Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Coconut Meets The Peach

“Americans are like peaches, but Chinese are coconuts.” Such was the message from Prof. Donny Huang, specialist in intercultural communication, in a lecture yesterday to new BeiDa students. Americans are amicable, and quick to make friends—like the soft, sweet outside of a peach—but just as the core of a peach is a hard, rough pit, it is difficult to become very close with an American. By contrast, the Chinese can be tough as coconuts on the outside, but once one penetrates this coarse exterior, they are willing to “share their milky sweetness,” to quote Prof. Huang.

I went to dinner this evening at one of the campus cafeterias, hoping to more convincingly play the part of a BeiDa student. I collected an unappetizing brown and beige meal of pan-fried noodles, and a sort of cold vegetable salad based inauspiciously around sliced cucumber. After a gruesome 2-hour placement exam this morning, and a continuing stream of evidence supporting the notion that my Chinese is inexorably pathetic, I was more in the mood for another round of airplane food than what sat on my tray.

I sat alone, but was joined almost instantaneously by a student sitting oddly close to me, considering the presence of empty tables nearby. Despite what at first seemed to be an act of uncommon friendliness, he buried his face (literally) in the whole fish and bowl of rice before him. As I made my way through my dinner, I watched, somewhere between disgusted and mesmerized as he ripped apart the fish, and shoveled the rice into his mouth, pausing only to regurgitate the fish bones onto his tray.

After 10 minutes of this noisy, slurping silence, I forced out a question, asking him (in Chinese, naturally) if the fish was any good. “很好吃” he replied, very delicious. He pushed the dish towards me and urged me to take a bite. “Very tasty,” I agreed. His name is Liu Chao, but his American friends call him Super. He has made one trip to the United States, to compete in a computer science competition sponsored by Microsoft in Seattle. He, like many of his peers at BeiDa, is an avid appreciator of American television, and could tally the shows by name: Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Lost, 24. His favorite is Friends.

I confess, by the time we had reached this advanced stage of conversation, much of our dialogue was in English. Every Chinese student must pass an English exam to gain entrance to BeiDa, and Super’s skills are not lacking. Nevertheless, it was delightful and refreshing to make this connection, and undoubtedly good practice for each of us in our respective second languages. Even my dinner began to taste better, as we chatted in an absurd mix of two tongues. I had cracked his coconut shell, plus overcome my own nutty tendencies, and was one friend the better for it. It’s remarkable what a little human interaction can do for a sullen mood.

“In China,” Super told me, “We like to download the whole season of a show, and watch it in just a few days.” I told him we often do the same in America. “You download?” I nodded. “Even though there is a copyright?” Nod. “Good, you make me feel much better.” We laughed.


Anonymous sai said...

mmm...milky sweetness.

7/9/06 11:13 AM  

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