Where were we?

I walked into the room through the wide open door, past the privacy curtain, where a medical worker motioned me to put my things on the chair. “Take off your shoes”, she said. I did. “Take off your shorts”. Uh. “No, I can’t”, I tried to think of a reason but decided to go with the truth, “I’m not wearing underwear”. I pulled down my shorts a bit to show her my bare hip. She nodded, “uh, huh, take them off.”

What proceeded was me laying on the exam table half naked with no idea what was about to happen. Stirrups were produced. My feet went into them. My labia were spread open and looked at. A cotton swab appeared and was placed onto my labia then removed.

“Ok, all done, anyone else behind you in line?” “Uh, no”, I said, pulling up my shorts, and leaving with more questions than answers.

Let’s back up.

My school nurse, called a school doctor in China, though I am doubtful she has an MD, has reminded me several times now that I need to do a physical. I told her I’d already had a physical when I arrived in China, at my expense, that was pretty invasive. Bloodwork, an ultrasound, x-rays, etc. But, apparently I need a different physical specifically for kindergarten teachers.

It’s times like these when I call in the cavalry. My employment agency may be ripping me off in every conceivable way, earning money off my paycheck every month while simultaneously nickel and diming me in a contract I cannot escape, what people here have repeatedly referred to as “modern slavery”, but I can at least play the helpless foreigner card and get them to do things for me.

They took me to the hospital when I was sick and needed a doctor’s note. They took me to the bank when I needed to deal with my bank card. They met me at the civic center multiple times to deal with visa documents. So, when they asked if I could go on my own, I said no. I said I heard there’s forms to fill out, and people might ask me questions, and Chinese isn’t my first language, so, you’d better come help.

After years of being an interpreter, I am the person who needs an interpreter. I get to experience firsthand the struggle of needing an interpreter and not getting one, or getting someone who is definitely not an interpreter (cough cough my agency representatives who barely tell me anything and don’t actually interpret at all just point and tell me where to sign on papers). I also get to experience the balance of when do I want this interpreter (going through multiple security checkpoints and having to input multiple forms into my phone, ugh) and when do I really want them not in the room (the pelvic exam — yeah, step out).

Now, back to the cotton swab. Out in the hall I talked to the woman in front of me who told me what this next part was. 妇科,私处。 Characters I had not learned yet. If I could have read them on paper, I would have know I already knew two of the characters. I know 科 is department, and 私 is private. But there are a lot of words in Chinese that sound like “fu” and a lot that sound like “si”. Fu, for example, can be 付,服, 副, 夫, 负, 富, 幅…I could go on and on.

So, given Chinese’s illegal level of homonyms (真不行), my only option was to pull open Pleco (god bless Pleco, the best Chinese dictionary app ever) and have her help me look up the right character. Pleco, by the way, even has a draw a character feature, for those older Chinese ayis and shushus who never learned pinyin (chef’s kiss). Anyway, through this process I learned that 妇科 means gynecology, and 私处 means private parts. I gasped at my phone and then at her.

I had met her in the chest x-ray room a few minutes earlier, she was the one who told me to go and change my clothes in the curtained off area in the room. Without her help I would have likely been standing there trying to decipher the crackly distorted Chinese coming from the microphone from the observation room until someone gave up and came to help me.

It was at this point, staring at her in shock in the hallway seconds before I was to go in and get mysteriously prodded, that she told me she’s a teacher at my school. I gasped again. I felt like a little kid seeing their teacher in the grocery store. She’s not from one of my classes, so I felt a bit better, but I truly had no idea. It was only later when I came to school that I realized it was because she always wears baggy jeans and t-shirts to school and I was seeing her in a form-fitting short dress for the first time.

I also got blood taken that day, another cotton swab stuck in the crook of my elbow for three minutes (not long enough because blood seeped out after and I walked around with my arm bent saying 没事没事 to the agency rep the rest of the day to reassure him I was fine).

Leaving the clinic, the rep, Simon, asked me what my plans were for the day in Chinese. After ordering me around in very short staccato English phrases for the last hour “sit”, “sign”, “go go”, “go here”, “up”, it was a relief to hear him speak Chinese. I told him I was going hiking. He asked who I was going with. I wasn’t sure what the deal was with the question, and probably hesitated too long trying to calculate the possible weight of cultural significance versus personal small talk versus agency snooping, then finally said “I’m going with a few friends” ,我跟几个朋友去。

“Who?” he said, “which friends?”. “You don’t know them”, I said. We fumbled around for a bit before uncovering that he thought I said “这个” instead of “几个” , zhe ge versus ji ge, these specific friends versus a few unnamed friends. I said it again “ji ge”, “ji”. He didn’t get it. I wondered how I could pronounce it more clearly. Which tone is it again? I wracked my brain. I am lazy with remembering tones and it obviously shows. Finally I typed the character out on my phone and showed him. Oh, ji ge! He said. It sounded exactly like it sounded to me when I had said it. Yeah, I said. Ji ge. I sighed.

Learning Chinese is a constant triumph and constant crisis. I will keep climbing this mountain, because even though each summit is false, the view is still good. Knowledge builds on itself. There’s never a wasted word learned or conversation had, and even slow progress is progress. At least that’s what I tell myself.

People keep asking me why I am learning Chinese. I myself don’t know. I have always been a language nerd at heart. It’s like asking someone to show you the steps of why 2+2=4. You know it’s true, and there’s no real way to explain it beyond that knowledge.

Bonus observations: corn and watermelon

Corn and watermelon are obviously not native to China. Watermelon is even called 西瓜, xi gua, western melon. But these are absolutely staple foods in China. Watermelon during the summer months is ubiquitous. Shenzhen is southernmost China, and it is brutally hot and humid. You can buy watermelon on every street corner and fruit stand or shop and have it fresh cut for you, served in a plastic box with wooden skewers for eating.

Corn is even more ubiquitous. It’s in almost every soup, and people often eat it on the cob in sections for breakfast, for 烧烤, shao kao, or Chinese barbeque, and just as a snack. No butter, no salt. Carbs in China are very much eaten plain. There’s a distinction between dishes and main foods, 菜, cai, or dishes, and 主食, zhu shi, or staple food. Dishes are meat and vegetables and have strong flavors, staple food is your carb source like rice or noodles (rice is more common in the south and noodles in the north) and is typically served plain, though there are exceptions (fried rice, noodle dishes). You put your dishes on your rice and the flavor of the dish seasons the rice.

I don’t think I will ever be able to go back to the US and order the way I used to in Chinese restaurants. There’s a joke that goes, four Americans go to a Chinese restaurant. What do they order? Four orders of sweet and sour pork. The joke is, Chinese people would never do this. You would order five dishes for four people (it’s always n+1+soup) and they would all be different. You’d each get a small bowl and fill it with rice, then use the chopsticks in the dishes to serve yourself (never your own chopsticks that you are eating with). You take one or two bites from the dish and eat it with your rice, then take more. The soup is drunk before or after the meal, or both. But never at the same time as the meal. You don’t fill up your bowl or plate with the amount you think you’re going to eat, it’s a much more slow and intuitive eating practice, and very social.

Now, I do see people eating alone. And I do see people eating on plates. There’s buffet style fast food where you point and choose and are served all your food at once on a plate. But, you still get rice and soup. Always rice and soup. You could eat the same way, picking up from the plate and onto your rice bowl.

Anyway, the observation here is that Chinese culture, as different and monolithic as it seems, is just as much of a slut as American culture. It takes what is beneficial and uses it. Corn, watermelon, building technology, communications technology, etc. And it goes both ways. There’s Indo-Chinese cuisine and Chinese-Indo cuisine, and the same goes for most of China’s neighboring countries and other countries and cultures from around the world.

We are so used to seeing everything from the lens we grew up with, but everyone has their own lens. Do we think Thai food in America is authentic Thai cuisine? What about Thai food in France? Or England? Or China? Everything in China gets interpreted through a Chinese lens, and everything in America gets interpreted through an American lens. Let’s not forget which country put cream cheese in sushi, ok?

Anyway, it’s been a minute, glad we got to catch up. ❤

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