Text and Subtext

George Bernard Shaw pointed out that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

“Are there any cute boys in your class?” I asked my daughter, Abby.
“They’re freaks, mom.”
“Are there any cute freaks?”
“They brought a toaster to homeroom. There’s a piece of burnt toast still in there. I can smell it—and a fly, I can hear it buzzing.”

Translation: I’ll tell my cousin I like boys, but there’s no way I’ll admit it to my mom.

I kissed my son Chase’s head on his way to school.
“Don’t kiss my hair, mom. It’s got China water on it. You could die.”

Translation: Three weeks ago I would have walked the world with my hair pointing to the North Star, but I’ve suddenly realized that girls are looking. Don’t mess up my do.

Then, of course, there’s Porter who has no filter.
“Mom, I can smell your perfume.”
“Well, thank—“
“And by that I mean really stinky perfume.”

The irony being that his eyes fill with tears when he thinks he’s hurt my feelings.

In spoken form Mandarin Chinese is tremendously vague. “He” and “she” are both a unisex “ta,” and a sound like “shi” can be fifty or more unrelated words, each denoted by a distinct written character. Meaning is somewhat blurred at best and heavily dependent on tone and context. For a foreigner it means that many people won’t even try to understand you, and many others will fill in the blanks to suit themselves.

Exhibit A
“We need a rabbit hutch.”
“No problem, I can build that for you.”

That was five months ago. Clearly we should have specified what year.

Exhibit B
Unable to find a taxi in a strange city, the kids and I found ourselves in the back of a delivery van, flung from side to side on a wooden box, contemplating our own mortality as the van careened through the streets, weaving in and out of heavy traffic, the driver slapping the brakes every now and then to give the paint a chance to catch up.

He promised to get us there, our fault for not negotiating how many pieces.

Exhibit C
This morning I discovered that for five months my maid has been washing our dishes with the same grotty scrubber and without benefit of soap.

Here’s how it went down:
“Please do the dishes.”
“Shi” with a smile.
Time passed.
“Please put the dishes away.”
“Shi” with a smile.
Time passed.
“Please make sure you dry the dishes so we’re not mixing a quarter-inch of canary yellow tap water with our dinner.”
“Shi” with a smile.
Time passed and I figured the training was over. How could I forget to mention soap and water? It’s a mystery which demonstrates that I have learned nothing from the rabbit hutch or the delivery van, and which may or may not have given us plague.

Outside someone is shooting off fireworks, and I’d love to run out and ask him why, but even if he answers, I don’t know if he’ll really tell me. Abby would ask him if he brought a toaster.

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