Finally my annoying habit of practicing Mandarin Chinese phrases, even as I walk around in public, has paid off. We were at the breakfast buffet at the hotel this morning and I was doing just that with Benjamin. I was asking him if he wanted a "xiang jiao" [banana]. A minute later the person running the breakfast buffet, a polite, cheerful, middle-aged woman who looked to be of another ethnicity, approached my wife, Benjamin and I and asked incredulously if I had said "xiang jiao" . I admitted I had, now embarrassed. We explained that we were trying to learn Mandarin (because we are adopting from China
) and asked if she spoke Mandarin.
We got into a nice conversation with her — in English, though: ("Wo putonghua shuo de bu hao." [I don't speak Mandarin well.] Yet.) We learned that she in fact speaks four languages (And, she had been trying to learn a fifth, Spanish, from some of her Latino colleagues when she had worked in the hotel's housekeeping department.) She is originally from Taiwan, but has family connections to the Philippines and Hawaii.
We really enjoyed asking her questions about languages, hearing about her travels and family, and seeing a photo of her cute grandchild. She appeared to like having an interchange beyond "Good Morning, Ma'am, . . . we'll be bringing out a fresh bowl of that in just a minute," etc. Further, she seemed to be delighted by engaging Benjamin to use the words and phrases he knows in Mandarin. (One of his favorites is "Wo xiang niu nai." [I would like milk.] He's a big fan of the "niu nai." )
True, our chat was serendipitous; it did not result from my initial greeting. (Two minutes before our exchange I had offered a homogenous "Hi, how are you this morning" to our acquaintance-to-be and had received a similarly everyday, friendly reply.) Nevertheless, the result highlighted the enjoyment and connection to be gained by not pretending those around us with different backgrounds or types of jobs are just wallpaper.
I guess I also found out, perhaps to the chagrin of my potentially embarrassed wife and friends, that the same gains can be sparked by wandering around mumbling in broken Chinese.