The Language Partner

Written by Life

I’m good at saying no. Some people have a really hard time with it. They don’t want to offend anyone, or they just find themselves complying before they really considered what ‘And just write your phone number in there at the bottom’ might mean. Not me, man. My No is many things. It can be soft and gentle like a Downey dryer sheet, it can be some dude with no muffler running the engine under your window at 3AM, it can be one tailored, professional sunnofabitch.

This skill takes cultivation. It takes figuring out exactly what you don’t want, and not being afraid to reject it. It takes not just finding yourself complying when Teacher Guo tells you to just write your number in there at the bottom. “I’ve got a friend who needs a language partner,” she said, after I handed it back to her.

So teacher Guo gave me a language partner, a friend of hers who’s a master’s degree student at QingHua University. I’ve been in China long enough to know how these things work. A young aristocrat by the name of Li once saved a flower merchant’s daughter from almost certain death. The daughter grew into a lovely young woman and was sold off as a concubine to one of the last remaining Chinese warlords, and bore him two lovely baby girls – which were drowned – before bearing him son. The son became an esteemed Kuomintang officer, who mysteriously died during childbirth even though he was only standing off to the side in the delivery room. His widow became the only woman to sell Teacher Guo’s mother a good, fresh piece of salmon at the fish market, and now Teacher Guo owes everyone with the last name of Li an ancestral debt. And now some poor foreign girl ends up on the short end of the stick.

Sometimes, I think the trick with paying the piper is to not return his phone calls until you’ve got a patsy lined up.

Anyway, a language partner, by definition, is someone who would like to trade practicing English for practicing Chinese. A language partner in this case is someone who is very fluent with the phrase “May Engerish is vely poouh” and would rather leave it at that than embarrass themselves by branching out into “How are you”s and other such challenging plateaus.

Mr. Li, whose ancestor was renowned for saving a flower merchant’s daughter from almost certain death, and I, whose ancestor was renowned at chili cook-offs statewide, went out to eat hotpot. Hotpot rocks. Ask me sometime.

To give him the proper credit, he did try for the first 2 minutes. We got through, ‘my English name is Gordon,’ and ‘I am a college student’, but soon he was getting excited talking about economic management and something about carrying something heavy through customs on the way to Singapore and he lapsed into fervent Chinese – as if there’s any other kind.

Not that I’ve got any license to mock his English. As far as butchering languages go, call me Jeffrey Dahmer.

Chinese restaurants are loud, it’s part of the charm. Bad for conversation, but good for getting sloshed. You can play Three Man, explain your scars and agree with someone as loud as you want and no one at the next table looks at you sideways. Problem was that we were there during dinner hour, so everyone was in the middle of agreeing with everyone else, so I spent most of the time making encouraging faces and nodding enthusiastically, while picking up enough words over the din to get a feel for the direction the conversation might be taking. Might.

Mr. Li: So after we priced the first few models, the chief architect said that we would get paid *after* the production was approved, but by that time we were all thoroughly sick of his games…

Me: Oh! I too am fond of games!

Mr. Li: …oh. Great. Sooo, maybe you’d like to see a basketball game? My favorite player is climbing in the ranks and…

Me: Oh! I too am fond of climbing!

After dinner, he complemented me for being clever. I feel I did well.

Next week, we’re going climbing. I think.