Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Communication

Can't sleep, nothing new.

But one big advantage for insomniacs, is having friends in different time zones. Someone's always awake.

I speak to my former Chinese language teacher, now friend, CZ, every few days over skype. She tells me the weather in Beijing. I tell her it's much the same in my part of the world. She works on improving her already proficient English; I work on trying to slow the steady deterioration of my Chinese.

When I was living in Beijing, I made egregious, usually hilariously entertaining, mistakes with my pronunciation on a daily basis. So I particularly enjoyed the rare times my Chinese friends made English language mistakes - after all, while it's tremendously fun to laugh at oneself, it's equally fun to laugh at others.

I studied martial arts for several months at the Capital College of Physical Education in Beijing. (BTW, being anywhere near me as I wildly flail my sword about is probably more frightening than any horror movie. My instructors were unflinchingly brave).

There was a small group of expats studying there, and we were fortunate enough to befriend three of the full-time Chinese college students, despite the language barriers. They wanted English names, so we obliged: Max, Jack, and Raphael. (The last was the contribution of someone who thought it would be funny to name them after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was too late to affect the naming of Raphael, but I put my foot down for the other two).

One day, after an especially grueling training session, Raphael lingered to wait for me as I packed up my assortment of weapons. I simply adored all of them, but I had a soft spot for Raphael. Mostly because out of all them, his English was the worst - completely non existent, in fact. So, in lieu of speaking and potentially pissing me off, he made do with smiling. And it was the first time I think I'd ever seen a smile that was actually "impish."

But that particular day, I was exhausted, and didn't feel up to taxing my brain by trying to speak in Chinese. So I smiled at him and silently, we trudged down the stairs together. Well, I trudged, he flew.

And then, at the bottom of the stairs, he turned to me and said, "You smell a lot."

Now, I'm an Asian female. This means I can marinate in my own juices for quite some time before smell becomes an issue. So I was still trying to process that statement when he continued, "You make me smell too."

That was another remarkable statement. I know how BO can sort of fly around and attach itself to unsuspecting, innocent passersby, but really... that kind of virulent BO from ME?!?

And then I realized his smile had transitioned from impish to sweet.

Ah. SMILE. Not SMELL. I told him, "Ni de fayin butai hao." And I spent the rest of that short walk to the taxi stand correcting his pronunciation and teaching him useful phrases such as, "Hey baby" and "Who's your daddy?"

I recounted this story to CZ over skype and she corrected my pronunciation and we had a good laugh.

But it led me to thinking... is it possible to be TOO articulate? Facile use of language is surely a wonderful thing, but can't it also sometimes be used as a shield, to obscure and complicate? I think of what I say, limited by my elementary Chinese, to my Chinese friends: "I miss you", "You are my friend", "I am happy to be talking to you."

All things I should be telling my English-speaking friends in English. But in our own way, I suppose we do communicate those sentiments to each other. It just comes out as, "Whaddup, bitch?"

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