Today’s English Lesson

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“We’ll catch a cab,” Mark announced as he stepped toward the curb and extended his hand.


We’d been in Taiwan about three weeks and although our Mandarin language skills had the finesse of a plate of sweet and sour pork, we could say our address. If that two syllable word was misunderstood, we could always hand over the Chinese directions that were tucked away in our wallets.


As the compact taxi swerved to pick us up, Mark helped get our two preschoolers in the backseat with me before wedging his six-foot frame next to the driver. This would be one of many trips where the proximity of the dashboard kept his knees on his chest.


“Tai Da,” Mark quipped as the driver smiled broadly and started the meter.


As we maneuvered between two city buses, the open windows of the cab channeled carbon monoxide directly into our lungs. Although we would never quite understand the concept, we had learned that the Chinese have an affinity for fresh air, even if it is only a figment of their imagination. So, as I gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to our youngest, Mark repeated the second valuable Chinese phrase we had learned.


“Kai lung chi.”


Now although these three magic words literally translate “open cold air” (turn on the A/C), we found that it also did a remarkable job with getting a driver to actually close the windows.


Just so you know, cold air isn’t the only thing that you can open in China. You can open lights in your house and open coal out of the ground. You can open a joke and even your own appetite. “Kai” can get just about anything started.


But, back to taxis. When we arrived in 1988, the newer ones all had knobby seat covers made from wooden beads about the size of olives. Their purpose was to give you a tension-free ride, but somehow going at mach speed in and out of motorcycles, bicycles and buses seemed to decreased the comfort of the seat covers. Yet, as I took a deep breath of the filtered air, I decided I wasn’t going to hyperventilate after all.


The girls were fascinated by the little cat figurine on the front dash. With every near-miss and pothole, the cat’s upraised paw rocked up and down, supposedly inviting good fortune for all its passengers. Although I realize this is a very auspicious symbol, it reminded me of the thirsty chicken that my dad once brought home from a trip to Tucumcari. I suppose the Chinese preferred cats since a chicken’s glass of water might easily spill in Taipei traffic.


It was about this time that the driver caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. With a kind nod of the head, he motioned to the radio, letting me know that he was changing the channel just for us.


At first, it sounded no different to me than any other Taiwanese talk radio, since every other word rhymed with either wang or kong. Yet, as our driver continued exchanging happy eye-brow lifts with me in the mirror, I did suddenly notice the radio announcer use three English words in a thick Chinese accent.


“Today Engrish Resson.”


In union, our entire family leaned forward toward the broadcast.
As we strained our ears to hear the phrase for the day, we realized that a lot of explanation evidently went into doing one of these programs. With the comprehension of chopsticks, we muddled through another few minutes until we heard the day’s English question.


“How ees yours bowels move-ment?”


Shocked, I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Surely, this couldn’t be the special question they felt all Chinese needed before traveling abroad. Yet, there is was again, rapid-fire, giving emphasis on a different syllable each time.


“HOW ees yours bowels move-ment?”


“How EES yours bowels move-ment?”


“How ees YOURS bowels move-ment?”


“How ees yours BOWELS move-ment?”


“How ees yours bowels MOVE-ment?”


“How ees yours bowels move-MENT?”


Somewhere between the bowels and their activity, I lost it. Not, my lunch you understand, but my composure.


I began laughing unreservedly from the back seat, as I pictured Taiwanese men in three-piece suits asking this question at power lunches all across America.


In the meantime, Mark tried desperately to remain culturally sensitive from the front seat. This was evidenced by the rigidity of his posture and the way he kept clearing his throat away from his knees.


As the Mandarin explanation resumed, I noticed that the taxi driver was focusing more on me in his rear view mirror than the blue bread truck on our bumper. I decided for the sake of our safety and my own sanity, I needed desperately to calm down.


Taking deep breaths, I had just about regained my cool when we all realized that the English lesson was not yet over.


“I am con-stee-pated.”


As the inevitable repetition began, four-year-old Hannah doubled me over with her own question.


“Mommy, what does constipated mean?”