"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How I went to England and my life turned into a Chinese sitcom

One of my neighbors here is a student from China. What we have in common is that we spend a lot of time in the communal kitchen making our respective lunches and dinners. The strange thing is that she is always cooking for her boyfriend, and they spend the entire time talking to each other in Chinese (I'm not sure what variant).

So there's me, making pasta or rice or something, often listening to the radio for some music and a bit of news about the latest Olympic medals.

And there's them, making an elaborate, three-part meal of stewed green beans and pressure-cooked duck and baked salmon, talking very animatedly in Chinese.

What's so strange about this experience is the contrast between the cacophony of languages and voices - the girl chattering away, the guy laughing at whatever she's saying, the BBC radio announcer exulting about another Team GB gold medal and/or the (usually American) singer crooning on the radio, the sizzle of meat, the rattle of pots and pans, sometimes even the rain pouring outside - and the silence that is me, not talking to anyone, just listening to all of this.

As a student of languages and a generally curious being, I find it interesting to listen to the modulations in the couple's voices and try to guess what their talking about, especially when they slip in an English word or two, like "Facebook." It also feels bizarrely like I've walking into a movie without subtitles. But I also hope that if I meet some other international students when I arrive at my new university, we'll be able to get past the stage of polite greetings and I'll be able to join in the conversation. It sounds like fun. The boyfriend laughs a lot.

I guess I could muscle my way in and start a conversation. But then I wouldn't get to imagine a crazy secret Chinese-language life for them, and who wouldn't want that? It makes cooking dinner into a much more interesting experience.

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