(Featured Image: author at far left, Buck, Mike, ?, Kevin, Dave, Guy, Walter, Mac, Tm Cdr Peter A.)
I’m what they call a Polyglot, me, so I fancy… meaning I have a lot of glots. Poly means ‘many’ and glot means ‘tongue’; a man of many tongues. And you know what they say about a man who has many tongues… he can tell many more lies.
I became obsessed with the Chinese language as a young boy. I couldn’t possibly explain the feeling. It was just so mysterious and difficult. At the time I thought that learning the Chinese language had to be the most difficult feat in the (known) universe. To this day I still believe that no two Chinese people are ever perfectly certain just what the other is talking about.
At my high school, a science teacher had lived in Beijing for a time, and he offered Chinese language to our curriculum, more as a joke than anything else, knowing nobody would sign up for it. He was wrong. One young punk signed up. “We can’t run a class with just one student; we need five.” He told me.
“I don’t even have five friends” I thought. It was going to be tough to even get into the toughest class in school. At home that evening I mentioned to my mother that I wanted to take Chinese. “No,” she told me—WTF… come again?? “You’ll fail it because it’s too hard and then you will end up in summer school, and I’m not going through that.”
Ok every book, every brochure, every pamphlet, every movie, every scientific endeavor that ever delved into the psychological enigma of parenting will tell you that THAT… is a bad parenting technique to instill confidence in your child. What the fuck ma? Maybe you’d be more fulfilled if I became a gay pedophile crack addict, or a democrat… or went into the Navy, yeah the Navy! Where’ your messiah now, ma?
So I did what any self-loathing young punk would do at the sound of “no”… I went to the library and checked out a thick book on Elementary Mandarin Chinese (Wade Giles). For the entire summer I sat daily at the kitchen table and studied a chapter a day. My mother, probably feeling a bit guilty over her brash lack of support, and seeing me study so hard, bought me a Chinese language course on record… so now I could hear the sounds.
“Wow, you really are dead set on learning that language, huh?”
“Well knock me over with a feather… who would have thought you really meant it?”
“Is that all, mother?”
“Yes well… I’ll just leave you alone now… to, you know… study.”
As it happened a classmate of mine was planning to leave school and the state. He had been working as a busboy in the only Chinese restaurant in Chandler Arizona. He saw me scribbling Chinese words one day in shop class, and he offered me his job at the restaurant. A job… near Chinese people… are you kidding?
I was in. There I sat in the kitchen at the dish washing station in my apron. I didn’t look at all like a bad dude to the Chinese cooks, who sat on plastic buckets looking me over and sounding like a spilled cabinet of cookware when they talked about me in front of my back. I’ll show them who is who in this kitchen. But… I’ll be polite about it ‘cause they all probably know Kung Fu, right?
My boss was the only one that spoke English and Cantonese, the dialect of Hong Kong. The other cooks spoke neither, opting for the rare backwoods dialect of Hoy San, a dialect I never came to learn.
“Hey Kim, how to you say ‘wok’ in Chinese?” trying to learn a chapter of ‘Things You Find in a Kitchen.’
“Goddamnit boy, its ‘wok’” Now stop bothering me. So this was their game; they weren’t going to take me seriously. Yes, I have heard that such men exist; now I am certain they do.
“Kim, how do you say table, you know like, a table and chair?”
“Goddamn shit, boy!” …and yes, that is how they really talked to me. I thought of presenting my time out card to him, but he would just roll dog meat up with it and make another eggroll.
So I did what any normal self-loathing punk would do at the sound of “no”… I went to Seattle’s China Town, found a book store, and bought an elementary book on Hong Kong Cantonese.
So now I chased my boss around the kitchen with my book:
And so then I would follow my boss Kim around the kitchen:
“Hey Kim, nay hui bin do a? Nai tso mat ye, sin sang nay ho ma?”
Kim would eventually twirl around with a look on his face like I just raped his grandmother: “Goddamnit boy, stop making those ridiculous sounds!” Wow, that was a fine how do you do. I have to say I was discouraged.
“Look at the goddamn dishes boy!”
“Yeah ok… so, why am I looking at the dishes then?”
“Goddamnit because I want you to see that they are not washing themselves!”
A Chinese kitchen is no place for a baak gui, a white devil, as they referred to us whities.
One of the cooks, Ah-Shek, was very old, had insane gout and diabetes, and couldn’t walk the three-ish blocks from the shack that Kim bought for the illegal cooks that he had flown from Hong Kong to work in his restaurant. Kim had to buy him a car, so he bought him an ancient Chevrolet that me and the other white workers drooled over.
He only drove it two or three blocks a day, to and from work, so the battery would die frequently. “We got your back, Ah-Shek; we’ll get that baby back in ship-shape! With that we would jump it with one of our jalopies and hit the boulevard, yeah bro!
We would cruise by as many friends’ houses as possible, soaking up as much attention as we could in about the forty five minutes we thought we could be gone from work. We would honk at all the chicks who typically wouldn’t give us the time of day, and perhaps stop.
“Hello there Becky; what up in your world?”
“Oh, hey… nice car. So, do you like… stuff?”
“Sorry, can’t stay; got a heavy itinerary this afternoon.” and we would speed away, swerving to miss a dead dog in the road.
“Say, that reminds me… we better get back to work!” and off we would go.
So basically my one chance to learn Chinese just told me to fuck off. Maybe the whole world is right, and I’m wrong. What’s left then, brain surgeon? My sail lost its gust.
And then it happened.
The back door buzzer rang out and I, being the boy, answered it to two police officers wanting to talk to the owner of restaurant about some recent car break-ins in his lot. I headed to the kitchen, and as I was accustomed to doing, I formulated my hack Chinese version of the sentence ‘Hey Kim, the police are here’ in my head automatically as I walked:
“Ah Kim, di ging chaat lai do la.” I carelessly let the Chinese version peel out.
The boss looked at me blankly for a moment which he always does, then he took the cigarette out of his mouth, which he never does. He walked toward the back door with his cigarette in his hand looking back at me the entire time.
When he returned he walked directly to me and asked:
“George, what did you just say?”
“Huh, George who… oh me-George? What, when?”
“When you just told me the police were here.”
“You mean hey Kim the police are here?”
“Yeah, no… but in Cantonese; say it again in Cantonese…”
I repeated it again in what my wild teacherless interpretation of the tonal accents might be.
Kim corrected me, each word, in the best way he could explain it to me: “No George, when you say the word ‘lai’ you say it with a falling musical sound, like you are sighing. When you say ‘ging’, you raise the tone like you are asking a question. And so it went.
I was no longer ‘Goddamn shit, boy.’ I had become George of the kitchen. I was untouchable with a Midas touch. I was a trophy. As each family, relative, or friend came into the kitchen to visit, they got steered my way:
“Go ahead, George… go ahead and say something.”
“Nay guai gam che daai pow ge la… nay laan yan daw si niu.” Meaning: “You’re a damned liar, lazy man, always pretending to be in the restroom to avoid work.” All for which I was graciously awarded goofy smiles and tepid golf clap.
“Yes well… we need to watch what we say to George from now on, ok?”
I had become Sideshow George. I accepted that, as any self-loathing punk would.
So then every night after work I would go into the front room behind the cashier where Kim sat counting the money and doing the books, TV blaring, cigarette ashes falling. Kim smoked at a blistering rate. His hands were always busy so he never took his cigarette out of the right corner of his mouth. Even when he wasn’t actually sucking one, he had a fresh cigarette in the right corner socket of his mouth, such that when there was no cigarette in his mouth, he still had a divot there where the cigarette goes.
He let his ash grow impossibly long and tenuous. I would stare at the ashen log precariously perched on the end of his cigarette and, divine the moment that it would inevitably crag under its mass and plummet into the food he was preparing.
To his favor, I can say that I witnessed an ash avalanche break away and fall into a vat of egg roll mix. Kim was sure nobody had seen it. He got a spoon and dug the ash out, along with a couple of inches of mix completely around the ash spill, and threw it out.
Nightly I sat behind Kim reading out loud from my Hong Kong reader as he watched TV, punched the calculator, and smoked. Just as I though he couldn’t possibly be paying any attention to me, he would pause my reading with an upheld hand, and have me repeat and/or make corrections. I worked there like that for five years running.
Upon leaving the restaurant I entered the military.
More to follow,