Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wisdom from a Chinese Friend

"Maybe He loves us so much, so give to us many hard things for testing. And then, we studied [learn] a lot, and got many experiences. It's good for us, right?"

(Quote from a Chinese friend who just lost her grandfather. She is not a Family member yet, but she is close!)

Quote of the Day

"If ten men are carrying a log - nine of them on the little end and one at the heavy end - and you want to help, which end will you lift on?"

(William Borden, as he reflected on the numbers of Chrstian workers in the U.S. as compared to those among unreached peoples in China)

Abuela's Quotes

My 97-year-old "Abuela" (Grandma) doesn't speak up much. Most of the time she's content to just listen to conversation around her. And we're never sure how much she's paying attention to or how much she understands. But occasionally she pipes up with something that surprises us! Here are some recent quotes:

  • "That looks like fun!" (As she watched a college student zipping by on a skateboard.)

  • "Where have you been all my life?" (To a friend of mine visiting our house.)

  • "Lord, deliver me!" (When looking at my homework of Chinese characters I've been practicing.)

  • "I'm having the time of my life." (When my dad, seeing her slicing bananas for a fruit salad, asked how she was doing.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't Touch my Toilet Paper!

It had been a busy week. It was the end of my visit to northeast China and every day was packed with lunches, dinners, and afternoon coffee meetings with friends and former students who wanted to see me one last time before I left.

In the midst of everything, my brother Michael and I hadn't had a chance to go to the store to stock up on essentials. And we were out of toilet paper. So I decided to make a quick trip to the supermarket near our school before meeting some of our Korean students for lunch. Michael told me to "spare no expense" and get the best kind I could find, and that he would pay me back. It was worth the few extra cents per roll to have perforated squares that actually tear on the lines, and the bit of extra softness rather than the cheap sandpaper kind I usually get. So I splurged on the 18-roll bag "Kleenex" brand with the golden Lab puppy on the package. I didn't have time to drop off the toilet paper at home before my lunch appointment, so I had to take it with me.

Knowing I couldn't show up at our students' house empty-handed, I hurriedly popped into the fruit market on the way to pick up some tangerines. Chinese culture dictates that a guest should bring fruit or juice when they are invited to someone's house for dinner. So armed with my toilet paper and tangerines I knocked on the door of the apartment.

Sixteen-year-old "Peter," one of our Korean high school students, met me at the door with a big grin and quickly took my bags, coat, hat, and scarf for me. He was a gracious Asian host, thanking me for coming and showing me where I could sit and offering me a drink. He thanked me for the tangerines, putting them in a bowl on the table where we all could start eating them. And then he smiled really big and thanked me for the toilet paper, putting it in the bathroom. It all happened so quickly that I didn't realize what was going on until the toilet paper was already put away.

What could I do? I couldn't take it back. Peter thought it was a gift. And then I remembered that in Korean culture, toilet paper is a common gift for a guest to bring when invited to someone's house. So it was natural for Peter to assume the toilet paper was for him!

On the last day I was in town, Michael and I had a final lunch with my Korean "host mom" and her family. As we were getting ready to leave their house, one of the kids came back from a run to the store where he had picked up a package of toilet paper rolls. Michael eyed the bag and then asked if he could please have just one roll to take back to his house. We told them the story of how our toilet paper had been taken from us, and our host mom thought it was hilarious. So she agreed to let us have one roll.

We were going from her house to another Korean family's house for a last goodbye, so Michael decided he better hide the toilet paper in his coat or they might take it from him! He stuffed it deep into his coat pocket and didn't take it out until we were safely home and beyond the danger of having it stolen!

Monday, March 23, 2009


My Chinese cell phone number has eleven digits. It took me a long time to memorize it. It was actually convenient at times that I didn't know my phone number for those first few weeks, when random people on the bus in my small town in China would ask me to tutor them in English, or if some grandmother wanted to set me up with her grandson. I could honestly say I didn't know my number!

But eventually I did have to learn it. There were students and parents of students and potential students and friends and co-workers and neighbors who needed to know my number. And so after telling countless people my phone number over the following months and years, by the time I left China last May, I could have quoted it in my sleep!

When I returned to China last month for a 3-week visit, I took my old Chinese cell phone and charger with me. My brother Michael put some money in my account for me before I arrived so that I could use my phone when I got there.

But it had been nine months since I had thought about my Chinese phone number. So when an American in Hong Kong asked me for my number, I had to think about it for a minute. And nothing was coming to mind. Then suddenly it came to me, all at once, and in Chinese! "Yao - San - San, Ba - Si - Er - Wu..." I actually had to say it out loud in Chinese and write it down before I could tell my friend the number in English! :)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pondering the Pansies

Vibrant yellow and purple pansies have poked their nodding heads up in front of our house this week. Encouraged by the sunshine, they were there to greet us cheerfully as my mom, grandma, and I returned this afternoon from a lunch out at a local restaurant. I was focused on getting my stuff out of the car and opening the door for "Abuela" (what we call my 97-year-old grandma - it's Spanish for "grandmother"), when suddenly the squeaking wheels of her walker stopped. I turned to see if something was wrong, and saw her stooping over to examine the delicate blooms.

"I was just noticing," she said softly, "that this flower has three petals, and the rest of them have four." I was about to give some explanation about how it probably lost one of its petals, or maybe we just can't see the other petal, when Abuela straightened up again, looked at me and smiled. "Well, that's alright, if that's the way the Lord made it." And she continued her slow steps towards the door.

My grandmother doesn't speak very often, and she doesn't say very much. When she does say something, I pay attention. And so I've been pondering what she said this afternoon. It seems I'm always too quick to come up with explanations for how or why something is different than I think it should be. I question God and ask Him why He does things that don't make sense to me.

But if I don't seem to have as many "petals" as others, maybe it's just because it's the way the Lord made me. And no other explanation is necessary.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I'm Losing My English

A strange transformation occurs when I step into the ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom. My voice pitch gets higher, I over-enunciate each syllable, my speech slows down significantly, and I gesture dramatically to emphasize my words, all the while with a big cheesy grin pasted on my face. "He-LLO, class! How are YOU to-DAY?"

My brain constantly self-edits my vocabulary when I'm talking to non-native English speakers, simplifying grammatical structures and minimizing the use of words more than 2 or 3 syllables long. My Canadian roommate last year would get on my case when I used what she called my "teacher voice" on her. "Snap out of it, Michelle! You can talk normally to me!"

But after four years of living in China, I didn't know how to talk "normally" any more. My first or second year I was in China I got a phone call from my brother Steve who was studying linguistics at Geogetown University and was all excited about his classes. I, too, had taken linguistics classes in college, and so he wanted to share with me what he was learning. But my brain had to work overtime just to keep up with the normal speed of his conversation, which seemed amazingly fast to me. And I had a hard time following him as he talked about syntax and phonemes and alveolar fricatives and other things that I studied in what seemed like another lifetime, in my B.C. days (Before China).

In China my days were full of "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes", and "The Wheels on the Bus go 'Round and 'Round." My literary pursuits included such classics as Dr. Seuss' "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," and "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" My daily interactions with my students consisted of questions about the weather, what they were wearing, and what color or shape things were. And by the time we finished our classes late at night, my roommate and I had no brain power or energy left to have philosophical discussions about the meaning of life. We limited our conversations to whose turn it was to take the dog out or what groceries we needed to buy for dinner.

Now I'm back in the U.S., but it's taking awhile for my English to get back up to speed again. Here are a few examples of how much my vocabulary has dwindled:

  • Not long after I returned to Virginia Beach, I was outside working in the yard and overheard our 10-year-old neighbor playing with his friends on the trampoline. He was giving commands to his younger buddies for their game, "I'll be the hero, and you be the villain..." And I realized that this kid has a better vocabulary than I do! I hadn't heard or used the word "villain" in a long time. I think I would have just said "bad guy"...

  • A Chinese friend of mine who's lived in the US for about 10 years was helping me prepare some dishes for a party. As we sliced onions, she noticed my eyes tearing up and commented, "Wow, those onions are pungent!" I was amazed - I don't know if I've ever used the word "pungent" in ordinary conversation! (I'm not even sure how to spell it!)

  • We had some international students over for some games and someone was describing a word for us to guess for the game "Taboo." Our Brazilian friend spouted off a rapid-fire list of synonyms as if he were a talking thesaurus: "young, adolescent, child, infant, youth, teenager..." before finally guessing the correct answer: "juvenile." I was in awe.

So, if you see me or talk with me in the near future, please be kind and speak slowly, use small words, and limit your references to bilabial fricatives. My English-weary brain would appreciate it. The high pitched voice and cheesy grin are optional. :)

Saturday, January 17, 2009


This is what comes of having too many languages in my brain at once...

  • Chinese characters and curling dragons caught my eye as I read the "Jin Yu" Chinese Restaurant sign. I was proud of myself for remembering that "Jin Yu" means "golden fish." I continued reading the sign aloud, sounding out what I thought was more Chinese, although it didn't immediately sound familiar - "Toh Tah-keh Oh-uht..." Then I suddenly realized what it said: "To Take Out".

  • My brother and I had gone to the public library for the first time since we'd been back in the US, and were in awe of the rows and rows of free books available, all in ENGLISH! As we scanned the shelves with our new library cards in our pockets, we came across a poster of a smiling child with a pile of books. My brother was surprised to see that the large lettering across the top was in Spanish: "Celebramos los libros". But he was a bit puzzled by the caption on the bottom of the poster as he continued reading, "Ceh-leh-brah-teh Books," wondering what it meant and why there was an English word thrown in the phrase... And then we realized that the bottom phrase was completely in English: "Celebrate Books."

  • For months since I've been back in Virginia Beach, every time I pass "The Founders' Inn," a hotel near our neighborhood, I look at the sign for their new spa and try to decipher the Chinese-looking script on it. It consists of 2 fairly simple-looking characters, and I feel as if I should know what they mean. I've even had a few friends ask me what the characters mean (people here seem to think I know a lot more Chinese characters than I actually do). But then recently someone finally explained the mysterious symbols. They do have something to do with the name of the spa, "Flowering Almond," but not in the way that I thought. The first highly stylized "character" is "F" and the second one is "A."

(...In my defense, I think the sign outside the hotel looks more Chinese and less like English letters than this image I found on the internet...)