Today was one of the occasional almost-magical language learning afternoons. Not magical in the sense of comprehending unprecedented amounts of Mandarin conversation, but in the sense that the language practice was “effortlessly fun.”
After meeting with a bunch of other foreigners all afternoon to discuss how to be more culturally sensitive and appropriate and how to counter the common temptation to be culturally judgmental (among other things), I went with a foreigner friend to the old guys on the corner in our neighbourhood to get his bike fixed. It was busy, and there was a small crowd, and the old boys club was in fine form, ready for some good-natured messing-with of the foreigners. We kicked a jiàn zi around (“You kick jiàn zi bad!” “Oh, you don’t give me face!”), and they saw I had my guitar so they wanted an English song. Then they wanted a Chinese song, so I did the only one I know (“You sang wrong! It’s not missing ears; it’s missing a tail!”). The friend I was with is a big guy, so they wanted to know how much he weighs and if he lifts weights and some other personal questions that I couldn’t understand, and they were squeezing his arms and stuff. Nice to see someone else get the treatment! But with these guys it’s all in good fun, and on days where your tolerance levels for stuff like that are good (when you aren’t already tired and feeling the culture stress and just generally not in the mood), these guys are a total blast.
After a trip to the 菜市场 (where they had fake English Harry Potter books for less than $3, but I think they’re missing some chapters) Mr. Huì – the neighbour who nicked a kitten from the restaurant down the street after the one we found got stolen, and who strangely reminds me of my former 70-year-old American landlord with whom I and a classmate shared a house back in my undergrad bachelor days – tried to teach me how to use a sort of Chinese yo-yo thing that makes a really loud noise when you spin it fast enough, but I couldn’t decipher his Tianjin accent to understand the full name for it… 风something, maybe 风竹? It wasn’t a usual Chinese yo-yo. Anyway, we also heard a cricket while we were out walking, and asked the lady who was there if she had one. She did, and two of the newly arrived foreigners got to see their first Chinese pet cricket (which apparently seemed monstrously huge to one of them).
It may not sound like much, but being able communicate all that in Mandarin, albeit not perfectly, is really encouraging. This neighbourhood can really be a blast sometimes for language students.