Eight or nine years ago, I worked in a diner while on a, ahem, break from college. The Pioneer Valley is full of similar college-age breakers, finding themselves, forming bands, creating art, getting that awful first novel out of the way, or just drifting between minimum wage jobs amid an ever-younger college crowd. It was the right choice at the time, I embraced the freedom of leaving school, and I read more of the literary canon during my year of pouring coffee than I ever read in college, but it became increasingly clear that waitressing was not really how I wanted to live.
And re-enrolling was the right choice, too, because going back to school introduced me to more books that I hadn’t read yet, and one day in a Roman history class, I met a boy called Stick — maybe I’ve mentioned him? — who’d left an underwhelming job at the phone company to come back to college. And that was good.
I started working at a local restaurant a few weeks ago. (And Stick returned to the phone company a few months ago, but this is my blog.) This is slightly different from my mid-college diner job, although it still offers all the intellectual stimulation of carrying items from kitchen to table and back again, it’s really pretty nice. It’s a Middle Eastern restaurant, which means a kitchen full of cardamon and coriander, and the owners are very relaxed about letting me experiment (for me, I mean, not to serve to the customers), and I really can’t complain about all the mango lassis. The dining room is pretty, with exotic decorations, and the customers are not inhaling meals on the rigid work breaks like my diner patrons, and the hours work around my classes at Chinese school. As long as I don’t think too much about how going back to college was supposed to prevent exactly this situation from happening, the job’s good.
The Urdu-speaking chef likes to call me senorita, much to the amusement of the Spanish-speaking kitchen staff who respond with the throat-clearing noise that means miss in Urdu. After my stress and success differentiating the four and a half Mandarin tones, and forcing my mouth to make sounds that aren’t in our alphabet, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that there are sounds in other foreign languages that don’t sound like words. And even so, hearing Urdu is just as shocking as hearing full speed Yantai-hua again. That was a sentence? How can anyone possibly pick words out of that? I’ve already ranted here about my massive struggles to learn Mandarin, and overall, I’m quite proud of myself. Still, I look back on it, and keep thinking that if I’d just done a little bit more, and tried a little bit harder… everything would have fallen into place. (Just another way Mandarin resembles my ex-boyfriend). I’ve been missing the daily challenge of speaking a second language. And Spanish is wonderful, with that nice alphabet for easy transition between reading and speaking, and nice Latin roots for guessing.
Even my mistakes in Spanish are wonderful. When I screw up un poco and pequeno, for example, I can be told that un poco is more like a little and pequeno is more like small, instead of that zhāng is a measure word used for flat objects, except not for paper and not for things that come in a pair or come in a bunch, and actually my tone was wrong anyway and I really said monkey balls. (I’m looking at you, Chinese.)