Let’s Fluent!

May 14th, 2007

[tag]Shenzhen[/tag] – One of the nicest things about [tag]China[/tag] is that virtually no one speaks [tag]English[/tag]. This means that no one discusses the weather with you. It’s like having a [tag]Star Trek[/tag] phaser that repels bores. They may be all around you, but they might as well be preserved in aspic.

Still, one can only get so far via mime. I went into a restaurant last night, 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. I put both hands in front of me, right next to each other, and opened them like a paperback, to indicate that I’d like a menu. She leaned across me, 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 [tag]Mandarin[/tag]. It’s called [tag]Let’s Fluent![/tag], 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 sprang 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 among what group of people? 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 once again, 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 the kind of witticism that made [tag]Oscar Wilde[/tag] 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 exactly 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!

[tags]Timothy Hallinan, Poke Rafferty, The Million Dollar Minute, A Nail Through The Heart[/tags]

Leave a Reply