“I have diarrhea,” the woman next to me said in Chinese, “What’s wrong with you?”
“My teeth hurt,” I complained, before turning to the next woman and inquiring after her health.
“I’m going to throw up,” she said.
“I have allergies,” said the next.
And so on.
This was my most recent language class, in which we learned body parts and basic health terms. Now, theoretically, I can ask a doctor in Chinese “how many times a day should I take this medicine?” or tell the ayi “today I need to go to the dentist.” Note the use of the word “theoretically” here: it’s the most important word in this post to date, with the possible exception of “diarrhea,” which will of course figure prominently in the upcoming paragraphs.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “wow, she must really be getting good at Chinese if she can say all of these things already.” And you’d be dead wrong. Because somehow, whenever I put it all together in a sentence, unless it is spoken EXACTLY as written in my Chinese text book, no one understands me. Example: I can say “I do not speak Chinese” (Wo bu shuo hanyu) because the phrase is in my textbook. But today, just trying to make conversation, I said to the checkout lady at the store “you speak English very well.” At least, I thought that’s what I said. But she just gave me dog-ears. Dog-ears is what I call it when I say something in Chinese to a Chinese person and they just cock their head to one side and stare at me, puzzled, the way Casey the dog does when I talk to him. I get a lot of dog-ears here in Beijing. I might as well spend my days talking to Casey. And even when the words come out right, they’re still wrong. Which is why I buttoned up my coat today when leaving a restaurant and said to the waitress “It sure is cold tomorrow!”
But I’m trying. And for some reason, I’ve found that words like diarrhea seem to stick in my head longer than other potentially more useful words. So I ask the bread guy for a loaf of bread every week, and every week I say the same thing: “Wo yao yige mianbao… sliced.” I cannot for the life of me remember the word “sliced,” even though I need to use it every week. But “diarrhea…” I mean, really, how often do you discuss that in polite conversation? But I remembered the word “laduzi” the first time I heard it.
That last day in class was pretty funny. We held the class in someone’s home, and her ayi, who speaks no English, was wandering the house, cleaning. I wonder what she was thinking when she heard our little group of ten repeating, over and over, in broken Chinese, “I have diarrhea.” “I have diarrhea.” “I have diarrhea.” It’s a wonder she didn’t fall over laughing. Just as well. If she had choked on her own laughter, we would have forgotten how to say “quick! She needs to go to the hospital!” We would have just stood over her, helpless, before one of us thought to say “do you have diarrhea?”
And speaking of hospitals… Mingtian Shay xuyao qu yiyuan. Ta xuyao kan ya yi. I think that means “tomorrow Shay needs to go to the hospital. He needs to see the dentist.” But go ahead and get all dog-eared on me, because I could have it totally wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.
At least I know I’m not alone. I saw a guy in Jenny Lou’s today trying to find matches. He was pantomiming lighting a match, with sound effects and everything. I understood him, but the supermarket employees gave him dog-ears. He eventually gave up and left without his matches. I wanted to follow him out, to tell him I understood. But since I haven’t been able to locate the matches, either, it would’ve been small comfort to him. Somehow, pantomiming doesn’t work in this country. My friend Jen went to a hardware store in a futile search for nails. Apparently, she gathered quite a crowd as she acted out hammering things into walls. But she left without nails. Another woman I know forgot the word for bathroom. Her son really had to go, but they were in the middle of a store. So she acted out bathroom (no, I don’t know how she did it, but we can all imagine, I’m sure). The store employees nodded knowingly, and led her to a display of… toilet seat covers. Not too useful when you’ve got the laduzi, I’m sure.
And I may be wrong here, but I’m guessing you all remember what “laduzi” means. Crazy world, no?