Sunday, October 01, 2006

Over a Cortado

Wonderful spring weather is truly upon us; Guillermo and I have seized the opportunity to go for long walks under the bright blue sky which inevitably lead us into a cafe. Porteños love their cafes; they can take their time to read, to chat. Few waiters would mind even if their patrons linger for hours over just a cortado (coffee "cut" with milk).

Guillermo usually set out from home well prepared with reading materials; mostly academic publications and more recently, his Chinese course notes and homework.

Although I have reassured my husband many times over that hardly any western expat in Hong Kong or Singapore speaks the local tongue and very few find it necessary to learn, he has persevered thus far. I suspect for him, it is more about the cerebral challenge than ever being able to speak Mandarin fluently.

He has been going to Chino for about a month now (16 hours more or less). He has braved through the phonetics and is now building a vocabulary. The teacher is a very nice Taiwanese lady who teaches Mandarin to local Chinese kids. She uses the same materials for her adult classes and often tells her mature students dotingly they are like her 5 year olds in school.

Since starting this course, Guillermo has used more than a few colouring pencils. His first words in Mandarin were little dog, little cat, and flower. Since then, he has learned to say "Mama loves me and Papa loves me". His cute rendition of "my sister loves to sing and dance, my brother likes to blow the trumpet" had me in stitches. To me, he sounded rather adorable but he was not amused by where his course seemed to be heading.

He is a hard working student; he does his homework and practises with me for 30 minutes every other day. This week he seemed a lot more interested, at practice, because the class had moved on to days, weeks, years and counted from 1 to a billion. He also learned a few opposites such as tall, short, fat and thin. The most "exciting" part because it is also the most relevant to him, however, is the familial terms.

Since his last class, Guillermo has finally realised why questions like "Is your sibling younger or older?" or "Is she your paternal/ maternal grandmother?" never come up in Chinese conversations. Each person is addressed differently; each term differentiates whether the person is older or younger (in case of siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins) and a paternal or maternal relation (in case of grandparents and all relatives, including in-laws).

As long as he is having fun, I support him 100% but if he wants to give up at any point, I would fully understand. He remembers the words well but struggles to pronounce them in the right tone, at the right pitch; Asian languages being all tonal he could end up insulting someone with words he thought completely innocent.

His valiant effort has not only won my admiration but gone down a treat with my parents and grandmother. None of them care a jot if Guillermo couldn't utter a word in Mandarin or Cantonese but they appreciate this lovely gesture on his part. He is quite the apple in my mother's eyes; I can already picture all of them spoiling him rotten when we get home to Sydney this summer.

Meanwhile, I am showing my appreciation of his heroic effort in taking care of me the past couple of weeks. Spring has brought a fresh crop of basil; I made some yummy pesto with my stash of pine nuts from Waitrose to go with pasta. With our newly acquired gas stove, I prepared a gnoochi dish he adores. We enjoyed our first home cook dinner, since a while back, with a good bottle of red and finished with some gorgeous strawberries macerated in Marsala as pudding.
We sometimes take for granted a plain meal cooked at home; our energy crisis, if nothing else, has definitely reminded us the joy of simple pleasures.

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