#1 I’m in Yantai, Shandong province, 2006. I’m just beginning to recognize Mandarin characters, mostly from a baby book I buy myself when it turns out that my school’s promised “English lessons” are curriculum-free hours with a teacher who’s too embarrassed to correct me. I recognise both 大, big and then 林, forest, and I’m delighted to find two readable words in a sentence, but my friend Lily is not too embarrassed to tell me I’m wrong, and that 大林 actually means Stalin. I’m pretty sure that Mandarin is a massive conspiracy to screw with me.
#2 I’m at teaching ESL in Boston, 2016. My students are playing Celebrity Password, and one of them gives another student Stalin as their clue. There is a short argument over whether this person is famous enough to be a good clue, with some students insisting that everyone knows this person, and some insisting they’ve never heard of him. I settle this by writing 大林, the Chinese characters for Stalin, on the board next to the English. Because of course that’s something I know in Mandarin.
#3 The Chinese word for alien is 外星人, Other Star Person. I find it in a Chinese reading, and it sticks in my mind because it’s adorable and also it’s enough like foreigner, 外国人, Other Country Person that for a moment, Mandarin seems logical and cute.
#4 In another class this summer, one of my students plays alien abduction in Apple to Apples, and I can explain it in Chinese, because of course that’s something I know.
#5 After this, my students refuse to believe that the vocabulary for soviet heads of state and for extraterrestrials are just random flukes, and that actually I struggle to more more than the most rudimentary conversations. They insist that I speak fluent Chinese, and nothing I can say, no matter how bad my tones are or how halting my responses, can convince them otherwise.