Friday, April 16, 2010

English lessons

Many of you have probably heard me complain about the fact that foreigners in China get asked the same list of 7-10 ten questions by virtually everyone they meet: "What country are you from?" "Are you accustomed to eating Chinese food?" "Why is your Chinese so good?" "What do you think of China?" "Do you know how to use chopsticks?" "How much money do you make?" "How much is your rent?" The list is so consistent from person to person and from region to region that it led me to wonder whether Chinese textbooks contain a standard list of questions to ask foreigners (this seems not to be the case).

Even though I know that people mean to be nice, having the same conversation anywhere between five and fifty times a day gets grating. But today I think I hit a new low: having The Conversation with my masseuse.

I decided to treat myself to a massage at a very nice spa in Beijing this afternoon as a reward for finishing a pretty busy week and getting some good dissertation-funding news yesterday (more noodle adventures in the hinterland next year!). I had heard that Bodhi was very nice, and indeed it was--clean, quiet, beautiful. I particularly enjoyed my complimentary post-massage cantaloupe lassi. The massage was good, too--for the first forty minutes or so.

Then the talking started. When I get a massage, I expect to be kneaded and pulled on but not chatted with. "Does this hurt?" is fine. "What country are you from?" Not fine. I answered the standard questions about where I was from and what I was doing in Beijing as briefly as I could to try to cut off further conversation. But then the conversation took an odd turn:

"Sorry to bother you, but could you teach me how to say your country's name in English?"
I told the masseuse. He practiced saying 'America.' I told him his pronunciation was good.

"Sorry to bother you, but what continent is America in? Is it in Europe?"
"No, it's in North America. Canada and Mexico are also in North America."

"Sorry to bother you, but how do you say North America in English?"

Not exactly the relaxing experience I was looking for, but sort of oddly charming anyway. At least he didn't ask how much money I make.

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