I’ve had no appetite for food since last Thursday when it dawned on me that I’ll be moving away from Brisbane. On Friday, I sat morosely on the hall floor with friends from school as our kids did the robot and the caterpillar to the beat of Katy Perry’s ET. Everyone could tell I was experiencing a downer so they gave me comforting back pats. Then, having finished E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, I spent all weekend curled up with her Fifty Shades Darker, trying to lose my frustration at uprooting yet again in the sexual antics of Christian Grey and Ana Steele. There’s a lot of that, so I haven’t had to think much about anything – a wonderful respite from laboured thought over the dreaded F-word, future – but having breezed through all 532 pages, I’m back in the real world, back before all my troubles.
I was reminded of them once more when I saw my friend, X, this morning. X was waiting for me at the bottom of the grade 2 block because she needed me to act as translator on her behalf. As you are well aware, my Mandarin is rudimentary at best. However, compared to one who speaks no English at all…
“I prayed to Kuan Yin over the weekend,” she said. “I prayed so you wouldn’t have to move away.”
I was touched. If only the Goddess of Mercy checks her mail box as often as I check mine.
“When you’re gone, who will help me?” she asked.
Either of us will have to locate a willing replacement. Unfortunately, most Chinese live down in Sunnybank or thereabouts. Those in the Chinese enclaves are not necessarily bilingual, or if they are, equally fluent in both languages, but the odds of finding someone to translate is higher than it is in our suburb. You’d be surprised, but there are many like X in Australia, who’ve been here decades but are unable to cobble together a sentence in English, and with the growing number of Chinese migrants, there are bound to be more.
It’s not that they don’t try to pick up the language. Learning another language in adulthood is akin to having a major accident and learning to walk again. Some will succeed, others won’t. The degree to which we manage to master a new language depends on our affinity with language as a whole, and also our willingness to speak what we’ve been taught.
X speaks hardly any English because no one understands her and because no one understands her, hasn’t made more attempts to communicate in the language. Some days I can’t be sure if I am enabling her to function in Australian society or being her mouthpiece, hindering her progress. If I were unavailable, her husband would most likely have to take a day off work to come in and communicate on her behalf. As it is, he has to help with their child’s homework, since she can’t make head or tail of it. They are learning about tenses in school but there is no such thing as tenses in Mandarin.
From what I gather, X’s husband English is like my Mandarin. It’s enough to help you navigate your way around, but it is inadequate for deep, protracted conversation. His Royal Highness’ English is fantastic by comparison, a fact often lost on the buggers who’ve tried to make his life hell. I have an abiding suspicion that they only speak English because it’s in overwhelming ignorance that one can afford to be arrogant.
If not for His Royal Highness’ ability to speak Mandarin, all the hospitals he’s ever worked at would have to hire additional translators to cater to their Chinese-speaking patients. When we were living up north, he not only translated for the odd Chinese-speaking patient, but for a visiting medical professor from China. The professor was in charge of an area with 70 million people. He arrived on a Sunday when there was no one to greet him.
“In China, there would be a contingent to meet the visitor at the airport,” he said to me.
The front desk of the hospital called His Royal Highness because he was the only person they could think of who could speak Mandarin. The professor ended up staying at our house until Wednesday because the people he was visiting had made no arrangements for his accommodation and none were available to take him around. Perhaps, even though a couple of His Royal Highness’ colleagues said they spoke Mandarin, none really did.
The professor was so grateful for our assistance that he insisted on shouting us dinner for the whole week that he was there. It could be that he was also afraid of my cooking. Unaware of his carnivorous tendencies, I made him Falafels, fried tofu and stir-fried watercress for his first meal with us. He promised me his wife would show me how to put 5 dishes on the table in under half an hour if ever we go to China. He too vowed to get His Royal Highness on to their exchange programme so that we’d have accommodation plus food for free. In addition, he mentioned the provision of a stipend to help us get by.
He was probably astounded by our willingness to offer him succour since Chinese, being the cut-throat race that we are, never rush to the aid of strangers. We’ll move heaven an earth for family and friends, but strangers? You’d better forget about it. I’d like to think that in hosting him, we taught him a little of what we’d learnt here, living amongst the whites, and he’d brought that generosity of spirit with him back to China.