peanut, peanut butter, jelly

27 Feb

Today I found a (relatively) nearby grocery store that carries Skippy peanut butter and white bread. And, and Coke Zero (you can buy regular Coke and Pepsi everywhere, but it’s impossible to find diet soda).

I just ate the most delicious peanut butter sandwich I have ever tasted.

It’s not so much that I’m longing for American food, it’s that I’m longing for real food. I’ve been living off of hard-boiled eggs, carrots, and ramen noodles. Cooking itself isn’t the problem–I love to cook, and I’m good at it. But grocery shopping is proving really difficult here. It’s one way I’m finding it hard to function in a country that uses a writing system that isn’t alphabetic.

Chinese characters mean nothing to me. I don’t recognize them at all, for obvious reasons; I don’t speak Mandarin, and I don’t read it or write it, either). I don’t understand how words are formed, and I can’t tell where a word starts or stops in a sentence. I certainly can’t try to sound words out the way I could with Spanish or even Swedish. I don’t speak Spanish, but if someone told me the word for soap and then set me loose in a Mexican grocery store, I would be able to walk around and recognize that word on product packaging–probably pretty quickly and without looking at a written reference more than once. (The ability to pick out a repeated word on packaging might be useful if, say, you knew where the dish soap was, and you could tell from the pictures on the bottle that it definitely was dish soap, and you knew where the bar soap was. And in your hand was a bottle of Oil of Olay brand something, and you wanted to know if it was lotion or body wash.) I don’t think that I will be in China long enough to start to feel any real recognition for characters, much less make those kinds of associations. The written language is just so different from what I’m used to that my brain doesn’t even recognize it as language.

I feel like I didn’t explain that well, but it’s the best I can do. Suffice it to say, it’s really strange. I’m totally illiterate in a way that I’ve never been before, even in foreign countries.

This makes the grocery store really baffling. I can’t easily identify anything except the vegetables. I bought a huge jug of something I thought was apple juice the other day, and it turned out to be some sort of cooking oil (corn, I think? or peanut). I now have 7 liters of oil. 7 liters–just think about how much oil that is. The only picture on the label was of some leaves–I thought it was an apple tree, but I guess not!

On a different note, I think that my spoken English is changing a bit. Barring the occasional phone call home, I only ever talk with non-native English speakers. I don’t have to remind myself to speak slowly anymore, I’ve gotten in the groove of enunciating and slowing down. I find myself copying the vocabulary that’s commonly used by English speakers here–mostly for expediency’s sake. I almost always get a blank look when I say “a lot”, for example, so I’ve started substituting “very many”, because that seems to be the phrase of choice here. People know what I mean without my having to elaborate, and in casual conversation, that’s easier.

In some ways, I also think my English is becoming more precise and more varied. I’d never before noticed how often I describe things as “nice”, but I do it all the time, and it also elicits blank looks from my foreign friends. I’m pretty sure that they all know the word “nice”, but in America we use it in a lot of contexts where it’s meaning is implied and very generic. Basically, I use “nice” to mean whatever generic positive qualities are most appropriate for whatever I’m modifying with “nice”.

If I say that someone’s apartment is nice, I mean that it’s structurally suitable or well-maintained. If I say a person seemed nice I mean that they were kind, or maybe friendly. If I say that a gift was nice, I mean that it was thoughtful or attractive.

It’s an insipid word, when you think about it.

When I want to make my meaning clear, it’s easier to be more specific in the first place than it is to explain. Instead of being “nice”, dinner is enjoyable, people are welcoming, China is beautiful and fun.

And this Coke Zero is delicious.

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3 Responses to “peanut, peanut butter, jelly”

  1. Kathy March 1, 2011 at 6:07 am #

    Erin,
    Glad you found peanut butter, sounds like you have some oil to do some stir frying of fresh vegetables. Work on having cooking/shopping lessons with a Chinese teacher on Saturday mornings.
    Mom

  2. Cynthia March 3, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    Hi Erin,
    You’ll understand that peanut butter was the number one requested item that my son wanted us to bring to Chile after he had been in Argentina and Chile for 9 months. Nothing else quite hits the spot. Cynthia

    • Erin March 3, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

      Yes, I totally understand why your son requested it. I don’t even eat that much peanut butter back home (anymore…I certainly did as a child)! But peanut butter is so strongly tied to being a kid in America…it’s very familiar and comforting. Yum!

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