By Yan Ge. Originally featured on RTÉ Radio 1, 12th Feb 2021
Shortly after moving to Dublin, I set out on the mission to have an authentic conversation with someone. And this someone, according to our teacher, Aisling at Ace English Language Learning, could not be just anyone. It had to be a stranger, preferably good-natured and unsuspicious, and a native speaker.
The Spanish guy raised his hand. ‘My flatmate from Singapore. Can I talk to him?’
Aisling smiled. ‘I’m going to put you into pairs,’ she said. ‘This way, when you engage with a stranger, one of you can talk, and the other observe. And the next time, you switch. On Monday, I would like each of you to give me a ten-minute presentation on who your partner talked to and what their conversations were like. Do not cheat,’ – she twirled her pen like a wand – ‘I know a fake conversation when I hear one.’
She took out the roster and began to pair us up. José and Elsa. Judit and Vojtech. Yisoo and Xiaopeng. With some enjoyment, I watched as Aisling grappled with our names before she returned to being her impeccable self. Then, as if detecting my thoughts, she shot me a warning look. Brushing her pen across the page, she searched for the next match.
‘You two should be a perfect pair, Nan and Akmaral,’ she announced.
Akmaral and I were the only Asian girls in the class. I had rather mixed feelings about her while it was clear she simply didn’t like me. When the class finished, the two of us walked to a nearby Spar to discuss our plan. Akmaral ordered a skinny latte and a quiche. I bought a banana. Then we sat down beside the window.
Akmaral had not said a word the whole way there. With a deadpan expression, she laid out her food on the table.
‘First, I want to apologize for the last time,’ I said.
She looked at me, frowning. Then she tore a satchel of Sweet’n Low and poured the powder into her coffee before beginning to talk: ‘Do you mean the time you asked me if I was Chinese or the time you called me Kamora?’ She spoke English slowly. Her accent reminded me of the villains in spy movies.
‘Both. Both times. And I’m really sorry, Akmaral,’ I said, articulating her name with caution.
She narrowed her eyes, as if weighing up a proposal. ‘Actually, I wouldn’t mind being called Kamora. It’s a nice name,’ she said. ‘But I really hate when people ask me if I’m from China. Do they understand there are other countries in Asia?’
‘Um.’ I held my banana. ‘They do. I mean, I do.’
‘Well then, you’re forgiven,’ she said, sending a fork of quiche into her mouth.
I was uncertain if she was being sarcastic but decided to take it literally and peeled my banana. We ate and discussed Aisling’s assignment. I said I’d love to practice my oral English with native speakers but sometimes I found them difficult to understand, and the more I worried about not getting what they were saying the more likely it’d happen. Akmaral said she had similar issues, even back in Kyrgyzstan. She would always be struck, in the middle of a conversation, by the unattainability of real human communication. She wondered whether being gay had set her up to be a hopeless sceptic.
I swallowed the mushed banana. ‘I’ve never been in a relationship.’
‘I wouldn’t mind dating an Irish girl,’ Akmaral said, skimming around the shop. ‘Some of them are very pretty.’
Next to us, a middle-aged woman shifted in her chair. She had a pair of enormous eyes which gave her a look of innate surprise. She bit into her sandwich.
‘Let’s focus on the assignment,’ I said.
Akmaral agreed. It seemed to her that the biggest challenge to having a good conversation with a native speaker was to avoid exchanges fixated on cultural stereotypes. Noticing I was lost, she asked, among all my encounters here, what the most common topic had been.
I thought about it. ‘China?’
‘Exactly!’ She clapped and glanced at the woman next to us who was now rustling the sandwich package. In this case, Akmaral carried on saying, in order to talk about the real stuff, we had to find a way to stop being viewed as exotic objects.
I couldn’t help but visualise pineapples. ‘Totally,’ I said.
Akmaral shot me a smile. ‘Any ideas on places for finding good native speakers? Someone who’s open-minded, free-spirited, maybe even, a little bit anti-establishment?’
I furled up the banana skin, processing her question. Then I remembered the flyer I had used as the placemat for my noodles this morning.
‘The flea market? A friend mentioned there’s a big one on Sunday,’ I said, hoping the paper hadn’t become completely sodden by the oyster sauce.
Akmaral was late for the market. While I was waiting for her on the street, two separate elderly women came up to me, wondering if I was lost. One of them told me about her trip to Beijing some years ago. In a muddle of syllables I managed to catch ‘the donkey’, ‘lake’ and ‘roasting’. I smiled and nodded when I saw a small East Asian woman coming our way in a white T-shirt with what seemed to be a large dildo printed on it.
I gasped, which startled the old woman in front of me. She mumbled something about love.
‘Sorry, my friend’s here.’ I dashed towards Akmaral.
She waved at me, smiling proudly while thrusting out her chest, on which stretched, indisputably, a dramatic pink dildo with bulging purple veins.
‘Here’s one for you,’ she said, pulling out another t-shirt from her handbag and spreading it in front of me like a flag.
I was not surprised to see that this one showed a naked female torso. ‘My housemate bought these for a hen party,’ Akmaral said.
‘You want me to put it on?’ I glared at the aggressive-looking bosom.
Although I had asked the question, I was fairly certain that there was no chance I would wear the breasts. But Akmaral said she had thought about it long and hard and the only way to outdo our foreignness was to present something louder than our ethnicities. I told her that even though I agreed with her in spirit, this t-shirt was too absurd. Impertinent, I emphasised. After all, we were new to this country, and I didn’t want to get into trouble.
‘Stop being so Chinese!’ Akmaral wailed, gripping my arm. ‘Plus, think about it: would you like to be friends with someone who’d be interested in a stranger wearing an erotic t-shirt or someone who enquires about your opinions on the Chinese economy?’
Her hand was surprisingly cold and soft, like a baby bird popping out from a nest.
We walked through a cramped laneway into a large courtyard where rows of tents stood in a riot of colours. Bulky old suitcases were piled beside the entrance, leaning against a thick wooden headboard and torn armchairs. Hordes of people circulated in jeans, cropped jumpers and biker boots. Music whipped through the air.
‘This looks fun,’ Akmaral said, tugging me to the first stall.
While she checked out a ceramic egg cup, I adjusted my body in the stranger’s t-shirt, crossing and uncrossing my arms. Around us, in pairs or groups, people chatted with one another. Some held cups of coffee, some gesticulated while laughing, nodding. Their mouths moved rapidly, their faces in hypnotic joy. I wondered what it felt like to be part of these conversations, an actor on the stage rather than a distant spectator. My eyes met with those of a couple of women, who were whispering behind a jewellery stall. Before I could configure an earnest smile, their eyes fluttered and shied away.
‘Tell me, Nan, what’s your topic today?’ Akmaral asked as she tossed down a red hat before moving on. The stall owner scowled at us.
I crossed my arms again, smiling at him apologetically. ‘My topic?’
‘The thing you talk about. Your thing,’ she said, browsing along the stalls. ‘Have you prepared anything?’
‘Is that what we are supposed to do?’
She said it was not part of the assignment. But back home, her father used to take her to dinner parties with foreign guests and he always asked her to decide, beforehand, if she wanted to talk about ponies or kitties.
‘What does that mean?’
‘It’s a slightly idiotic but efficient method,’ Akmaral said, picking up a small succulent in a plastic pot and smiling at it. ‘If I talked about horses, the guests tended to think I was an adventurous girl; if I went with cats, I was sweet and kind. Very simple. Your topic determines your image. And a distinct image vitalises the conversation.’
‘But I thought we are here to have authentic conversations? And that’s why we’re wearing these t-shirts.’
‘Right!’ She clapped. ‘This t-shirt could be your topic.’
‘What? No, I don’t want to talk about these.’ I glanced at my chest. Now the printed breasts looked like two badly fried eggs.
She laughed and we arrived at a second-hand record stall. A young man wearing a bandana stood behind it. ‘Are you guys going to or coming back from a hen party?’ he asked.
Akmaral winked at me. ‘We’re hoping to be invited to one. My friend here can tell you more details.’
We had made no arrangement about who was going to talk first and now it was too late to call a formal discussion. ‘Yes, I’d like to go to a hen party,’ I said like a parrot.
‘Why?’ the guy laughed.
I tried my best to maintain a placid expression while my brain burned, searching for an answer. ‘I’ve never had any girlfriends and I suppose, I do wonder what it feels like to have good girlfriends and to go to a party with them.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,’ he said. ‘How come?’
‘Um, it’s probably because I’m fat – I was even fatter, when I was a teenager.’ As soon as the words escaped me, I was petrified. I could not believe I had just told to a stranger something I’d never expressed before. A blistering liberation shot through my body.
Both the guy and Akmaral looked at me. Before either of them said anything, a voice called: ‘Excuse me, ladies.’
It was a man of medium stature who claimed to be the manager of the market. He said, with a rueful smile, that he had received some complaints about an incident of public indecency, and he would appreciate it if we could change our clothes before we did anymore shopping.
‘Say it again?’ Akmaral asked, raising her chest.
The manager smiled patiently. ‘Everybody is free to wear whatever clothes they like,’ he said. ‘And I personally have no issue at all with your choice of outfit, Ms. But understand this is a public space, and some members of our community have reported you to our office, saying they were extremely disturbed by the obscene image on your t-shirt. Therefore, I’m wondering, if you could respect their feelings and change into something else?’
‘Yes, totally!’ I jumped in before Akmaral reacted. ‘We’re really sorry. We didn’t mean to cause any trouble. We’ll change now.’
He looked at me, as if just noticing my existence. ‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘Ms, You’re fine. Just your friend,’ – he pointed at Akmaral who had flashed out her middle finger like a sword – ‘what’s causing us the problem is the thing on her t-shirt.’
Akmaral rushed ahead of me until she came to the red light at a wide intersection. Yellow buses streamed past like pikes in the bright sunlight. A giant cathedral stood across the road.
‘Why did you say sorry to that man?’ she asked without looking at me.
‘I, I was just trying to get us out of trouble,’ I said.
I had changed back to my own blouse. Akmaral, on the other hand, was wearing her t-shirt inside out. The dildo now faced her chest, leaving on the other side a long stroke of smudged purple and red, like an old wound. ‘Whatever,’ she said. ‘I’m starving now.’
When the light changed, we walked pass the crossroads and the cathedral, searching for a café. A while later, we ended up in Centra, the only shop that was open.
‘I hate Sunday,’ said Akmaral, picking out the stringy leaves from her salmon and potato salad. ‘And I hate rocket.’
Quietly, I chewed my egg sandwich, searching for the right topic to brighten up the atmosphere. ‘So, what shall we do with the assignment?’
She looked up from her salad.
‘A ten-minute presentation is a lot,’ I said. ‘We probably need to each have two conversations, just to be sure.’
She shook her head. ‘You hard-working Chinese.’
I felt slightly insulted but decided to not waste time exploring my feelings and focus instead on the school assignment. I told Akmaral that since our last discussion, I had read about cultural stereotypes and had come to realise the urgency of freeing ourselves from the imagined pictures westerners had of us and present ourselves instead as authentic individuals. In this sense, I proposed, we could think about our interests and find a group of people who shared our passion on which we could base the conversations. Then I asked her if there were things she was particularly into.
‘Music,’ she said. ‘I’d like to go to a pub and see some live music.’
I took out my phone and opened Google maps, zoomed in on Dublin city centre and punched music into the search bar. Most of the pub performances were not on until the evening. Then I saw there was a Smithfield Summer Music Festival starting in an hour.
I showed my phone to Akmaral and she finally smiled. ‘Good woman,’ she said.
We headed towards the northside, passing empty laneways, run-down houses and crossing the Liffey, before finally arriving at a large square enclosed by modern complexes. The excessive quantity of glass walls made me think of China.
In the centre of the square, a steel stage had been erected but the performance hadn’t begun. A slow melody played in the background. The beer stands and food trucks were open. People of various kinds assembled in front of them.
‘Let’s get beer,’ Akmaral said. ‘I heard alcohol is a good lubricant for conversations.’
‘Hmm.’ I calculated the money I had left. ‘I’m fine. You go.’
She grabbed my hand. ‘Come on. My treat.’
As we stood side by side, waiting in the queue, I felt my cheeks were burning like pancakes. Was I having a reaction to alcohol before drinking? To settle my nerves, I asked Akmaral if she’d talk first this time. She agreed and looked around for potential interlocutors. A middle-aged man behind us met her eyes. He smiled warmly and said: ‘Ni hao.’
‘I don’t speak Chinese,’ said Akmaral.
‘Are you not Chinese?’ asked the man.
‘Don’t speak English either.’ She waited with me in silence until we got our beer and walked back to where we had been standing. Akmaral drank a mouthful. ‘I’m turning my t-shirt back.’
‘Please don’t,’ I begged.
She insisted and I suggested perhaps wearing the breasts one if she had to which only exasperated her further. While I was suffocating in the inevitability of our damnation, I heard a woman’s voice: ‘Why are you wearing your t-shirt inside out?’
She was slender and young with short blond hair and crystal blue eyes. She smiled at us and repeated her question.
‘Because it has an obscene image on it,’ Akmaral said.
The woman laughed. ‘Well it looks beautiful on this side. It reminds me of the works of Yves Klein.’
I had no idea what she was talking about. But Akmaral smiled. ‘Then it’s not the right colour, no?’
The woman squinted her eyes and stared at Akmaral’s chest. ‘It’s very beautiful,’ she said softly.
The hair at the back of my neck stood up. ‘She’s wearing this t-shirt because she didn’t want people to ask about her nationality,’ I interrupted.
‘Oh?’ the woman said, checking us out. ‘Are you Chinese?’
To my surprise, Akmaral was not infuriated by her question. Instead, she gave a faint smile. ‘My mother was Chinese.’
I couldn’t believe my ears. The woman seemed surprised as well. ‘Was?’ she asked.
‘She passed away long time ago,’ Akmaral said.
‘I’m so sorry to hear that,’ the woman said. ‘What was she like?’
Akmaral glanced at me. ‘She was pretty much a typical Chinese; diligent, kind, apologising all the time and she never dared to stand up for herself.’
Her words echoed in my ears. She had turned back to the woman and I could only see her profile. For a moment, she looked sad and incredibly familiar. My eyes were stinging when I saw a tall blond man approach with two pints in his hands. He said something to the woman in words I couldn’t understand.
The woman took a glass and replied with another series of incomprehensible sounds. Just when I thought I’d completely lost my English, she turned to us. ‘This is my boyfriend Stefan. And I’m Mila. Would you like to hang out together? We’re visiting from Germany and would love to make some friends in Dublin.’
Stunned, I drank my beer, the liquid unforeseeably cold.
‘We can’t,’ Akmaral said deadpan. ‘We’re supposed to find native speakers to talk to. It’s an assignment for school.’
After the German couple left, Akmaral and I stood idly. People started to flow towards the stage, like the tide. But we remained still.
Akmaral looked at me. ‘Now where are we going to get authentic conversations?’
I opened my mouth. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her.
‘We can probably fake some,’ I said.
She laughed, giving me a thumbs up. Then the music began.