James and I went out for lunch today.
Which everyone at the Consulate knows that we do every single day. We usually go to the same place - a local sort of dive that serves yummy Sichuanese food. In fact, our predilection for this place and our daily visits to it have given lots of folks here lots of ways to tease us.
It's sort of a community joke, actually, as in - Oh, there they go (meaning us) - They're obviously going to Their Dive for lunch! Or James and l will come back from lunch and everyone will be all How was The Dive today? Any different than yesterday? And then they will laugh and we will laugh for there is always great humor in the truth, as it is quite often stranger than fiction.
But today James and I shocked whoever might have cared to notice where we were headed for lunch, for we went to a different place. A Tex-Mex restaurant that is, quite frankly, a JOY to have as a chain in this area. The minute you walk in, you feel like you're in America in general and actually Texas in particular. They serve ice (if you ask for it). They serve tacos and enchiladas and chimichangas and ice cream sundaes. It is so miraculous and amazingly wonderful that I am nearly moved to tears just describing it. Yes, you will pay handsomely for your refried beans,** but the mere fact that they are there is a soothing balm to the wandering American soul. I mean, certainly Beijing has lots more restuarant choices than Chengdu does, but from what I understand, Wuhan and Shenyang have nothing as western as this chain. Nothing even close. So I'm grateful that we have something like this here.
[**Lunch for a family of four can run you the equivalent of roughly USD $60. Easily. At the bare minimum. If you're flying in from Shenyang or Wuhan in order to get your Mexican fix, add the cost of the plane tickets to the cost of the meal. Actually, if you're reading this from Shenyang, I'm glad that you're still alive! I hear it's something crazy like -30 degrees there or whatever, and I was worried you were frozen in a solid block of ice.]
SO ANYWAY, James and I were there for lunch. Just the two of us. The restaurant was uncharacteristically empty for it being lunchtime and all, seeing as it's a rather popular place. But whatever.
James and I ate and chatted and enjoyed ourselves. We hadn't had to wrestle with or threaten the children out of bed for school a few hours earlier because THANK THE DEAR LORD, today is a Saturday. We got around to considering ordering dessert. What to get? It all sounded good. So, so, SO good.
The waitresses, for there are only waitresses there, were huddled in a four-person mass directly behind our table. I hadn't really been trying to listen to their conversation because, quite frankly, I was giving my brain a rest (it really is mentally taxing, after a while, translating). But it soon became obvious that they were, I don't know, kind of chanting, and it attracted my attention. James, also, noticed, but neither of us wanted to appear rude or like we were truly eavesdropping. But we were. For sure.
"Sneakers," the women chanted, taking turns one after another. "Sneakers, sneakers, sneakers."
It was obvious that one of the four was saying a particular word, and that the others were obediently following suit, repeating whatever the word was.
"Sneakers," they began again, and the chanting of sneakers continued all around.
I raised my eyebrows at James, who appeared to understand exactly what was going on with that little group of waitresses, even though I obviously did not. I silently queried him via my expression and quizzical brow. Sneakers? I asked him without speaking. Sneakers??
"Snickers," James whispered to me across the table. "They're trying to say 'Snickers.' A Snickers Sundae is one of the desserts on the menu. They're practicing trying to say the dessert menu in English."
And then my ear began to register the random words they were all trying (so hard!) to say...Blueberry. Walnut. Chocolate. One girl would try to say the word and then they would all repeat it. Over and over again. A tentative, hesitant, uncertain group.
Their pronunciation was... close. Kind of. Okay, maybe not. I mean, it has to be hard, right? Saying random English words off the menu? I cannot even imagine how difficult that must be. God only knows I slay their mother tongue daily, leaving it a bloody mess at my feet, my 2/1+ in Mandarin from FSI notwithstanding, and barely any help at all.
I listened for a bit, but after a while I just couldn't stand being silent. They were trying so hard and they were so unsure and so halting and I, a native English speaker, a source of help and direction, was a mere few feet away. "Chocolate!" I tossed over my shoulder finally as they were struggling (so hard!) to pronounce it.
They immediately flocked to our table. All four of them, bearing the menu. One girl pointed to Chocolate Chip Coconut Walnut Pie available for purchase. Ugh, what a mouthful, I thought. I said each word, pausing as they tried to mimic me. After a few rounds of Chocolate. Chip. Coconut. Walnut. Pie, we moved on to the next dessert item on the menu: Lemon Squares. We did a few rounds of Lemon. Squares. and then moved on. At one point, we hit Tiramisu and I nearly died - Tiramisu is difficult to say even for an American! I paused after each syllable. Tear...uh...mih...sue. We practiced that one for a really long time.
I absolutely loved it, and they appeared very, very grateful. I think they would have kept asking me to go over menu items for them, but they reluctantly left when we got to the end of the dessert list. Many Chinese folks are seriously hungry to learn/practice speaking English, this language so different from theirs. Some of our word sounds in English they don't even have in Chinese - for example, thank becomes sank. As in: Sank you very much. It's got to be tough. And I am the LAST person to judge. My 2/1+ gets me basically nowhere here, let's just be honest. I probably mess up saying their version of thank (in Chinese) every single day.
I wish I could teach English here. I would have the best time! There are certainly so many people desperate to learn it! But I am not allowed to have a job outside of the Consulate (not that I have a job in it or anything, because I don't; there are far more EFMs here in Chengdu that want jobs than there are jobs for them all), because China and America have no bilateral work agreement, and I'm not the kind of girl to go off and flagrantly commit visa fraud, and/or passport fraud and/or break international law, etc.,*** especially hiding behind my Diplomatic status and Diplomatic passport and Diplomatic visa in order to do so, so it's not happening. I wish things were not the way they are, of course - I mean, at one point, I was even asked if I would be interested in teaching English at Sichuan University. But it's just... not... happening.
[***Call me crazy, but I have this THING for not breaking laws. That and my husband is a federal law enforcement officer, whose job back in the States is to investigate, arrest, help prosecute and help deport those committing these very offenses on American soil. His wife doing the same thing overseas? Under cover of her Dip status? Don't think so.]
But it was a blast to go down the dessert menu with those girls, who were concentrating SO hard and trying SO hard to say the words in English... all of us giggling and feeling a bit awkward, but having fun with it. It reminded me that I truly do love the Chinese people.
~ ~ ~
Tune in next time, when I go back to torturing my friend, Donna. I took a quick break, you see, to tell this lunch story, but very soon I will have cooked up another blog post for her that I'm sure she will just absolutely love. Or hate. Tough to tell.