No Mud, No Lotus

Our conversations start out at the counter, where we order drinks. Something inevitably comes out that lends itself to a language lesson… this time, it was “lemonade.” Luping is determined to order something different each week, and she decided to try one of the fancy-schmancy Starbucks iced teas.

Peach or mango? White or black or green? And last but not least, what is lemonade? I asked her if she knew what a lemon was, making a sour face. Yes, she nodded enthusiastically. Add water and sugar — a lot of sugar, the cashier added — and you get lemonade. Ah! Understood. Mango black tea lemonade ordered.

Our conversations zig-zag all over the place. I don’t know who delights more in it, and perhaps part of the pleasure of this weekly hour is that the enjoyment is so mutual. At one point — and honestly, I’d have to take notes to remember how things like this come up — I was trying to describe cilantro to her, without cheating and looking up the Chinese character on Google. A college student who was sitting one table over and getting up to gather her things chimed in.

“Hey! I think I know that! I have had exactly this same conversation!”

“About how to say ‘cilantro’ in Chinese?” I asked, a little incredulously.

“Yeah, I tutor grad students at UMass and one of them is from China. We were just talking about cilantro the other day.” What were the odds? I told her that’s what we were doing. She asked if it was through UMass and I said no, through the Jones Library Volunteer Program. She was friendly and just on this side of pushy.

“You should look into getting a tutor through UMass,” she said to Luping. “Depending on your TOEFL scores, it’s free.”

Luping looked slightly unclear and I repeated what the student had told her. Then she gestured in my direction and said, “But I like her!” At that, all three of us laughed and the young woman left. Luping and I continued our conversation, meandering this and that way. We wound up talking about her village in China, which she told me has been ranked the second prettiest town in the entire country. It is surrounded by small rivers and every single family has a field for growing vegetables.

In the mornings, people boat over to their field to pick vegetables for that day. “Your green peppers,” she told me, “they are very big. But they have no flavor.”

Her parents both work in the hospital and don’t have time to go to the field each morning, so when she lived at home, she would wake up in the morning and find a basket filled with vegetables by the door, not knowing which relative or neighbor had picked extra and left it for her family.

Nearby, there is another town known for its wildflowers and stands of bamboo. We talk about bamboo, and how it is a symbol of integrity and uprightness. To be compared to bamboo is to possess desirable character traits. She says many lotus flowers also grow in the rivers near the fields around her town, which look like tiny islands from above. I ask her if the lotus has much symbolism in China, as it does here in the States. I try to think of the famous Confucius saying about the lotus growing in the mud.

“Oh, yes!” she exclaims. I get out my phone. According to one source, Confucius wrote: “I have a love for the Lotus, while growing in mud it still remains unstained.”

No mud, no lotus. Best. Metaphor. Ever.

But rivers filled with lotus blossoms and summer days that begin by boating to one’s field to pick fresh vegetables? At this point, I am downright romanticizing Luping’s hometown. I’m picturing the aisles of the grocery store — even the ones featuring expensive, brightly colored, organic produce — and lamenting how automated and distant from the land my life is. Sure, I live in a valley surrounded by farms, but my daily existence doesn’t involve paddling a boat or hands in the dirt.

Meanwhile, Luping tells me about the edible lotus seeds and I suggest that she come over to our place someday for tea. “It’s close by?” She asks. I nod and pull the little notebook she keeps out between us for notes to my side of the table so that I can draw a little map.

From Starbucks, one block south, a few blocks west… then I draw her a little diagram of our apartment: Kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, bathroom. “Your house. It’s so big!” I think about the other houses on our street — the old Victorians that dwarf our old yellow farmhouse, which has been divided into two apartments. I wonder how big her house is and make a mental note to ask about this next week.

As our hour comes to a close — I glance at my phone and see that we’ve actually gone over, she looks at me with a more serious expression. “When I am talking with you,” she says, searching for the words, “when I talk with you, I don’t just learn English. I learn about living. You have so much freedom here.”

“What kind of freedom?” I ask.

“Freedom to live the way you want. You can walk to the town from your house and make your work the way you like it.” She knows I am self-employed, and I am always trying to stress that in America, there are so, so many ways of life, and some, if not much, of how one lives life is based on class, education, and other factors. I try to talk about privilege, and find that as a concept, it doesn’t translate easily.

“In China,” she continues, “we go to the university, then we must get a job to support our family and our parents some day when they are old. If you are woman, you will have to go live with your child when they have their own children.”

She sounds wistful. She plans to go back to China next spring. I’ve seen photos of her brand new baby niece, whose precious beauty nearly knocked me off my chair. Her mother will soon go live with her brother — not temporarily, but full-time, forever. She will leave her job as a nurse at the hospital and live a few hours away even from her husband, Luping’s father. Luping basically knows what her future holds. Do I?

So there we were, after another hour of cross-cultural conversation, admiring and perhaps idealizing each other’s cultures. Facebook and Google are both illegal in China. Most Americans don’t know where their tasteless green peppers grew.

I would like to travel to Luping’s village someday, to see the wildflowers and the lotus blossoms and the boats and the bamboo, which is cool to walk amidst on hot summer days. I would like to get up before sunrise to row out to the fields. I would like to see the world and I’d like to share these experiences with my children, too.

I can’t say with any certainty whether these things will ever happen. But for now, I am grateful to have a window into someone else’s world, while offering a glimpse, through language and friendship, into mine. Like two cardinals flashing red on different branches of the same tree, we sit and chirp away. What is mud, what is lotus blossom? Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see which is which.

Grande Lattes, Treason, and the Universal Sign for Empathy

Photo: Anete Lusina

Two sparrows pecked away at a chunk of discarded donut in the snow outside the door to Starbucks as Luping and I dove into conversation today. The moment I walked in, she asked if I was feeling better (I had cancelled last week’s session due to being sick). I told her yes, but that I still wasn’t 100%.

The very moment those words came out of my mouth, I asked if she brought her notebook. She had. I wrote it down and explained this expression — how it means I’m feeling better but not all the way better. She nodded in understanding and told me coffee today would be her treat.

We walked over the register to order. I asked for a grande latte with one Splenda (I’ve cut it out completely at home, but still get one in my latte, go figure). She said she’d have the same, then she told me that she wants to try a different drink each week.

“You’re branching out!” I said, then immediately added that it’s like expanding, trying new things. “Oh, yes!” she said, as my little interpretive dance and definition clicked in her brain. She paid for our drinks, the cashier said something about how it’s cool to “get out of your comfort zone” and that we were “all set,” and we carried them back over to our little two-person table by the window.

“Do you know what ‘all set’ means?” I asked her. “What about ‘comfort zone’?” She didn’t know either of these. It occurred to me that in our first five minutes together, roughly half of the words spoken had been idioms she probably hadn’t learned in English textbooks or classroom lessons, nor in the lab where she is doing graduate research at UMass. So she got out her notebook and we continued the “lesson” that had begun the moment we said hello to each other.

I suggested we write down each of these expressions, as a way of “keeping track” of what she’s learning. Turns out “keeping track” is yet another one. I gave some examples. “I can’t keep track of my keys; I’m always losing them.” “I can’t keep track of my kids; I never know where they are.” (That made her laugh.) “I can’t keep track of my books; they’re all over the house.”

From there, we both saw how closely related “branching out” is to “comfort zone.” The more I described the former, the more I naturally found myself talking about the latter. I wound up drawing a little pot (labeled “pot”) with several branches growing out of it. Actually, I should say “drawing,” since drawing itself is out of my comfort zone and a good example of me branching out.

We talked about how people often prefer to stay inside their comfort zones, and how it can be scary to branch out. And how personal this is, too. For me, chatting with the barista is not a stretch. It doesn’t require any real “branching.” But for someone else, chatting with the barista, or any stranger for that matter, might be WAY out of their comfort zone.

Now I’m thinking of another one, for next week: “cookie cutter approach.” I wonder if they even have cookie cutters in China.

After this, I got a lesson from her in Chinese poetry from the Han dynasty. I learned that many Chinese parents choose baby names from these ancient stories, not unlike how in the West many people are named after characters in the Bible. Luping told me the story of Qu Yuan, which is recalled each year during the Dragon Boat Festival.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Qu Yuan’s “treason” against the Emperor (as she put it, he was honest and shared his disagreement openly), subsequent exile, and ultimate suicide with what we are facing right now under Trump, who is acting more like an emperor than a president of a democratic nation. I couldn’t help but think of the bravery of so many people, both throughout history and just in the past few days, who have spoken truth to power — even at the expense of their personal or professional security and safety.

Somehow this led to the word “tragedy” (as opposed to “comedy”). Luping mentioned the Titanic as an example, then told me that she prefers tragedies to stories with happy endings. They stay with her more, she said. I told her I knew just what she meant. I put my hand on my heart and suggested that it was because of the empathy we may experience with the characters in a tragic story. She looked up “empathy” in Chinese, then put her hand on her heart, too. (Universal sign for empathy, I think.)

And then I taught her one last word of the day: “Tearjerker.”

Luping may not have realized just how riveted I was by her Qu Yuan story, nor how relevant I found it to what we’re currently facing. As we were saying goodbye, I did mention politics. She put her hand on my arm. She could lose her visa. Our leaders are throwing nuclear threats at each other. And here we were, two women drinking grande lattes with one Splenda each, each of us branching out, learning, connecting.

I felt energized and uplifted and grateful, and also sad that more people don’t have — or don’t seek out — the opportunity to connect with someone from another culture, or even just a different background than your own. Xenophobia withers under these conditions. For many people, this means leaving comfort zones in the dust.

“It seems a bit unfair,” I said, as I buttoned my coat. She looked puzzled. I continued, “I think I’m learning more than you are!”

She said she is surely the luckier one. We left it that we could both be lucky, and agreed on our meeting for next week. As we walked out together, I saw that the sparrows had polished off that donut. I hadn’t noticed them fighting over the crumbs, flying away.

Field Trips, Honest Feedback, and Real Life


“Don’t ask from where I have come, My home is far, far away. Why do you wander so far? Wander so far?” – Sanmao

After a couple of weeks with wonky schedules, I met back up with L. today for our hour of English conversation. Highlights today included learning about San Mao, also known as Echo Chan or Chen Mao Ping, a Taiwanese writer who committed suicide in 1991. I had never heard of her before, and her books sound amazing. L. told me that she cried when she read them.

The subject of writing had come up because I gave L. a copy of Why I Was Late for Our Meeting, and was telling her that the poems are about real life. This, she said, reminded her of San Mao’s books, which are autobiographical in nature. I’m looking forward to finding them at the library.

L. majored in the physical sciences in college and is now pursuing these at a graduate level, but she told me about taking a writing class where she got to write about “feelings” and how much she enjoyed it. Her piece was even published by the college newspaper. We talked about he difference between analyzing data and writing about things like love and grief, things that are subjective, difficult to quantify, and impossible to prove or explain.

One phrase L. learned from me today was “honest feedback,” which she promised to give me after reading the book! Another was “running errands,” since that is exactly what we did after sitting in Starbucks for a while first. I’d already had too much coffee and uncharacteristically forewent a drink, instead asking if she’d want to accompany me to the post office to send off today’s batch of signed books.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you the other expression that came up: “Field trip.” It’s fun, finding ways to explain and define these things that as a native English speaker, I wouldn’t otherwise stop to ponder. A field trip… hmmmm… something educational, perhaps out of the ordinary.

And so today, we combined errands and field trips, beginning at the post office. The clerk was lovely and patiently explained things like “media mail” and zip codes, even showing us her screen at one point and how every single address comes up. (Isn’t that crazy?) After all of the books were postmarked, L. told me about the Chinese system for mailing things. I understood most of it, I think, and it sounds so different from ours. I remembered being in a foreign country and having to learn all of those basic things from scratch — how to mail a letter or package, for example. And the feeling of newness that accompanies living abroad.

We stepped back outside and I told her I had one more errand to run, to pick up a prescription at the CVS pharmacy. She told me both of her parents are doctors, something I didn’t know before. Turns out, her dad is an acupuncturist and her mom is a nurse, but they work in the same hospital. I told her how acupuncture is considered “alternative” medicine here by most Western doctors, but that it has helped me personally and I wished it would be offered in hospitals.

I explained to her how getting a prescription works. All of these mundane details of our lives, things we take for granted culturally. I didn’t even attempt to get into explaining insurance and our health care system — that’s hard enough without a language barrier!

With that, our hour was up. L. said it was “very useful” to do these things with me, as it showed her what my “real life” is like. We finalized our meeting time for next week before saying goodbye, and she once again promised to give me “honest feedback” about my poems at our next meeting.

After we walked in opposite directions, I had this thought — that maybe it would be good to have to accompany someone outside of our usual orbit now and then just to do errands. To see what “real life” means for someone whose “real” and “life” might be quite different from your own. What you think is “alternative” might be their normal. And maybe, by sharing your normal with someone who’s not part of your day-today, it will seem less like drudgery and more like what it is: The stuff that means you’re living a life. A real one — the only kind.

“We Have This One Life”

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.