I'm still at Bouchercon in St. Louis with all but one of my MIE compatriots (boy, have we talked about you, Dan!), and that means I haven't had much chance to come up with something new. So this is a baldfaced swipe off my other blog, written a few years back from China.
One of the nice things about wandering off the beaten path in China is that most people still don't speak English, and they don't particularly aspire to. This spares you the "Is this a pen?" conversation you're likely to have repeatedly in some areas of Japan, or chats in Cambodia with people who have made friends with only one English verb, "Have." An example, from my own experience. It's raining and slippery on the sidewalks, and the young lady in front of me takes a tumble. I help her up and say, slowly and clearly, "Are you all right?" and she smiles and says, "Have."
In many parts of China, nobody even tries, which is probably as it should be. I mean, do I try to speak Chinese to visitors in America? Under these circumstances, you get creative and resort to sign language and mime, but even that will take you only so far. An example:
Last night, I went into a restaurant, put my book on the table next to the place mat, and waited for anyone to notice I'd arrived. Ten minutes later a cheerful young lady wandered up and started chatting in Mandarin. I put both hands in front of me, palms together, and opened them like a paperback, to indicate that I'd like a menu. She leaned across me, still chatting, picked up my book, opened it at random, put it into my hands, and wandered off again. I could practically hear her thinking, “He couldn't do that himself?”
So I went out and bought a book that purports to make me fluent in Mandarin. It's called Let's Fluent!, which should have sent up some sort of flare. But I bought it, took it home, cleared a space on my desk, and let it fall open. This was the phrase it opened to:
He prefers the cheese that comes from his father's farm.
Now, I don't know about you, but for me, no social situation springs immediately to mind in which this would be an essential phrase. Even ignoring the fact that the Chinese don't like cheese, when exactly would this come in handy? And is there any conversation, however lively, that this phrase wouldn't stop dead?
So I kept flipping through, and came upon yet another stone-cold conversation-stopper:
The trouble with stamp collecting is that it's too time-consuming.
It is? Is that really the trouble with stamp collecting? How about that it's more boring than growing worms? Or that – after years of effort and expense – what you've got is a bunch of stamps? Or that you're going to find yourself hanging around with stamp collectors? And as with the other example, to whom would you ever say this?
My spirits were flagging – this was not the kind of witty, light-hearted banter I'd envisioned myself delivering, fluently, of course. But then I struck gold. The next piece of repartee I opened to wasn't exactly at the level of wit that made Oscar Wilde famous, but at least I could figure out what kind of people one might say it to. Here it is (and this is a word-for-word quotation):
The topic of my paper is the structure of the crust and upper mantle in Northern China and their relation to Cenozoic tectonism.
Fortunately I did bring some slides with me, which I hope will make things clearer.
Okay? Not really "me," I'll admit, but if I am ever called upon to address a gathering of Chinese geologists, I'll have a hell of an opening. I can hear them now, sitting up straight and grabbing pencils all over the hall. Once I'm really fluent, I'll throw in a couple of jokes about the rock cycle or maybe a pun or two on the word “mantle” that'll have them wiping tears of mirth from their thick glasses. And the slides! What possibilities the slides offer! They want rocks? I'll give them rocks. Rocks that would make other rocks roll uphill.
And when I'm finished, I'll bring us all together into a dusty group hug with the following nugget:
It's interesting that people may have different customs and traditions, but you can always find something in common among them.
Damn! To think I'd have missed all that if I'd put the book back. Come on, everybody – Let's Fluent!