As some of you know, my job situation right now is a good, but slightly chaotic one. I freelance write and edit, teach at two universities (George Mason University in Virginia and George Washington University in DC) and for a college prep academy, and tutor both privately and for a GMU-based language service. I’ve been tutoring longer than I’ve been teaching, and while intensity of one-on-one sessions can be exhausting, overall I really dig it. This semester, I’m tutoring four students pretty consistently. All are English as a Second Language (ESL), and all are really smart, motivated students who show up not only ready to work and learn, but also prepared to discuss the week’s language and writing issues in a very well thought out manner. (Just in case the breakdown is interesting, I have one student from Palestine, one from Taiwan, and two from China.)
The best thing about teaching ESL students, as anyone who has done it can attest, is that just as the student learns, so does the tutor. The difference, of course, is that as a tutor I don’t have to worry about conjugating verbs or parallel structures; I simply get to hear about other cultures. This week, one of my Chinese students–a brilliant business major in her junior year–arrived to our session armed with a new, fairly intimidating final project prompt. Although the professor had given my student and her classmates a detailed explanation of what was required, I’ll summarize it here:
Find a product from overseas that is not currently offered in the United States, and write a memo to your boss about why your company should begin importing and selling the product. Explore how the product is marketed overseas and how consumers view the brand, and explain why you think the product would be a hit in the U.S. In addition, conceptualize a commercial for the product that could be shown during the Super Bowl to introduce viewers for the first time to this product.
This sounds like a fairly interesting project (more interesting, at least, than the accounting summaries we’d been working on for the several weeks prior), but my student was clearly anxious. Part of her anxiety stemmed from the fact that this would be worth a significant portion of her grade and her language issues cause her a lot of stress, but more than that, she said, she was doubting her choice of product. She had already submitted her product, and it was approved, and so now she was stuck writing about this particular Chinese food item that she suggested that her fake company should import.
“It’s a Chinese fruit,” she told me. “It’s dried jujube. The company sells them in little packs you can put in your pocket. Very tasty. Very healthy.”
“Awesome,” I said.
“They are shaped like little footballs, and so I have an idea for the Super Bowl commercial in which one friend can throw one across a field into the mouth of another friend.”
“Oh!” I told her, “I love that.”
“And maybe,” she said, “since everybody eats unhealthy food during the Super Bowl, the commercial can talk about how, after the football game, they should buy this healthy food.”
She looked at me for confirmation.
“Totally! That’s great. What else?” I asked.
“People in China give them to one another, like as a little gift, to friends or maybe to a boyfriend or girlfriend. They’re sweet.”
“Well, that sounds interesting,” I said. “What are they called?”
“The translation is kind of strange. The name translates to ‘I miss you.’ Or, really, I guess it translates to ‘miss you.'”
“‘Miss you’? Hmm. That’s funny,” I said.
“I know, and I wonder if the name will be sufficient here.”
I asked my student when she meant by “sufficient” and she told me that the name makes sense in China, but not necessarily in the U.S., and she worried that no one here would buy the snacks here because, one, they’d never heard of them, and 2, the name is weird.
“It is kind of weird, although I like it,” I told her. “But I’m not sure I totally *get* it. Why is it called ‘miss you?’ Why would that make sense at home?”
“Well,” she said, “I mentioned that the small packs can be given as a little gift, remember? And, as you may know, China is not like America.”
“Yeah,” I said, and we both giggled. This student, although she has been in the U.S. for several years, talks almost exclusively about how different China is than America, which is one of the things I find particularly endearing about her. It’s not that one culture is negative and other is positive; it’s simply that she misses home, and nothing here feels like she expects it to. Different, rather than better or worse.
“We are not really affectionate,” she said. “Not emotional. For instance, my parents would never tell me that they love me. But your parents probably do, right?”
I recalled my mother kissing me on the cheek six times and trying to hug me around the waist as I awkwardly carried my huge suitcase to the car as I headed home after my last weekend visit.
“My parents do love me, too,” she said, “but I have never heard them say it. My friends at home do not say that they miss me, but they do. However, in school, we would exchange these dried fruits. Someone would give a package of them to a friend, to someone they care about.”
I shook my head, lounging in the cultural chauvinism that was mine in that moment. How strange, I thought. Fascinating and weird. I am so thrilled, I said to myself, that I live a society that allows me to be open with my feelings.
But then I remembered all of the Pez dispensers. Last week I was at Target and I saw them. They were Easter themed. Bunnies. Ducks. And walking around the bright, clean store, I thought about a handful of people I love. I pictured these people and how I never seem to have time to have lunch with them or a drink after work and how awkward it would be to send them an email or say into the phone that I love them and that even though I’m not around them as much as I’d like to be, I think about them. I think about them, and I miss them. And so instead of opening up about my feelings, I bought five Easter-themed Pez dispensers. Because it was a nice gesture. Because Pez is sweet and delicious. Because it would make my friends feel good and loved and missed.
Of course I can’t take my one student’s word on all things Chinese any more than she can take me as a stand-in for all things American. If I could, I’d think all Chinese people everywhere were very tall and very good at English. If she could, she’d be telling everyone back home that all Americans wear black sweaters every Tuesday, bite their cuticles, and get a little too cheerleader-y as they clap when you correctly use parallel structure in a sentence. But just the same, all day after the conversation I found myself thinking about these ideas. Showing love. Giving little gifts. The wack-o ways we do each of these. Or, at least, the ways we try to.
“The marketing will work,” I told her over email. “Don’t change the name. We need it too.”
Note: I was digging around for a picture of the “miss you” treats, and all I could find was this (pretty sketchy) link, but still, I think it’s worth looking at: http://www.diytrade.com/china/pd/2912886/Red_jujube.html. In this link the brand is translated to “very miss you,” which sounds less cute, to me, than simply calling it “miss you.”