Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anatomy of a week: Friday

Ellen hasn’t had any exercise since Saturday, so I take the kids to school and let her get a swim.  When Jamie and I get back, I take a shower and check my e-mail.  William and I have been trying all week to meet to discuss some powerpoint slides he’s prepared for presenting to various departments interested in proposing Gen Ed courses.  We’re supposed to meet today at 12, but it turns out it’s the last day for the office secretary, so they’re having a party for her. Nana, who basically runs the office, made a point of sending me a very polite invitation, but I’m not that stupid:  I barely knew the woman, and my attendance would only mean that all of them would have to speak English.

Instead I meet with another ETA, this one a UVa graduate from Oregon who once spent a whole summer traveling in southern China and Tibet.  She’s not entirely impressed with Cantonese food—she prefers the spicier, Szechuan style—but she’s also not phased by the remoteness of our campus.  Apparently her father is something of an eccentric who worked as an engineer making wind-powered combines.  Every so often he would get sick of corporate existence and pack the family off to some small island somewhere, where he’d organize the indigenous folks to build themselves a windmill. 

“My brother and I used to hate it,” she tells me over coffee.  “I’m the only person I’ve ever met who complains about having had to live in Fiji.”

We talk longer than I mean to, so I have to race back to the flat and throw on my workout clothes.  By the time I get to the fitness center, it’s clear I’ll only have 45 minutes to exercise before my 2:30 meeting.  Some skinny little jerk is on the treadmill doing 6 minute miles, so I get on a recumbent bike where I have a direct line of sight to him.   I spend the next 45 minutes alternating between glares and a pensive expression I hope makes him think I’m plotting something entirely devious.   He’s still running when I leave, obnoxious little jerk. 

The purpose of my 2:30 is to lay out the intended outcomes of and guidelines for the new Gen Ed first-year course.  Initially I wasn’t invited to the meeting because the committee was made up of native Cantonese speakers, but when I scuffed my sneakers and cried big fat tears, my boss relented and paid $2000/hr for my own personal interpreter and masseur.  Just kidding.  Actually, my interpreter is Elaine, who is fresh out of college from Australia and speaks perfect English with that funny flat Aussie quality that leaps and bips at unexpected moments, like the line of a heart monitor when the dead guy keeps trying to come back to life. Yeah.  Exactly like that.

The meeting is a revelation.  For one thing, it turns out that being translated to a charming experience—indeed, so much so that the fact that Elaine had had garlic for lunch only adds to it.  You’re simultaneously listening to two conversations at once, while watching one carefully and trying to take notes on all of it.  Elaine, wisely, didn’t give me word for word, just summarizing the high points.  For the most part this works, but every once in a while I give into my inner demons and say to her, “They’re talking about me, aren’t they?”

“No,” she whispers back.  “They’re talking about the nature of knowledge.”

“You can tell me,” I say.  “I can take it.”

“They’re not talking about you.”

“Seriously.  What are they saying?”

“Dr. Ying is wondering if the nature of knowledge is the same in each field.  Do humanists use critical thinking in the same way biologists do?”

“Is it my shirt?” I say.  “Because big flowers are really hip in the States.”

At which point Elaine mutters something that I can’t repeat here.

One thing I really enjoy about the experience is the opportunity it gives me to blatantly people watch.  I mean, not only am I allowed to stare straight at this group as they sit discussing methodology and epistemology, it’s expected of me.  And it’s  fascinating to see how much you can tell about people from on a purely non-linguistic level.  Iris, who’s usually so quiet, is now almost vehement in her delivery.  One professor from the Religion department seems slightly uncomfortable in his own skin, but that could just be that I keep looking at him and chuckling quietly, just to see what he’ll do.  And the man running the meeting is clearly a genius.  I’m serious about this:  even listening in a second language you can tell that he is articulate, thoughtful, capable of looking at multiple points of a question and winding his way through them in a methodical way.  It’s liking watching Bernstein conduct, it’s that good.  In less than two hours, he leads the group through a thoughtful and engaging conversation to a solid draft of outcomes and guidelines for the course. 

Another fascinating thing is I realize how much English has come to permeate their language, at least in an academic context.  I don’t think they even realize it themselves, but there were points I could essentially follow the flow of their conversation, with phrases like “assessment,” “deliberate,” “pedagogy,” “hypothesis,” “self-absorbed,” “white,” and “baldy” coming up repeatedly.  At one point, the religion professor states that one explicit outcome for the course should be that students develop an appreciation for the material.  Iris, who’d been sitting on her hands for a while, leans forward and set forth in Cantonese.  I catch the words “appreciation” and “intrinsic” and burst in, “Exactly!  If you can design a course that foregrounds the relevance of the material, students will appreciate it more and consequently have increased intrinsic motivation!” 

(Yes, it’s true, I say things like this.  My mother never mentions it to her friends, but I’m telling you now that it’s true.)  

Anyhow, the minute I speak, K.S., the chair, bursts out laughing.  “It’s a miracle!  He’s only been here a month and he speaks Chinese!”

But that moment is the exception, leading me to my most important lesson about attending a meeting run in Cantonese:  When a meeting is held in Cantonese, guess what? 

I shut up.

And that’s nothing but good. 

So there, you wanking wanker. 

Please note:  This is me talking here, you big dummy, so stop assuming that somehow this blog is representing folks in DC with lots of money and  private parking spots.  Because I would never speak for those people.  You hear me?  Never.  Not Ever.  Unless . . .

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