Wednesday, October 21, 2009

English Cornered

There have been two earthquakes in Sichuan since my arrival and I have slept through both of them. Last night's tremor was a 4.9 on the Richter Scale. I have no idea what that means, but the rubble that covers my living room floor does not appear to have been disrupted, nor has it somehow organized itself into a less entropic state.

Tonight was my English Corner debut, so after work I was picked up by the wonderful (and wordy) Mr. Xie and taken out for a twelve-course seafood dinner at a restaurant overlooking the river that oozes like a nosebleed through the middle of Nanchong. Ours was a party of twelve, so Mr. Xie dubbed it The Last Supper.

"And he," Xie said, indicating Mr. Liu, "is Judas!"
Mr. Liu, baffled, laughed politely.
"Do I get to be The Big Guy?" I asked. "I'm the only one here with any facial hair to speak of."
"I am only joking," said Xie. "It is just a joke!"
And I sat, as I often do in this country, wondering where I'd missed the boat of Chinese humor.

Someone ordered beers for the group but nobody wanted them, so they found their way to me. Everyone else drank milk.

"Are you capable of ingesting two Yanjing beers prior to English Corner, Mr. Keith?" asked Mr. Xie.
"Dangran," I said. "Of course. I'm Irish. And French."

Those beers would come in handy. I was about to be thrown to the Romans.

Xie drove me back to the old campus. He wove through some back alleys, puttered up over a hill, and parked his Chevy on a basketball court. I could see students, lots of them, milling around in the dark. I stepped out of the car.

Applause. Screaming. The canned "wahhhh!" that you hear on Chinese game shows. The crowd swallowed me up, forming a tremendous circle of which I was the center. In the dim and distant flood lighting, I could see hundreds of faces, all of them turned towards me.

"Good to see all of you," I shouted.
"Right. Well. My name is Keith. I'm the new English teacher in town ..."

For the next two hours, one student after another assaulted me with one question after another. My brain did backflips translating my answers into Special English. Because people were continuously devoured by the crowd, I was asked the same things over and over again:

1. Do you like China? (7)
2. Tell us something about American culture. (5)
3. Do you have a girlfriend? (4)
4. Do you like Chinese girls? (4)
5. Do you like Chinese food? (3)
(several others tied at three)

Just once, I wish someone would knock me out with a hard-hitting Stephen Sackur question. Mr. Keith: don't you think the suit coat-tshirt-jeans ensemble you're wearing is a little passe? Your thoughts on being at the center of a 200-person mob on a basketball court at 9 PM, sir? Your hair: are you trying to look like Phil Spector or is the resemblance merely an unfortunate accident? But in the meantime, yes, I like China just fine and the kung pao chicken is delicious.

By the end of it, my voice was thin and brittle, but Mr. Xie still had the pipes to belt out Careless Whisper on the car ride home.

"You are knowing this song? By WHAM!"
"Yessir," I said. "It's a classic."
"Yes. I am, how you say, nostalgic."

Me too, Mr. Xie. Nostalgic for a time when I could sink into that sax riff like a hot tub, a time well before I had eaten of the apple of irony.


joe f said...

what exactly was english corner?

Anonymous said...

The chinese for Judas sounds a lot like Yoda.