Field Trips, Honest Feedback, and Real Life

sanmao

“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.