By Gary Barbour

drying clothes

(Reposted from Collecting Sparrows)

Whenever Jonathan calls his family, I feel like World War III is being fought in my kitchen. He shouts, gestures furiously, and shouts some more. Chinese is considered a beautiful and poetic language, but coming from his mouth, it sounds like gunshots.

These calls are never more than five minutes. They start and end just as rapidly, unless his mother calls. Then I hear an endless string of “Ah, ah, ah, uh-huh” before the shouting starts again, followed by an abrupt “bye bye”. Unless he laughs, I might begin to worry that someone has said something terrible and the family order will completely break down.

The call finished, the phone on the table, he’ll rejoin me on the couch where I’ve been watching in rapt attention. He doesn’t say anything when the calls are over. There is no news, nothing to pass along, no end of the world doomsday message.

“Is everything all right?” I ask.

“Yeah, my brother’s buying a car.” There is no anger, no judgment, only a statement of fact. He presses play and we continue American Horror Story as though nothing happened.

But I’m not finished interrogating him, so after a few minutes, I press pause. “So, why were you yelling?”

The first few times, he seemed genuinely confused. Now, he replies, “I wasn’t yelling. He asked me to cosign the loan. I told him I’d think about it.”

This conversation has played out in my living room dozens of times and each time the answer is the same.

“We were talking about Chinese New Year. I have to buy lanterns.”

“My mom is working in Singapore. She’s taking care of newborn babies.”

I asked why they all yell, and Jonathan attributes it to the layout of Chinese houses which are long rectangles rather than squat squares. His house begins in the living room, then a long hallway with three bedrooms, and culminates in the kitchen and bathroom. This stymied my American brain because it seemed counterintuitive. How are you supposed to watch TV during dinner if the kitchen is so far from the living room?

Growing up, Jonathan’s mother was often in the kitchen, and the kids were at the other side of the house. Since no one wanted to walk from one end to the other, they shouted. I’ve seen firsthand how this works and it is glorious and terrifying.

The first time, I said “You’re in deep shit…” To which he replied, “She wants help with dinner.”

I’m sure if I understood more Hokkien, I’d catch the gist and realize that no one is, in fact, in deep shit. However, my Chinese education has progressed rather slowly. I tend to learn words by accident and clever deduction. Once in a while, Jonathan will sit me down to learn words, countries, colors, numbers.

But, the majority of my education has come from name calling. So far, I’ve learned Fatty, Stupid, Wife, Husband, Pervert, Big Wife, Little Wife, My Wife, My Pervert, My Fatty.

Doing dishes and being sweet? Babe.

Forgot to turn off the hot water switch? Stupid.

Sitting on the couch? Fatty.

Sitting on the couch, sharing food? My Fatty.

Helping pick out an interview suit? Husband.

Cleaning the bathroom? Wife.

Cleaning the bathroom while he sits on the couch? Second Wife.

Raising the toilet brush like a club? First Wife.

Sometimes I’ll pick up a little grammar. After hearing “I love you” and “I’m very good,” I learned to say “You are my fatty pervert.”

None of these are words or phrases that I can use in the real world.

Someday, I’ll pick up enough Hokkien to have a screaming match with Jonathan. We’ll shout sweet nothings at each other from opposite sides of the house, crafting lengthy screeds of loving insults, promoting and demoting each other, then I’ll ask him to cosign my car loan.


Gary teaches English to Middle Eastern students at an American school in Malaysia. Read about the convergence  of this cultural mishmash on his blog, Collecting Sparrows.


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