I’m Sorry. But I Don’t Speak Curmudgeon
I had a difficult time deciding on whether to post this article or not. One reason is that some of you know personally who I’m talking about in my article. I had to weigh the pros and cons; the pros being that writing this article would be therapeutic for me and perhaps beneficial for those like me who have lived in a foreign country and the cons would be I would be alienating some of my friends.
In the end I decided it should be posted mainly because many of my friends who have never lived abroad don’t know what it’s like to be language deficient in your mother tongue. After living abroad for so long I have become deficient in English that there are some words or phrases I have not heard of.
But what I lack in English I make up for it in Chinese. After all, I do speak some Chinese and can read basic Chinese characters.
Chinese landlords have tenants sign a contract and ask for several months rent in advance. Of course negotiations and contracts are in Chinese. Sometimes I have a Chinese colleague translate for me, and sometimes not.
The times I didn’t have a translator were times when my Chinese improved. I had no crutch. I had to go it alone. I couldn’t read most of the contract. But I knew enough characters to be able to read some of the amenities included in the apartment.
电视. Dianshi. T.V. 桌子. Zhuozi. Table. 椅子. Yizi. Chairs. 沙发. Shafa. Sofa.
Most likely we would be signing the contract inside the apartment I’m hoping to reside in. I can look at the contract and see if the amenities are actually in the apartment. I know what I am getting and everything is in writing and is crystal clear even though we are negotiating in Chinese.
Recently I was evicted by an elderly couple who hired me to house sit. Before they left for the mainland, they showed me around their house and told me what they wanted done.
“You can pull weeds. We’ll pay you,” they’d say before adding “that is, if you want to.”
“Yeah. Sure. No problem,” I agreed.
“But minimal weeding,” they added.
After they left I started weeding. By my definition “minimal” meant twice a week for half an hour each time. At the end of the month I would send them a bill.
I had no idea that if you want to and minimal weeding meant weed once a month for half an hour ONLY.
“Why are you spending four hours weeding?” they asked in an e-mail.
Okay I thought. If this couple could see what I see, then perhaps they would understand why I’m spending four hours in their garden.
Unfortunately this couple lives on the wet side of town where it rains at least once a week. Their yard is divided into three areas; a waterfall with a flower bed, a grassy yard, and a lava garden with a walkway. They asked me to water the flower bed and the lava garden at least once a week for a half hour unless it rains.
It has been raining a lot. I’ve only watered twice. The good Lord has been doing that portion of my job quite well. He’s also sent several storms, including Tropical Storms Madeline and Lester just in this last month. So the lilies, the agapanthus, the mac nut tree, and ti leaves are thriving.
But so are the weeds. They are not just thriving but they are also growing in abundance and also in height. When I left some of them were as tall as me. I look out the window at the jungle growing in the couple’s backyard and I’m reading their messages and thinking there is no way in hell that this yard can be controlled with only a half hour of weeding.
“If you can’t do it, ask Tara. She weeded for us and blah, blah, blah got it right the first time.”
Why should I ask you neighbor? Why should I ask her for translation of what you are asking me to do? Did Tara have to deal with tropical storms and hurricanes? Don’t you speak English? Because I don’t speak curmudgeon.
It gets worse.
There were two feral rabbits in the neighborhood. The couple enjoyed having them around in their yard. They told me that these rabbits were not theirs but they enjoyed their company.
But these rabbits were considered pests and a neighbor above the couple’s home called the invasive species control because the female rabbit gave birth to a clutch of babies beneath their home. The invasive species team did capture the bunnies and took them away. When I reported to the couple that the rabbits were gone I said, “Your friendly neighborhood rabbits have been captured.”
“I told you that they are NOT our rabbits,” the curmudgeon couple replied in an e-mail.
Our communications continued to deteriorate over the months. At one point they even used my China experience – something I hold dear to my heart and that I’m very proud of – against me to bolster their side of our dispute.
“You are an educated woman with overseas experience. You should know better and have better communication skills.”
I was shocked. I felt as if they had shoved their hands into my chest and ripped out my heart. I had nothing nice to say. I would have liked to stop e-mailing them. It got to a point where I feared sending them the monthly bill or any message of any kind. But since something was bound to go wrong in their home I would eventually have to report it but in a way that would be short and to the point.
“Your messages are so cryptic. I don’t understand. Please explain!” they wrote.
I thought about writing an e-mail entirely in Chinese to make my point which was you don’t know cryptic until you’ve lived abroad in a culture where they don’t speak English. However, I didn’t send such a message. I didn’t want to give them any reason to fire me.
I’m sorry. But I don’t speak curmudgeon.
The last favor I had to do was to trim the couple’s overgrown poinsettias to eight inches above the stump. I’m not a gardener. I don’t know all of my plant species. I certainly did not know that there are different species of poinsettias. I only know what Christmas poinsettias look like; red petals with green leaves. In order to describe what I had cut I had to use another word.
“I trimmed you hedges to eight inches above the stump,” I wrote in an e-mail.
“What did you trim?” was the reply. “I hope you did not trim the willow bush. That should NOT be cut!”
Oh my God! I thought. Do I have to speak curmudgeon? I thought as I struggled to keep my own inner grouch in check. They are turning into Mr. and Mrs. Oscar the Grouch!
“I would never think of poinsettias as hedges,” was the curmudgeonly reply.
Why am I having so much difficulty communicating with these curmudgeons? I find it ironic that I had an easier time communicating with Chinese landlords and had no problems with them despite the language and cultural barriers. With this couple it’s not even a matter of toh-MAY-toh verses toh-MAH-toh. It’s more like football versus soccer. We can’t understand each other even though we share the same language and culture.
I’m sorry. But I don’t speak curmudgeon.
After I got the eviction notice I had to do some major soul searching. I first started questioning myself. What did I do wrong? I weeded when I wanted to. I ran their cars as asked I took care of their mail as requested. I did nothing wrong. It also helped to get an outsider’s perspective. I shared with friends my current situation. Some of them have either house sat or have done favors for this couple and they have shared their horror stories with me. They all said the same thing.
“Jada, you did nothing wrong. It’s not about you. It’s about them.”
Come to think of it, I remember a few of this couple’s e-mails saying “this bill has been the most difficult for us” or “it has been very difficult for us”.
Perhaps my friends are on to something. It really isn’t about me. It’s all about this curmudgeon couple.
In the end I ended the friendship – or at least what was left of it. There is a saying; choose your friends carefully. By ending this friendship I am doing just that; choosing my friends carefully. I now try to find people whom I have common interests in apart from going to the same church and living in the same town. I now pick friends who think of others and put the needs of others above themselves. I choose friends who cherish the fact that I have lived another life in China and do not take low blows at me. I cherish friends that tolerate my language deficiencies that come with living abroad. They may not understand me. But at least they don’t say that my messages are cryptic.