There are days when the communication difficulties of life in a foreign country will grind on your very last nerve. You might be sitting in the vet’s office with a sick cat. You might be sitting in the Chinese hospital with your husband and his broken leg. Maybe you’re trying to watch the opening monologue of the Oscars, but the internet service won’t cooperate. Or you might be trying to buy a pineapple.
I am at the fruit stand. Once again, I have forgotten the word for pineapple. At this moment, I could have told you the words for army, navy, marines, medical test, asshole. But pineapple … gone. It should be easy though. Right? Just point and tell them I want one. Yeah. And so it begins.
The foreigner pointing at the pineapple and asking for one starts a philosophical discussion about a pineapple’s role in the universe, how pineapples came to be, and their future role in world peace. I mean, why else would someone have to use so many syllables to respond to your pineapple purchase request? They are delicious, but do they warrant a 5 minute diatribe in an increasingly loud and attention-gathering tone?
It is this moment when an important Chinese phrase comes into play, “keyi ma?” “Can I?” I repeat my request and point, “I would like to buy one. Can I?” Response: “Can.” Me: “OK, how much?” It doesn’t end here though. The fruit seller proceeds to continue her attempts at conversation. Since I am unresponsive, she engages anyone around her to laughingly discuss the laowai’s acquisition.
My husband has this phrase he likes to use among expats: Nothing is ever so simple as the day you arrive back in your home country. For months or years, you adjust to a less simple life, where used-to-be-easy things become difficult. When 100 people staring at you is the norm. When your cat is dying and you’re laughed at for not understanding what the latest injection is. When you give up trying to understand or be understood because you just don’t have the energy or you’ve already given one too many fucks that day. Sometimes, I just decide I don’t want the damn pineapple. I’ll live to buy fruit another day.
Note: For the advice givers out there in the world who may feel the need to make suggestions on how to buy pineapple or other fruits in a foreign country, or if you want to shed light on what the fruit seller may have been trying to say, don’t. Just don’t.