Category

ESL

ESL Real Life

Grande Lattes, Treason, and the Universal Sign for Empathy

February 1, 2017

Photo: Anete Lusina

Two sparrows pecked away at a chunk of discarded donut in the snow outside the door to Starbucks as Luping and I dove into conversation today. The moment I walked in, she asked if I was feeling better (I had cancelled last week’s session due to being sick). I told her yes, but that I still wasn’t 100%.

The very moment those words came out of my mouth, I asked if she brought her notebook. She had. I wrote it down and explained this expression — how it means I’m feeling better but not all the way better. She nodded in understanding and told me coffee today would be her treat.

We walked over the register to order. I asked for a grande latte with one Splenda (I’ve cut it out completely at home, but still get one in my latte, go figure). She said she’d have the same, then she told me that she wants to try a different drink each week.

“You’re branching out!” I said, then immediately added that it’s like expanding, trying new things. “Oh, yes!” she said, as my little interpretive dance and definition clicked in her brain. She paid for our drinks, the cashier said something about how it’s cool to “get out of your comfort zone” and that we were “all set,” and we carried them back over to our little two-person table by the window.

“Do you know what ‘all set’ means?” I asked her. “What about ‘comfort zone’?” She didn’t know either of these. It occurred to me that in our first five minutes together, roughly half of the words spoken had been idioms she probably hadn’t learned in English textbooks or classroom lessons, nor in the lab where she is doing graduate research at UMass. So she got out her notebook and we continued the “lesson” that had begun the moment we said hello to each other.

I suggested we write down each of these expressions, as a way of “keeping track” of what she’s learning. Turns out “keeping track” is yet another one. I gave some examples. “I can’t keep track of my keys; I’m always losing them.” “I can’t keep track of my kids; I never know where they are.” (That made her laugh.) “I can’t keep track of my books; they’re all over the house.”

From there, we both saw how closely related “branching out” is to “comfort zone.” The more I described the former, the more I naturally found myself talking about the latter. I wound up drawing a little pot (labeled “pot”) with several branches growing out of it. Actually, I should say “drawing,” since drawing itself is out of my comfort zone and a good example of me branching out.

We talked about how people often prefer to stay inside their comfort zones, and how it can be scary to branch out. And how personal this is, too. For me, chatting with the barista is not a stretch. It doesn’t require any real “branching.” But for someone else, chatting with the barista, or any stranger for that matter, might be WAY out of their comfort zone.

Now I’m thinking of another one, for next week: “cookie cutter approach.” I wonder if they even have cookie cutters in China.

After this, I got a lesson from her in Chinese poetry from the Han dynasty. I learned that many Chinese parents choose baby names from these ancient stories, not unlike how in the West many people are named after characters in the Bible. Luping told me the story of Qu Yuan, which is recalled each year during the Dragon Boat Festival.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Qu Yuan’s “treason” against the Emperor (as she put it, he was honest and shared his disagreement openly), subsequent exile, and ultimate suicide with what we are facing right now under Trump, who is acting more like an emperor than a president of a democratic nation. I couldn’t help but think of the bravery of so many people, both throughout history and just in the past few days, who have spoken truth to power — even at the expense of their personal or professional security and safety.

Somehow this led to the word “tragedy” (as opposed to “comedy”). Luping mentioned the Titanic as an example, then told me that she prefers tragedies to stories with happy endings. They stay with her more, she said. I told her I knew just what she meant. I put my hand on my heart and suggested that it was because of the empathy we may experience with the characters in a tragic story. She looked up “empathy” in Chinese, then put her hand on her heart, too. (Universal sign for empathy, I think.)

And then I taught her one last word of the day: “Tearjerker.”

Luping may not have realized just how riveted I was by her Qu Yuan story, nor how relevant I found it to what we’re currently facing. As we were saying goodbye, I did mention politics. She put her hand on my arm. She could lose her visa. Our leaders are throwing nuclear threats at each other. And here we were, two women drinking grande lattes with one Splenda each, each of us branching out, learning, connecting.

I felt energized and uplifted and grateful, and also sad that more people don’t have — or don’t seek out — the opportunity to connect with someone from another culture, or even just a different background than your own. Xenophobia withers under these conditions. For many people, this means leaving comfort zones in the dust.

“It seems a bit unfair,” I said, as I buttoned my coat. She looked puzzled. I continued, “I think I’m learning more than you are!”

She said she is surely the luckier one. We left it that we could both be lucky, and agreed on our meeting for next week. As we walked out together, I saw that the sparrows had polished off that donut. I hadn’t noticed them fighting over the crumbs, flying away.

ESL

Field Trips, Honest Feedback, and Real Life

January 11, 2017
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.

ESL

“We Have This One Life”

December 7, 2016

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.