WRITING SHORT: 40/50

Standard
[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I’ve always thought conversation was supposed to involve dialogue. One person says something, the other responds – agreeing or not, as the case may be. Doesn’t the prefix “con-“ mean “with?”

Many women, although not all, understand this. Most men I’ve met, although not all, don’t. It’s probably not a generational thing either, common only among those my age. I’ve sat listening to quite a few forty- and fifty-somethings go on and on about themselves, their children, friends, travels, politics, plans, employment (unless that’s so important and confidential it’s a no-no secret). If they pause for breath, your role is to ask a question that gets them going again. Useless to inject a comment or opinion. The torrent of monologue will roll right over it.

And when it’s time for them to leave or hang up, expressing pleasure at the visit or chat, you may realize afterwards that there’s been no expressed interest whatsoever in you and how you’re doing, beyond the pro forma preliminary “How are things?” – to which no answer beyond “Good, and how are you?” or its equivalent is required.

I no longer try to understand why this is. (Talk therapy too expensive?) What I now do is make efforts to watch it whenever I open my mouth, lest I turn into one of those old folks in need of company who go on talking about themselves and the good old days till they drive everyone away.

Advertisements

TALE OF AN UNHATCHED CHICKEN

Standard

Remember when back in April, I was all gung-ho to begin English conversation tutoring with a Chinese physicist who was at Princeton University’s Plasma Lab for a year as a Visiting Scholar?  I even got two posts out of the introductory materials I was given to get started with.  (“Hints on English Pronunciation for Foreigners” on April 18, and “Bonus for Foreigners: Why English Is So Hard” on April 19.)  I should have known better than to count chickens, or even count on one chicken, before the hatching.

Li-li and I met, by email prearrangement, on a Saturday about five weeks ago at the Princeton Student Center.  Li-li is not his real name. Also there are many Chinese Visiting Scholars at the Princeton Plasma Lab (“PPL”). So I’m not compromising him with anything I write here.  I’m also certain he will never read this post.  (He can read English, with some difficulty, but prefers not to, if it can be avoided.  He can also write it, with some errors and much consulting of dictionaries and grammar books in two languages. But I tell you this after five hours of attempted conversation with Li-li. I knew nothing about him when we began.)

Fred, the director of the volunteer tutoring program, had suggested we meet at the Student Center because Li-li has no car.  (Fred is not a real name either, although the person to whom I refer as Fred was entirely supportive and helpful throughout my Li-li experience and probably wouldn’t mind if I accurately identified him. But still.  I used to be a lawyer. I’m careful.)  Meeting at the Student Center was all very well for Li-li, because the university bus from PPL to the main campus runs every half-hour and stops just outside the Student Center.  But for me to reach it, I first have to park in a town garage a block and a half from campus (not free) and then walk up and down campus hills for what feels like about ten minutes although may be somewhat less. (I’m not a mountain goat anymore.)  Once, it rained. Nonetheless. I had no idea how old a Visiting Scholar might be, and perhaps an aging Chinese scholar might have more aerobic or orthopedic difficulty with Princeton’s up-and-down paths than I.

Li-li was able to identify me because there was no one else who looked more than twenty-five anywhere around the Student Center. He himself was slight and I guessed about twenty-two, although he turned out to be actually twenty-eight.  We met once a week for about an hour and a half, for five weeks. I gradually moved the meeting place closer to where I park by explaining (slowly) with the help of a campus map that he was young and I was old and therefore it was only fair that he meet me at least halfway or somewhat more than that.  (Don’t the Chinese have great cultural respect for the old?)

Our last two meetings took place at Panera, across Nassau Street from the university, and therefore actually in town.  With some hesitation, after I had (slowly) read the offerings on the board aloud to him, he chose a lemonade which he did not drink but carried away with him past several garbage bins, presumably to take home on the bus. The next time, after I had again done a (slow) recitation of the board, he chose a mango smoothie.  He knew the word “mango.”  I asked (slowly) if he knew what “yogurt” was (because that was the base liquid for the smoothie) and he said yes.  He even eagerly tasted it. But he definitely didn’t like it,  Was it too sour? He didn’t know what I meant by “sour.”  Too “sweet”?  He wasn’t sure what that word meant either.  Too” thick”? He looked at me in puzzlement.  But he carried the barely tasted and apparently disfavored smoothie away with him too.  Was it that men didn’t eat or drink with women where he came from?  Did he feel it was impolite to partake of anything during a kind of “lesson?”  But by the afternoon of the mango smoothie, I had stopped wondering.  I wanted out.

The thing is, you couldn’t converse with Li-li because he couldn’t really speak.  He had a minimal recognition vocabulary and an even smaller one available for speech.  Moreover, his pronunciation made what he did try to say incomprehensible. I was not supposed to be tutoring him in acquisition of the English language. We were only supposed to be conversing together, during the course of which I expected to have to correct pronunciation or grammar.  And I do understand that English has several consonants difficult for the Chinese tongue to pronounce.   But Li-li mangled or swallowed vowels and diphthongs as well as consonants, and also inserted vowels of his own making between syllables of words and between sentences — which made his speech musically interesting to listen to but virtually impossible to understand. Example:  I asked him where he was living in Princeton.  “Near Macclefield,” he said.  I had never heard of Macclefield.  Eventually, he printed it out for me on a napkin.  He was trying to pronounce the name of a nearby shopping center:  “Market Fair.”

He had arrived in September and would go home the following September. He had entered the free tutoring program at the end of April — after seven months in Princeton.  “Why didn’t you sign up before?” I asked. He was ashamed of his English, he said.  “So why now?”  His supervisors at PPL had sent him; they couldn’t understand what he was saying about the work he was doing.  It turned out, after I asked, that he couldn’t really understand them, either. “So have you learned anything during your time here?”  Not very much, he admitted.  When I asked how that would affect his progress towards his doctorate  — which he expected to earn in China in May or June 2016 — he said it wouldn’t.  His year in Princeton didn’t count; it was just a way of getting a pre-paid year off in another culture.

I don’t think he initially came with such fraudulent intentions. He probably had actually thought he knew enough English to survive a year in an English-speaking university, and probably China did too, because they bankrolled the whole thing.  A Visiting Scholar is not enrolled at any level at Princeton and is not evaluated. He’s not a Princeton graduate student or a post-doc. He is simply an advanced student, working on a foreign doctorate, who is allowed to be at Princeton and to work for a year in his field under supervision, on recommendations from faculty in his own country. Li-li must have been an outstanding Physics doctoral candidate in China to have qualified as someone for whom his government was willing to pay transportation, Princeton tuition, and $1600 a month living expenses. (Princeton provided a room in a student house for $800 a month. Naturally, the other occupants of the house were Chinese.) But you cannot learn if you don’t understand the language.

I tried.  He had an iPad, which he could switch from Chinese to English. When we first met, he said he wanted to learn what he could because he hoped to return, after obtaining his doctorate, as a post doc, and post docs have to teach as well as do research. So I went beyond the parameters of the volunteer “job” description.  I invested hours on the Internet locating and printing out pages of consonant exercises for “r” and “l” and “s” and voiceless “th” and voiced “th” for him to practice between our meetings.  I found a lovely English lady on YouTube who spent fifteen minutes of Internet time on “lalalala” and “l” words.  I told him about wordreference.com. We located a thesaurus on his tablet. (These last two measures were intended to help enlarge his vocabulary.) When he came back the following week, he hadn’t practiced a thing and had even lost the websites I’d found for him.  I suggested viewing reruns of TV programs, listening to radio, speaking out in stores instead of pointing.  But he went on hanging out with Chinese grad students, Chinese post-docs, and other Chinese Visiting Scholars — and never spoke or listened to English at all, except with me.

He went to New York on weekends — with other Chinese.  He accompanied a Chinese friend on a scam of a bus tour run in Chinese for Chinese that used up seven hours on the road getting them to Niagara Falls (apparently a big deal for inland Chinese), where they had a morning on a boat for photo ops. Then more bus-riding to Boston, where they drove quickly past MIT and Harvard before getting on another boat for a half-hour tour of Boston Harbor and the waterfront.  Then back on the bus for seven hours more of looking at interstate highways. On his phone, he showed me small photographs of the Falls taken from a distance, of which he was very proud.

He was currently spending quite a bit of time studying for the knowledge test to get a New Jersey driver’s license. Then he would be able to learn to drive in the car of a Chinese friend and also pass the driving test before going home.  “What do you need a New Jersey driver’s license for in China?” I asked. He very haltingly tried to explain that if he had a New Jersey license to drive he could just exchange it for a Chinese one for a small fee.  But to learn to drive in China was 6000 yen, or about $1000.  And then it cost even more to actually get the license after you passed the Chinese test.

“But Li-li,” I said.  “What good is a Chinese driving license if you don’t have a car?  You’re still a student.”  It wasn’t going to be a problem, he assured me.  After he got his doctorate, he would get a job and in a few months of savings have enough for a car.  “New?  Or used?” I asked. “Oh new,” he assured me.  Everyone he knew bought new.  Poor Li-li.  He didn’t know I remembered everything he’d ever said, or tried to say.

I put early loose talk about heart-felt hopes for a post-doc in America together with later revelations of his clear intention to buy a new car in China — which he would be licensed to drive — as soon after he got a job as he could.  To this I added (1) his disinclination to follow through on any suggestion or any result of internet research I had offered; (2) the cost of parking in the garage every week; (3) the value of my volunteer preparation time and time with him in a mutual agony of incomprehension; (4) and the fact that Princeton in the afternoon was getting very hot and would get hotter as we moved into summer — and suddenly decided I had had enough.

I sort of liked Li-li, despite really not knowing him at all.  But whatever his original intention had been when he applied for a year in America, he had soon seen that not much learning was going to happen, given the state of his English, and (it seemed to me) had begun to use his time at PPL as a sort of cover for just hanging out with his countrymen in a foreign culture, thereby occupying space and consuming teaching time that Princeton could have offered to another — and ripping off the Chinese government as well.

I emailed an SOS to Fred.  He knew exactly what to do.  Here’s the responsive email he sent me:

Hi Nina:
Sometimes it happens and it’s not your fault. I suggest you tell him that unexpected new plans will require you to be away for extended periods of time for the foreseeable future and you can no longer continue tutoring — and perhaps I can find another tutor for him. After you do that, let me
know. If he contacts me again I shall unfortunately not have another tutor available who can tutor during the summer months. Probably this is best: no hard feelings.

Thank you for your gallant efforts!  It wasn’t a failure on your part.  Frankly I don’t care to assist someone trying to rip off the systems on our  dime. Hopefully I can find a much better match for you come September. Have  a great summer.

Best regards,

Disappointed to learn I immediately followed Fred’s suggestion?  (Chicanery at an illustrious American university?) I’m disappointed in me, too.  But Li-li will survive the loss, and hopefully also pass his driving test, so that he goes home with something he didn’t have when he came. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.  Sauve qui peut.  (Save yourself if you can.) Or, less selfishly put, you can’t win ’em all.

Maybe, as Fred suggests, I’ll have better luck next time.

HINTS ON ENGLISH PRONUNCIATION FOR FOREIGNERS

Standard

[I take no credit for what follows.  It’s part of a package of materials I was given last week after I volunteered to do one-on-one tutoring in English conversation for the Davis International Center at Princeton University. My international student for the next five months will be a visiting scholar from China, who has come to work at the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory.

International students at the University must read and write English at an acceptable level or take a remedial course.  Being able to speak so that others can understand is something else.  And then there are the idioms!  I’m meeting my student for the first time later this morning, and so won’t know what his conversational problems may be until then.  In the meanwhile, however, here’s something for you to enjoy.  We anglophones are so lucky!]

***********

I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble but not you,

On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.

Well done! And you wish, perhaps,

To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —

For goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)

A moth is not a moth in mother

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there

Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —

Just look them up — and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart —

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!

I’d mastered it when I was five.

T.S.W. (Only the initials of writer are known)

VALENTINE’S DAY CONVERSATION

Standard

[The scene: one of three checkout counters at Whole Earth, small organic fruit and vegetable store patronized mainly by Princeton “intelligentsia.” It also stocks some organic processed foods, dairy, and ecologically approved cleaning, toiletry and beauty products. In addition has “deli” section offering organic vegetarian take-out options.  Temperature outside: 5 degrees F.]

She (crowding many items from her cart onto conveyer belt and addressing next person in line without seeing who it is):   I‘m not a good person to get behind.  (She is bundled up in heavy scarf, black down coat, lined gloves and boots, and therefore only visible from the chin up. However, she did have her uncovered hair cut and colored three days previously.)

He (for it is indeed a he):  I see you’re eating healthy.

She (turning to look): Not so healthy.  My husband goes kerflooey now and then. (She is referring to two tubs of Bent Spoon ice cream and several packages of crystallized ginger on conveyer.  Also two 70% chocolate bars near box of Zen greens, organic grape tomatoes, lemons and Braeburn apples. Man behind her is person with completely shaved bald head and wearing only white tee shirt. No jacket, gloves or hat in sight. Slight belly. Wide-open baby blue eyes. White skin so smooth and unlined it might have been entirely Botoxed.)

He: We all have to do that now and then.

She (pushing empty cart forward): I guess.

He: Eating that way you’re going to live a long time.

She: (Why is boy at register so slow at ringing things up?) I’ve already lived a long time.

He: G’wan.

She (unwisely): I’m old enough to be your mother.  I’m probably twice your age.

He (incredulous): You’re a hundred and two?

She (really looking at him now):  Well, no. Not quite.

He (proudly): I’m fifty-one.

She: I’m closer to a hundred and two than to your age.  (She pauses.) I’m eighty-three.

He (also pausing):  I thought you were sixty.  Or sixty-one.  

(He must be pulling her leg. Well, maybe he isn’t.  She is all bundled up. He can’t see what’s really what. She hopes she didn’t smile.)

He (continuing): How old did you think I was?

She (now fishing in wallet for credit card): Oh, somewhere in your late forties.

He (disappointed):  Most people guess thirties.

She: I have sons in their mid-forties.  Sorry, you don’t look younger than they do.

He (desperate?): I have thirty to thirty-five years of experience. How’s that?

She (signing machine and preparing to exit): Don’t brag.

He:  But it’s true. [He pushes his seven cans of overpriced Wolfgang Puck vegetarian soup forward on conveyer.]

She:  Doesn’t matter.  Say nothing. (Good advice to self, she thinks.) Always keep ’em guessing. 

[She exits.  However, in the car she thinks it over. Just a weird crazy guy making small talk.  But sixty?  Sixty-one?  She feels good all the way home.]

OVERHEARD AT OUR HOUSE

Standard

[Man and woman of advanced years are sitting side by side on couch near gas-powered fireplace.  He has just finished reading, on iPad, preview of post she intends to publish.]

She:  So?  What do you think?

[He slowly shakes his head from side to side.]

She:  No?  Why not?

He:  It makes me uncomfortable.

She:  Too far out?

He:  I don’t think you should do it.  It’s not…..

She:  Not what?

He:  Not how they think of you.

She:  How who thinks of me?  Who is “they?”  We don’t even know who “they” are.  Except that lovely young photographer in Japan.  And four other people we knew from before the blog. But they already realize I’m likely to say anything.

He:  Well, how do you think the photographer will feel?

She:  I don’t know.  Maybe she’ll be disappointed.  Shocked?  I hope not.  Although the Japanese are more reserved than we are.  I would be sorry to let her down.  The piece is funny, though.  And she’s quite sophisticated. She may just think it’s funny.

He:  Do you want your sons to see it?

She:  That’s a tough question.  If they were sitting here by the fire with us?  No, I wouldn’t be talking about such things. Although I might be able to with one of the daughters-in-law.  Just the two of us. After some wine.  And then we’d laugh about it. [Pause]  But why should I censor myself when writing in order to comport with what I suppose are the standards of my middle-aged children?

He:  I wouldn’t do it.

She:  You wouldn’t write half the things I’ve put in the blog. Besides, you were always sort of a prude.  In public, that is.

[She tickles him in his midsection.  He can’t keep from laughing.]

She: [returning to topic of her children]  One of them doesn’t read the blog anyway.  He’s probably afraid to be embarrassed.  And the other one used to know me pretty well.  I mean, it’s not as if I used any dirty words.

[He raises an eyebrow.]

She:  Well, I didn’t.  It’s written with extreme circumspection.  I don’t even call anything by its right name.  I call it an “appendage.”

He:  If it were a movie, would it get a “G” or a “PG” rating?

She:  Of course not.  Adult subject matter.

He:  See?

She:  Do you really believe anyone who reads my blog thinks there’s nothing between my waistline and my knees?

He:  No, but you don’t have to write about it.

She:  Well, I just came a cropper with Medicare Part D.  The stats were way down.  Maybe I’ll do better with biological needs.

He:  You said you’re not supposed to look at the stats.

She:  You’re not.  But they’re addictive.  Like you with ice-cream pops.

He: [ignoring remark about ice-cream pops]  I can’t tell you what to do.

She:  That’s right.  Although you sort of are, aren’t you?

He:  No. It’s just my opinion, that’s all. Why don’t you sleep on it?  Decide tomorrow.

She:  Okay, I’ll decide tomorrow.  That will give anyone who’s nervous after overhearing our conversation today enough of a heads-up to stay away from the blog tomorrow.  Just in case I decide not to listen to you.

He:  You never listen to me.

She:  Almost never.  But sometimes.

He:  Very few sometimes.

She:  Ah, who knows whether or not this will be one of those times!

[He clicks off the fire, she collect the cats, and they turn off the lights until tomorrow.]