ESL

No Mud, No Lotus

April 3, 2017

Our conversations start out at the counter, where we order drinks. Something inevitably comes out that lends itself to a language lesson… this time, it was “lemonade.” Luping is determined to order something different each week, and she decided to try one of the fancy-schmancy Starbucks iced teas.

Peach or mango? White or black or green? And last but not least, what is lemonade? I asked her if she knew what a lemon was, making a sour face. Yes, she nodded enthusiastically. Add water and sugar — a lot of sugar, the cashier added — and you get lemonade. Ah! Understood. Mango black tea lemonade ordered.

Our conversations zig-zag all over the place. I don’t know who delights more in it, and perhaps part of the pleasure of this weekly hour is that the enjoyment is so mutual. At one point — and honestly, I’d have to take notes to remember how things like this come up — I was trying to describe cilantro to her, without cheating and looking up the Chinese character on Google. A college student who was sitting one table over and getting up to gather her things chimed in.

“Hey! I think I know that! I have had exactly this same conversation!”

“About how to say ‘cilantro’ in Chinese?” I asked, a little incredulously.

“Yeah, I tutor grad students at UMass and one of them is from China. We were just talking about cilantro the other day.” What were the odds? I told her that’s what we were doing. She asked if it was through UMass and I said no, through the Jones Library Volunteer Program. She was friendly and just on this side of pushy.

“You should look into getting a tutor through UMass,” she said to Luping. “Depending on your TOEFL scores, it’s free.”

Luping looked slightly unclear and I repeated what the student had told her. Then she gestured in my direction and said, “But I like her!” At that, all three of us laughed and the young woman left. Luping and I continued our conversation, meandering this and that way. We wound up talking about her village in China, which she told me has been ranked the second prettiest town in the entire country. It is surrounded by small rivers and every single family has a field for growing vegetables.

In the mornings, people boat over to their field to pick vegetables for that day. “Your green peppers,” she told me, “they are very big. But they have no flavor.”

Her parents both work in the hospital and don’t have time to go to the field each morning, so when she lived at home, she would wake up in the morning and find a basket filled with vegetables by the door, not knowing which relative or neighbor had picked extra and left it for her family.

Nearby, there is another town known for its wildflowers and stands of bamboo. We talk about bamboo, and how it is a symbol of integrity and uprightness. To be compared to bamboo is to possess desirable character traits. She says many lotus flowers also grow in the rivers near the fields around her town, which look like tiny islands from above. I ask her if the lotus has much symbolism in China, as it does here in the States. I try to think of the famous Confucius saying about the lotus growing in the mud.

“Oh, yes!” she exclaims. I get out my phone. According to one source, Confucius wrote: “I have a love for the Lotus, while growing in mud it still remains unstained.”

No mud, no lotus. Best. Metaphor. Ever.

But rivers filled with lotus blossoms and summer days that begin by boating to one’s field to pick fresh vegetables? At this point, I am downright romanticizing Luping’s hometown. I’m picturing the aisles of the grocery store — even the ones featuring expensive, brightly colored, organic produce — and lamenting how automated and distant from the land my life is. Sure, I live in a valley surrounded by farms, but my daily existence doesn’t involve paddling a boat or hands in the dirt.

Meanwhile, Luping tells me about the edible lotus seeds and I suggest that she come over to our place someday for tea. “It’s close by?” She asks. I nod and pull the little notebook she keeps out between us for notes to my side of the table so that I can draw a little map.

From Starbucks, one block south, a few blocks west… then I draw her a little diagram of our apartment: Kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, bathroom. “Your house. It’s so big!” I think about the other houses on our street — the old Victorians that dwarf our old yellow farmhouse, which has been divided into two apartments. I wonder how big her house is and make a mental note to ask about this next week.

As our hour comes to a close — I glance at my phone and see that we’ve actually gone over, she looks at me with a more serious expression. “When I am talking with you,” she says, searching for the words, “when I talk with you, I don’t just learn English. I learn about living. You have so much freedom here.”

“What kind of freedom?” I ask.

“Freedom to live the way you want. You can walk to the town from your house and make your work the way you like it.” She knows I am self-employed, and I am always trying to stress that in America, there are so, so many ways of life, and some, if not much, of how one lives life is based on class, education, and other factors. I try to talk about privilege, and find that as a concept, it doesn’t translate easily.

“In China,” she continues, “we go to the university, then we must get a job to support our family and our parents some day when they are old. If you are woman, you will have to go live with your child when they have their own children.”

She sounds wistful. She plans to go back to China next spring. I’ve seen photos of her brand new baby niece, whose precious beauty nearly knocked me off my chair. Her mother will soon go live with her brother — not temporarily, but full-time, forever. She will leave her job as a nurse at the hospital and live a few hours away even from her husband, Luping’s father. Luping basically knows what her future holds. Do I?

So there we were, after another hour of cross-cultural conversation, admiring and perhaps idealizing each other’s cultures. Facebook and Google are both illegal in China. Most Americans don’t know where their tasteless green peppers grew.

I would like to travel to Luping’s village someday, to see the wildflowers and the lotus blossoms and the boats and the bamboo, which is cool to walk amidst on hot summer days. I would like to get up before sunrise to row out to the fields. I would like to see the world and I’d like to share these experiences with my children, too.

I can’t say with any certainty whether these things will ever happen. But for now, I am grateful to have a window into someone else’s world, while offering a glimpse, through language and friendship, into mine. Like two cardinals flashing red on different branches of the same tree, we sit and chirp away. What is mud, what is lotus blossom? Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see which is which.

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4 Comments

  • Reply Diane April 3, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing your “window into someone else’s world”. I love your pieces about your conversations with Luping so much that I’m looking into ESL volunteer work through my local public library. This and some of your writings on the social/emotional aftermath of the election and our current political environment have inspired me to become more active in my own community in a number of ways. Thanks for that Jena!

    • Reply jenarschwartz@gmail.com April 3, 2017 at 3:51 pm

      Diane, that is so wonderful!

  • Reply Lynne April 3, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    “I would like to travel to Luping’s village someday, to see the wildflowers and the lotus blossoms and the boats and the bamboo” ME TOO! This is a wonderful post–thank you for sharing it.

  • Reply Lucille Jaglal April 13, 2017 at 7:16 am

    This was a great post. Did she explain why her mother has to leave her father to live with the brother’s family? At first I had assumed this meant when she was a widow. I didn’t think it meant while her husband is still living. That seems rather unfair, plus what about when Luping has a family? Is it the husband’s mother who comes to live with the family? I have so many questions now!!! My immediate thought was “I have to Google this” and then you wrote that Facebook and Google is illegal in China and I didn’t know this and I thought GAH!!!!!!” I can’t even imagine. (Not the FB part, the Google part!)

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