Finding the express route to reality on my Chinese skills

By Thomas Talhelm (China Daily)
2009-12-15 09:24
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My cell phone lit up with a number I didn't recognize. Numbers I don't recognize tend to be from Chinese-speakers, so I prepared my best, tone-rising Chinese phone greeting. As I moved the phone toward my ear, I felt a rush of pride in my Chinese skills.

Finding the express route to reality on my Chinese skills

The embers of my Chinese pride roar daily with the praise of taxi drivers and fruit vendors. That means my ego is now the size of a small house pet.

So on this warm night in Guangzhou, I had decided to take my giant ego for a walk with a friend of mine to Beijing Avenue - the pedestrian-only gaggle of lights and shops that is the same as Wangfujing in Beijing.

The mystery call was a surprise, but just another chance to flex my Chinese muscles.

"Wei?" I answered.

The mystery caller introduced himself: "Hey, I'm Kuai Di!"

My pulse quickened. I had no idea who this man was, but he clearly knew who I was. My mind raced for a strategy.

I reasoned that Chinese names are usually two syllables, so he must be an acquaintance of mine. I racked my brains to think of where I had met someone named Kuai Di.

Cell phone numbers and business cards are given out as easily as hello's in China, so I've become accustomed to giving my cell phone number to people I'm sure have no intention of ever calling me. But now I was being ambushed by someone who had decided to actually call me.

After my brain-racking failed to turn up any memorable Kuai Di's, I decided to pretend I knew who Kuai Di was and see if I could figure out who he was by prolonging the conversation. "Soooo ...?Kuai Di! How have you been lately?"

"What? I'm Kuai Di. Kuai Di!"

Finding the express route to reality on my Chinese skills

"I know, I know! You didn't think I'd forget, did you? How have you been recently? It's been so long since I've seen you."

"I am Kuai Di. Kuai Di!"

"Don't be such a stranger! I know who you are, Kuai Di. So how've you been?"

"What are you talking about? Listen, is anyone home? I'm downstairs."

Now my embarrassment turned to fear. No one was home, and there was a man with an overwhelming desire to repeat his own name - possibly with a mental illness - waiting outside my apartment asking me if anyone was home.

Obviously, my time in China up to this point hadn't prepared me to handle mystery phone calls. But I had managed to learn from my students the art of the bald-faced "maybe", and I knew that would have to be my plan C.

The art is simple. Whenever asked a question you don't want to answer, just sprinkle a drawn-out "maybe" into any sentence that shouldn't have one. Good teachers don't just teach. They also learn from their students. As a good teacher now desperate for a plan C, I brandished a bald-faced "maybe".

"Maaaybe someone's home. Why? What's up?"

"What!?" Kuai Di was at his wit's end. "I'm Kuai Di! Kuaaai Diii!"

Exasperated, I handed my cell phone to my Chinese friend.

"He's trying to deliver a package to your place. I'll just tell him to leave it with the guard."

It turns out that "kuai di" is not a Chinese name. It means "express delivery". I had unwittingly forced a poor deliveryman into an Abbot and Costello routine.

And so the waxing and waning of my Chinese ego goes. As soon as it reaches epic proportions, an embarrassment comes along to bring it down to size and remind me that my Chinese still has a long way to go. On the upside, though, I guess this means that I can cross Food Delivery, Water Guy, and Express Delivery, off my Christmas shopping list.