The students who showed up to this morning's meeting were exuberant, as always. Most of them are in their mid-80s and they will not be quelled. Alexis, our head coach and book editor, had asked how to communicate with the group. "Do you talk and then pause for the translator to translate?" Yeah, pretty much. I'd forgotten, though, what a chatty group this is. Every time you say something, Douglas or Kwan will translate it. Then someone in the group is going to have a comment. Sometimes all of them will start talking at once. And there's Douglas and Kwan nodding and answering them. And there you are in storm of conversation, not one syllable of which is understandable. They're laughing, acting out some bit of business. Big hand gestures, shouting, laughter, lots of eye rolling. This can go on for a long time before one of them will look over at you and take pity. "She's asking about how long before the book comes out." Or, "She's saying that her grandfather was a minor." During last year's class, it began to eat at me, this ignorance. So, I took some Pimsleur tapes out of the library and soldiered through a few hours instruction. When Larry came to bed at night he would find me with the headphones on, doing the little call and response. He snickered at this, at least the first time. "Stop it," I said. "This is serious."
I tried out some phrases on them in class last year, and Kwan said she could actually understand me. She seemed stunned. One lady, Kim, patted my arm and taught me a word. She approved of this effort. Now I can hear some words. May-EE-Gwa-yan, is American. YING-man is English. NGO is me or I, but you have to say it all the way back in your throat. HIE denotes being or location. Putting an Mmm sound before a verb negates it. DOH-Jay is thank you. I know baby stuff like that, but it allows me to hear at least some things, including the startlingly high number of English words and phrases they've folded into their everyday speech.
It's good to be back in Chinatown.