I met a Chinese family and didn’t bring fruit: a memoir

I’ll get to it, I promise. First, though, I want to take a moment to laugh at/with my former self, sitting in her quarantine room in Shanghai, writing her hopes and dreams of teaching and connecting with small children on the blank, willing canvas of her Medium journal. I’m over it. There’s a reason I never got into education in the first place, a reason I never wanted to have children of my own. I met a child yesterday, a perfectly normal and lovely two and a half year old and felt as awkward and stiff as always when I am confronted with children. While friends of mine relish in their sibling’s children, I have only seen my second cousin, my only younger relation, a handful of times. I don’t hate children. I love seeing parents interact with their kids in a loving way. But put a child in front of me and I suddenly don’t know how to act.

Now I’m paid to entertain 100 children a day. I have to laugh. In a structured setting I will admit I am a bit better. Our roles are defined. I don’t blame former me for my predicament, I know she needed to assign meaning, make a story, give value and purpose to the wrenching of gears it takes to move across the world, but as soon as this contract is over, I’m done with children. I might be done with teaching, even, though I still think I could be a good teacher, if I can stand in front of a room and engage in dialogue and explanation. I can’t do this with 3–5 year old kids who I share no common tongue with. Though I am working on my Chinese and it is coming along, kids are harder to understand, and I am not permitted to speak Chinese to them even if I could respond.

Yesterday I met Fish. He’s my cousin’s coworker, a man who’s job it is to solve problems at the factories here in China while the US side of things runs on US soil. He lives across town but picked me up in his car and drove me to have lunch with his family. Our text exchanges were fairly easy for me, I can read and translate at my own pace, and think and type as I please, looking things up as I need or want to. He was impressed with my Chinese, but I warned him I’m not as good in person. I asked him to be patient and repeat himself in Chinese rather than switching to English. He said he would. I knew he wouldn’t, no one does, but I resolved to be stubborn and hold him to it.

As expected, he switched to English at the very first sign of my hesitation to respond. I sighed and reminded him in my best Chinese that he had agreed to speak Chinese with me, and he dutifully switched back. I knew, though, that I had lost my chance to be honest about my level, and that if he was to keep speaking Chinese, I would have to pretend to understand more than I did. I use this strategy sometimes, listening with an ear for context and what I can get, grunting in the affirmative and keeping the conversation moving along, responding to what I can, and it normally works, though sometimes I get caught out when I suddenly hear a question marker and don’t know what is being asked of me.

Halfway through the drive, I realized I didn’t know his home situation at all. I had no idea if he was single or married, how many people he lived with. So I asked “你的家有几口人?” Four, he said, his mother, his wife, and his daughter. I nodded, then a realization came over me. This is my first time as a guest to a Chinese home that’s not just a bachelor’s apartment, and I didn’t bring a gift. I asked him if we could stop at a fruit stand along the way so I could buy some fruit as a gift for his family, but he wouldn’t have it. “不用不用不用不用” he repeated, which would become the anthem for my visit. It was my job to be polite, it was his job to refuse it. I felt I wasn’t holding up my side of the deal.

I wasn’t sure what I should wear for the visit, but the weather had turned hot, and I had decided on a relatively short above-the-knee skirt, a tank top, and a light button up shirt to cover up with for modesty and to hide at least some of my tattoos. He arrived in sweat pants and a t-shirt. I felt overdressed.

We drove the 40 minutes across town, chatting, me trying to parse his northern erhua accent, hard r’s pronounced deep in the back of the throat. Finally he guided the car into the large parking garage and we rode the elevator up thirty floors to the apartment.

“来了”, came the greetings from his mother and wife as we stepped into the apartment. “Can she speak Chinese? Does she understand?” I heard her ask her son. “She can, she can” he assured her. I took off my shoes outside the door and was given a pair of rubber slippers to wear, and immediately offered a carton of milk which I politely refused, explaining Fish had given me water. I felt awkward, not knowing their Chinese names and finding myself unable to remember them even after they told me, the three syllables, without the corresponding characters and meanings of those characters, sliding down the hookless walls of my mind. I asked once again what his daughter’s name was, a little girl hiding shyly behind her mom. He picked up her toy writing tablet and wrote the characters, pronouncing them. I looked, pronounced them back, then immediately forgot.

The little girl was curious, I could tell. I picked up the tablet and wrote the most basic “你好!” and gave it to her to look. The grandmother clapped her hands, “she can write in Chinese!” “很厉害”, the compliment that I always seem to take a bit off sides, as though there’s some linguistic undertone, the speaker actually making fun of me, though I know they probably aren’t. Though a fun party trick, I explained I can copy and type characters but I haven’t memorized enough of them to write meaningfully just yet.

I was told to sit and offered fruit, clementines, bananas, apples. I politely refused, saying I wanted to wait and eat lunch with them. I knew my politeness rankings were going down, but I can’t stomach the acidity of citrus and I had no appetite just yet. We chatted some more while Fish cooked lunch. Fish’s wife tried to speak English at every opportunity, teaching her daughter key words and phrases and trying to practice with me, a very common occurrence here. I stubbornly persisted in Chinese, and soon enough she dropped it and was speaking Chinese with me.

I learned that she is one year younger than me and that their apartment building is government subsidized so the rents are cheap. She’s able to get such accommodations by dint of her employment. On the 5th floor is a large garden with exercise equipment and space to recreate, and on every floor is indoor space to use for any purpose. On their floor someone had set up a green screen to film videos to post on Chinese TikTok, 抖音.

We sat and chatted some more, them looking discreetly at my bare legs with my constellation tattoos peeking out from under my skirt, paging through the little girl’s books and snapping long green onions in a colander on the floor, which they blessedly let me help do, though I couldn’t be sure which parts of them they wanted to use and which were ending up on the floor, no matter how hard I watched them peel and snap.

Just as the table was set, Fish announced he was going downstairs to Sam’s Club to buy orange juice and asked me what I wanted to drink. Orange juice? Apple juice? Really, I am good with water, I said. He left, and we gathered around the table, sitting and waiting awkwardly. They had filled my rice bowl but not theirs, and were telling me to eat. I stalled for time, saying I’d wait for Fish to come back so we could eat together. I asked the granddaughter what her favorite dish was, and found out it was the clams strategically placed next to her. I tried one, salty and meaty. Delicious.

Finally Fish returned with a bottle of orange juice. I again had to politely refuse, saying water would be fine. I knew the citrus would turn my stomach and make my throat raw, and no amount of politeness was worth reliving that pain. But, it wouldn’t do not to have a guest drink something, so another bowl was produced and broth from the soup bowl was ladled in for me to drink with lunch. I happily obliged.

Lunch was familiar Chinese fare. Chicken feet, shrimp, clams, fried fish, pork and lotus soup, and the fresh green onions with pork. Fish sat next to me and kept putting bits of food in my bowl, digging in the chicken feet to find the best cuts for me to try. Fish’s wife stood to get me a spoon. It was my turn to say 不用,to which they asked if I could use chopsticks. To everyone‘s surprise, I told them I knew how to use chopsticks before I had come to China.

We ate and chatted. I answered the obligatory questions. No, I’m not married, no I don’t have a boyfriend, no I’m not sure when I am going back to the States. Yes, I’m an English teacher, yes, I studied a little bit of Chinese before I came here on my own (I laugh every time I answer this, thinking about my ten minutes a day on Duolingo as “studying” compared to what I do now).

I ate and was told to eat more. I expected this, and planned on saying I was full before I was really full, so that I could time my protests properly. I calculated about right, and was able to stop eating just as everyone else had.

After lunch I offered to help clear the table and was adamantly told no. We gathered ourselves instead for a walk in the garden downstairs. As we walked I could tell people were staring at me, but why wouldn’t they? A foreigner in a government funded Chinese apartment block? When does that ever happen? Mid-way through the walk, while we were chatting about the mandatory covid tests, I acknowledged I hadn’t done mine yet for the day. Fish offered to walk with me to the one near his house. We set out, him stopping to get us some drinks from the shop downstairs. He asked what I wanted. Just a bottle of water, please, I had to say again, thanking him for buying it for me. I marveled at how well Chinese people metabolize sugary drinks, seeing people drinking sodas and milk teas all the time with slender bodies that never seem to gain an ounce.

We arrived at the testing site to find a line stretching down the block, around the corner, and down to the next block. We walked and walked, with no end in sight to the number of people waiting. “这么多人!” Fish exclaimed, pronouncing the zhème more emphatically than I had ever heard it spoken before. “What should we do?” I asked him, “give up?”. We decided to give up. I would try again later near my apartment, I promised him, knowing that though the schedule said it would be open, it hadn’t been the last two nights, and I might end up having to go to the hospital and pay for the test again.

We walked back to get my bag and then he drove me back. I offered to take the metro but he again insisted on driving me. He said I should come back again and I agreed. I quite like the idea of having some sort of family connection that’s not just a random person I met on an app here in China. In the car on the way back I was suddenly hit with a wall of exhaustion. Trying to understand and speak for hours had wiped me out, and I closed my eyes for the ride back while he played music quietly and drove now fully recharged hybrid back to Fuyong.

“下次见!” I said, getting out of the car, reveling in how vague “xià cì” is in Chinese and making a mental note to myself to bring some fruit and milk for them xià cì, and maybe wearing pants.

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