulary.
And so our new relationship begins, an hour on Wednesdays, for her to practice speaking English, and for me to practice slowing down.