Monday, August 1, 2011

Six People, One Bathroom, and a Tube of Darlie Toothpaste

Not that it ever came up in conversation, so I didn’t have a chance to verify, but I’m certain that I was the only person in my neighborhood who had a tube of Darlie toothpaste in her bathroom this week. Marketed as “Darkie” brand until 1985, and still featuring a Jolson-esque character, the brand retains its name of 黑人 (black person) in Chinese. Its presence in my bathroom generated quite a double take, even at six a.m., but it was just one of the many cross-cultural aha’s that came from hosting two girls from the Nanjing Language School as part of a 10-day exchange program. The initial plans had been to house them luxuriously (and out of our way) in the basement, which has its own bathroom, but the basement was flooded and we squeezed six people into the upstairs, sharing one bathroom – and several competing tubes of toothpaste – among us. 

Six people in one bathroom, four of them teenaged girls – there’s a life-education curriculum for you. And when the power went out Monday night, the girls got to see just what American know-how can provide in the midst of a blistering heat wave – for 14 hours, not much. We taught them how to curse CenterPoint Energy in many colorful new ways.

They arrived very late on Sunday night, and it was only through momming up (the female for “manning up,” I reckon) that I was able to stay awake until 11 p.m. to serve them a “welcome to America” meal of green tea, rice and dumplings. I’m sure it tasted nothing like home, but at least they knew I was trying. On the upside, I got to watch them eat their dessert –vanilla ice cream – with chopsticks, so it was almost worth the lost sleep. 

Food is always a worry when I host kids from places where the cuisine is superior to American grub (that is, just about everywhere). I'm sure that poor Angie, our Roman exchange student, never recovered from the shock of her “tubs o’ pasta” meal at Bucca. And we found out too late that the Chinese are creeped out by the ramming of dirty fists into a communal bowl, so the hesitancy of last year’s Nanjing student to dig into the popcorn on movie night suddenly became clear. Next year, I’ll ask for a kid from a place where they eat nothing but dried yak meat from the floor of their mud huts, and I’ll be a culinary hero.

Still, I tried to sustain them as best I could, dutifully packing turkey-sandwich lunches for the girls each day, until they politely asked that they be allowed to make their own walk up to the market, and came home laden with 7UP, doughnuts and fruit. They did like my thin-crust, homemade pizza, though. One of them told me that the Nanjing Pizza Hut was where her parents took her for a treat, but that she liked mine more. Beating out the fine folks at Yum! Brands may not be that difficult, but I decided to take it as a compliment.

During the visit, Emma continued her quest to learn every possible Mandarin insult and curse word, which ought to win her a lot of fast friends when she’s studying in Beijing this fall. I had my own experience with cross-cultural cursing, too, if an unintended one. Stepping out into the blasting heat of a summer evening, I said “holy moley,” and then explained to Vicky (they pick English names in the sure knowledge that we’d mangle theirs beyond recognition) that this was an American exclamation. She knit her brows, then said in her impeccable, BBC-level English, “I have heard before of holy shit, but not this holy moley. Are they similar?” When I stopped laughing, I tried to explain the difference, but the nuance of which curse can be used in which circumstances is difficult. Just ask Emma. She’s been reading “Dirty Words in Chinese” for months (yes, it was a birthday present and yes, I’m a bad mother, but I knew it would please her), and she said she still managed to pick up several handy new foul-mouthed pointers from the Nanjing group.

My only complaint during their visit involved that six-person bathroom situation. I don’t know if it was the shock of travel, the heat, or my awful turkey sandwiches, but the girls seemed to be shedding fistfuls of hair all over the place. I’m used to one head of lustrous teen-aged Chinese hair releasing follicles onto the tilework, but the addition of two more heads seemed to increase output by much more than a factor of three.

I’d still have to say that the extra cleanup was worth it. I scoured the bathroom yesterday, and it’s good as ever (which is not a high standard of sanitation, let me just say). I almost miss that smiling gentleman from the Darlie toothpaste tube looking up at me each morning. He may have been offensive, but he sure was dapper, and that's not a word I get to use very often, much as I'd like to.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s the racist toothpaste that’s making their hair fall out. I’ll send some tubes of Crest along with Emma when she heads to Beijing this fall.  I don’t want her Chinese host family to suffer through shedding all year long. It will be all they can do to survive the cursing.

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