peter cottontail

3 Mar

On Tuesday, I was sitting next to James in the back of a cab. We were heading to downtown Jiujiang between classes in order to visit the Bureau of Entrances and Exits, in whose hands the fate of my residency permit rested. In the short time I’ve been in Jiujiang, we have already visited several bureaus. I haven’t been able to determine exactly what part each office has played in allowing me to legally remain in China–I’ve only noticed that James always has to pay them. Sometimes this is all we do at a given bureau…we walk in, they look at me, and James hands them a hefty sum. Wash rinse repeat.

James has been through this process many times before, as he’s been teaching English at Jin’an Senior High School for 20 years and overseeing their foreign experts for 10 years. He visited America once, a decade ago, and he’s considered to be the expert on the USA among the permanent English staff at the school.

The study of English in China has become the study of American English, and teaching the students about American culture and customs seeps into the language lessons in a way that I think is inevitable. The students learn words like shopping mall and cubicle, and that whatever rarely means “any” anymore, but instead signifies indifference. It might be a slim glance into America, but it’s enough to paint a picture–if not of who we are, then of what we talk about. They’re fascinated by American culture, and James teaches them about this, too, diligently researching so that he can lecture on a country he’s been to once, 10 years ago.

On our way to the Bureau of Entrances and Exits, as we listened to the driver honk at everyone else on the road, James turned to me and pulled out the Senior Level 3 English Grammar textbook.

“May I ask you a question?” he said, flipping to a page near the end of the book. “It is about the Easter festival.”

I nodded.

He showed me a picture of a mall Easter bunny–a man in a cartoonish rabbit costume with his giant purple paws slung over the shoulders of two grinning boys.

“At Easter, do you visit the bunny?” he asked.

I smiled and shook my head. “I do not. But children believe that the Easter bunny comes to their house on Easter.”

“And gives them eggs as gifts?”

“It changes from family to family,” I said. “Some believe he hides eggs for them to find. Others believe he leaves them candy. And there are other variations, too.”

“The eggs brought by the rabbit are painted, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Does the rabbit paint them?”

“I don’t know.” I laughed a little bit, thinking about it.

“Are they cooked? Do you eat them?”

“They’re usually boiled. And yes, we eat them.”

“I see.” James was quiet for a moment as we passed under the ramp leading up to the long bridge that crosses the Yangtze. “And then, in the evening of Easter, you feast upon the Easter bunnies.” He said this with relish.

“What?” I thought I’d misheard him.

“You have an Easter Sunday dinner, and you eat the bunnies.”

“No,” I said. “No no no. We don’t eat the Easter bunny. In fact, many Americans don’t eat rabbit at all.”

“I think rabbit tastes good.”

I nodded, suddenly unsure if I’ve ever eaten rabbit. I have no objection to it, but it’s not like it pops up on menus or in your grocer’s freezer all the time in America. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted it, but I would. You know, as long as it’s not the Easter bunny.

We were silent for the rest of the drive. Once we had gotten out of the cab, as we climbed the steps to the door of a government building, James spoke up again.

“I believe I have misinformed my students about the Easter festival for many years,” he said quietly. “About the rabbit dinner.”

It’s an understandable misconception about a relatively minor detail, and there’s no real damage done. But James’ quiet lamentation struck me as the funniest thing I had heard in months. I had tears on my cheeks from laughing.
I had to stop and brace myself on a railing as we climbed to the fourth floor. He was laughing, too, though not as hard as I was.

I’m pretty certain he knew that I wasn’t really laughing at him, but at the absurdity of the misunderstanding. After all, I make about 50 blunders a day here, and 98% of the time James is the one who has to tactfully correct me. He was laughing when he instructed me to redo my urine sample at the Chinese hospital because I had done it wrong (I still don’t really know how), and I wasn’t offended. After all, some things are just funny.

I calmed down eventually, promised to teach the English staff how to dye Easter eggs, and that was the end of it. But today over lunch James ran back into the city to pick up the payoff from all that bureaucracy–my residency permit. The picture is truly terrible–my eyes are runny from laughing, and my cheeks and nose are bright red.

Oh, well.

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2 Responses to “peter cottontail”

  1. kjschnur March 4, 2011 at 1:55 am #

    When I was in Holland after graduation from U of M, the dutch children were all being taught English by the American TV shows. The TV show that was most popular in the bars in Amsterdam at the time, was Police Woman with Angie Dickerson. The show was in English and the subtitles in Dutch.
    Just think of how your Chinese students would be confused today if they only learned about America by watching, NCIS, and the maybe followed by Iron Chef. I miss you Erin, and I miss Mr Rogers, he could have taught culture to your students, as he used to teach us. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….

  2. Jessica March 7, 2011 at 4:48 am #

    I laughed so hard that I had to read this to Johny when he came downstairs from putting Sebastian to bed! Truly hilarious, these cultural misunderstandings. It’s nice (there’s that word!) that you and James have each other to help correct them. And laugh about it.

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