At some point during my language training last summer I learned how to say "a pair of chopsticks" (一双筷子）。 This short phrase opened doors for me. A spoon would look up at me with its hideous, concave face and say, "That's right, they don't think you can use chopsticks."
The phrase is known in most circles as a "double-whammy," proving not only that I can use the chopsticks, but speak Chinese to request them as well. I was unstoppable for awhile, laying low the loudest and most aggressive waiters and waitresses until they succumbed to my invincibility. Handing over the chopsticks they would give me a defeated look that seemed to say, "touché foreigner, touché."
One day everything fell apart. It was a previous haunt and they brought me chopsticks at the beginning of the meal because they respected my weird genius powers of using chopsticks and speaking a key Chinese phrase. In my arrogance I was careless, and a single chopstick fell to the floor. Everyone heard it: people around me, the waiter, the manager, and probably even people across the street. I could imagine all of my previous battles slipping through my hands. "服务员！“ I shouted, and the waiter sauntered over like some predator seeing an easy kill. "一双筷子?” I said uncertainly, hoping to gloss over the fact that I did not know the phrase for "one chopstick." He hit me with something that could have been, "I knew this day would come, finally I can taste victory," but was probably, "do you need a pair or just one?" Either way, the connotation was the same. I had lost, and I limped back to my language class to find out how to say "one chopstick" (一支筷子). But not before buying a consolation ice-cream.
These days I'm beyond the need for picking battles to get this confirmation. Or am I? Sometimes, I must admit, I go too far. In my attempt to compensate for an ocean of ignorance I've been known to say, "I'll take the pineapple chuck on the chopstick," when the simple "Pineapple, please," would suffice. see picture below.
The tenuous connection to the fruit stands around the college is not enough for a meaningful transition, but I'm going there anyway.
In America I never had the luxury of coming home at 10 p.m. and buying 5 bananas, 4 oranges, and 2 chunks of said pineapple (each on the end of one chopstick) for 1 dollar. This is truly a luxury reserved for China and despite the protest, "We have 24 hour grocery stores," I still doubt that there is one only 1 minute from your home.
I talked about all of this because I like imagery. I want you to get a good picture of me walking home late, bag of fruits in hand, waving hello to students as I walk up the hill to my apartment. Once in awhile, when a student performs the culturally acceptable ritual of asking what's in the bag, I proudly show them the two, single chopstick pineapple chunks. 一支筷子.
My constant, stumbling circumlocutions are often dubbed as "废话“ which is either "waste words" or "garbage speech," depending on the mood you're in, although I'm sure there are some snobby linguists who will argue that it means "superfluous words." I don't like snobby linguists.
I'll be rambling along and from the listener(s) comes a "废话," or connotative, "Get to the point!" To which I might respond, "anyway, so that's how I like my coffee" (black).
Most of the time people are forgiving enough to politely ignore what I'm saying and wait for their turn to speak. Usually what gives this away is that they continue to grunt confirmations to my barely intelligible speech while they continue working on the broken internet box at the bottom of my stairwell. This is the point that I wonder why I have stopped to talk with this person in the first place when my specialized internet vocabulary is limited to the two words: "website" and "download". Luckily I have not yet engaged the interest of these random people with whom I speak, and even luckier still, I have not needed to explain to someone that I need to upload pictures or music or anything else.
Basically, the Chinese language always seems to be just over my head. I get by and continue studying, but once in awhile I still try the old trick of saying a single English word at a higher volume (no translator required!). Hand gestures still get me pretty far. Once, in a Chinese grocery store, using entirely hand signals, I was led directly to the nunchuks. Now that's communication.