I can only imagine what these guys must think sometimes.
We’ve been getting eaten alive by mosquitoes the last couple nights. Yesterday I noticed in the neighbourhood by the JHF office, which is also close to the canal, that everyone has big strings of garlic hanging in their windows. I wondered if it was to keep the mosquitoes away. Since I was heading home, I could ask the bike repairing–xiàng qí playing–bái jiǔ drinking–oral homework answering–lǎo wài mocking old men on the corner about it.
On the way in I stopped, said hi. There were about 8 of them sitting around watching one of them work, but not too hard. A toddler was playing with the xiàng qí pieces; I thought maybe I’d found an opponent that was in my own league. I asked them a question, which properly translated to English would sound something like this, not that I was aware at the time:
“Excuse me, can I ask a question? I see some people in their window have lots of curry. Why they have curry in the window?”
8 of them look up with various degrees of amusement and confusion on their faces. The 9th one, the real bike repair man, didn’t stop working; I think he’s given up trying to communicate until I finish the next text book.
“They have really long things of curry in the window. Really long. Many curry. In the window. Because have mosquitoes?”
At this point some of them nudge my xiàng qí opponent – who is also one of the oldest and most patient of the group – and he comes up to find out what I want as their elected emissary. We “talk,” and he figures out that I’m asking how to get rid of the mosquitoes and gives me the name of some sort of cheap electrical device you can put in your bedroom.
“So, this electric thing is better than curry?”
He assures me that this is way better than curry; I don’t need curry.
I say thanks and pedal off to the bike bunker. There’s a nagging ping in the black hole of my mind, as if I should be having doubts about something. Inside the bike bunker where they give you your ticket they have the same strings of garlic hanging. I ask what they’re called. “Suàn,” the lady says. ‘Well I know it’s garlic,’ I think, ‘I want to know what the mosquito-repellent strings are called.’ Wait. Garlic is suàn. If garlic is suàn, then why was I saying gā lí? Gā lí is curry! I ask her why everyone has garlic. She says it’s in season.
My ego crawls home, determined to spend even more time in the textbooks.