It's Saturday night and there is nowhere in particular I'd like to go. Maybe if they opened a Denny's just off the Nanchong exit, I'd head out there on a night like tonight, order me some smoggy-side-up pigeon eggs and sit there pounding coffee, giving the Wuhan waitresses Sichuanese sass 'til the Tibetan bus boys buffed my bum right out of the booth. But there are no Denny'ses, no Perkinseses, no Country Kitchens or Waffle Houses, no Roy Rogerses, no IHOPs, nary a Village Inn to be found: so here I am, sitting in my war-torn apartment with a Nalgene bottle full of Nescafe between my legs, listening to Nighthawks at The Diner by Tom Waits. It is the first night of my two-month vacation. I could walk outside and hail a cab. I'd be downtown in ten minutes. That would make things interesting. But things will get interesting whether I want them to or not. For the moment, I'm thinking I'll conserve my energies: do some writing, use my newfound internet connection for neither good nor evil but inane, eat some oatmeal and recover from finals week.
For the final exam, I decided to interview all of my students one by one. It was a terrible idea on paper. On paper, it meant 350 interviews. At five minutes apiece, that added up to some thirty manhours for yours truly. But I hadn't seen half of my students since the first day of school, so I figured the whole process wouldn't take me longer than a couple of days. But lo: all 350 of them turned up for the final. They came from the four corners of the Chinese mainland, from internships in Xi'an and factory gigs in Shenzhen, to sit for five minutes on Dr. Panda's big red couch. Every morning, I showed up at Room 209 to find a line of college kids snaking around the corner, all the way down to the men's bathroom at the end of the hall. I'd conduct forty interviews in one sitting and the queue would only grow longer, and louder. For two weeks, for four hours a day without so much as a pee break, I sat and interviewed one kid after the next. Under my bed is a notebook full of Wangs, Lees, Zhangs, and Zhous, with their final scores written first in Arabic numerals, then Korean, then Spanish so as to keep their curiosity at bay.
I gave my students four interview questions to choose from.
1. What is your most valuable possession? Describe it and tell me where you got it.
2. In your opinion, how are Chinese people and Westerners different? How are they alike?
3. What do you see yourself doing after graduation? In five years? In fifteen years? In thirty years?
4. You are stranded on a desert island. There are wild pigs on the island, and some coconut trees, but not much else. If you were stuck on the island for five years, how would you survive? What would you do to amuse yourself? When you finally came back to China, how would you have changed?
Having survived all 350 interviews, I am forced to conclude that either my students were cheating, or they are tapped into some kind of beelike collective consciousness, a vast telepathic database of Chinglish.
1. A) My most valuable possession is my parents. They give me the love ...
B) My most valuable possession is this watch. My boyfriend give it to me. He give me the love ...
2. Chinese people are little and yellow with little eyes. Westerners are white and tall and fat with blue eyes and many hairs. Chinese people speak Chinese. Westerners speak English. Chinese people like delicious food. Westerners like nutritious food. Chinese people are very shy. Westerners are very outgoing. But Chinese people and Westerners are both humans. We both like the happy life.
3. After graduation, I will be a green hand, but I maybe teach English in the middle school. In five years, I will find my Mr. Right. [slight chuckle] We will have two babies, one boy and one girl. As time flies. In fifteen years, I will be old. I will open a restaurant because I want a colorful life. In thirty years, I will be retired. I will take my moneys and use it to travel the world. I will go to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou ...
These were the answers I got from hundreds of college seniors, more or less verbatim. Nobody tackled the island question until the third-to-last day. I have one student who is flamboyantly gay. He speaks better English than most of the teachers here. "Well," he said, "I'd like to answer the island question. Since it's hypothetical, I imagine you want me to use the subjunctive mood ... " A moment of English. The score I gave the kid made him giggle and throw his scarf over his shoulder. By Christmas Eve, the rumor had spread. Then, all of a sudden, everyone was shipwrecked with a bunch of wild pigs, and explaining themselves for good measure: "Mr. Panda, I know many other students answer questions one, two, three. But I want to be creative, so I answer question four."
Christmas morning was so foggy that I had to feel my way down the street with a pair of chopsticks. I arrived at the teaching building to find a line of college kids snaking from Room 209 to the men's bathroom. I sat on the couch, a yule log of Christmas cheer metabolizing in my gut. By then, I was a kind of machine. I seldom made eye contact, slurped loudly from my coffee, scribbled cryptic little notes to myself. Next! I'd bark. My most valuable possession is my parents ... Chinese people are little and yellow with little eyes ... I will find my Mr. Right ... as time flies ...
Apples are the traditional Christmas gift in China, and thirty minutes in, my desk was heaped high with cellophane-wrapped fruit. I interviewed 65 students in a row. After five hours, there was a lull. I rose from my chair, my legs atrophied to the point that it sapped all my strength to totter to the window and look: the coast was clear. Finally, at long last, the semester was -
- the door flung open and in came a very small little boy whom I'd never seen before. He sat down on the sofa across from me. I had him sign his name in my notebook. When he spoke, I found myself, for the first time in several days, on the verge of laughter. The poor kid was a contralto. Permanent helium voice. Like Tiny Tim without the ukulele. The semester was ending on a pipsqueak. But this kid had my undivided attention. In China, I have come to relish and admire the oddballs and misfits, for I am one of them.
He cleared his throat like a revving Vespa ...
"Chinese people are little and yellow with little eyes," he explained. "Westerners are big and tall and fat with blue eyes and many hairs. ... That's all."
"Good job," I said, and shook the kid's hand. I showed him his score. He was so happy with an 82% that he bowed five times rapid-fire and darted out the door before I could change my mind. I jumped up from the couch, tossed an apple skyward and caught it in midair. Merry Christmas.