Taxi Anecdote: 40 year old mystery

As my Chinese has improved, I have been able to have more in depth conversations with my roommates, coworkers, and people on the street. One of the times I most frequently practice Chinese with locals and have unexpectedly hilarious moments is in a taxi. I take taxis at least three times a week, if not more, and the drivers are always interested in where I’m from, how long I’ve been in China, if I’m married, what my rent is, how much I get paid, and what brought me to China.

A few evenings ago I chatted with a gentleman who, as soon as he learned I was an English teacher, launched into the story of his experience learning English in school forty years before (which would put him in school right around the time of the Cultural Revolution, which also explains a lot if you know anything about that span of time in China). I couldn’t understand everything he said, but I gathered that he had been very interested in learning English, but his English teacher in school was terrible, and he said the class learned almost nothing. The teacher, he said, was a Chinese man in his seventies, and just not good at teaching.

He did remember that the teacher always repeated the same phrase every day in class, and that phrase has stuck with him all these years. But he didn’t know what it meant, and never had. None of the students in the class did. I asked him what the phrase was and he said in a very garbled accent: “watch closely”. Then he asked me to translate it for him, which I did, and we had a good laugh. He was tickled to finally understand what that phrase meant after all these years.

When we arrived at my gate, I pulled out my wallet to pay him and he waved me away, saying the ride was free because I had made him so happy.

I am constantly amazed at the barriers learning another language breaks down. Here was a man who I would have never been able to communicate or make a connection with a year ago, but because we suddenly share a common language (no matter how rough my Mandarin is) we were able to have such a great moment. It’s these kind of interactions that make me more passionate to learn Chinese and any other language I can. It’s moments like these that make living here worth it.

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