A few weeks ago I began my job as a clerk at a convenience store, I quickly realized that I was a rather minority group among my coworkers. Two of my coworkers are international students from Nepal, both graduate students studying some form of engineering. One of my coworkers is from Germany, studying economics. And a couple of weeks ago I met a coworker from China. Many if not most of my coworkers are international students, all of my coworkers are very nice and I am very grateful to have a job. Two weeks ago Virginia Tech hosted a wrestling camp for (what appeared to be middle and highschool) boys, which means they were our primary customers for a few days. One Sunday night I was closing with Travis (the student from China, Beijing to be exact), it began as basic small talk, he introdcued himself as Travis, as we spoke about our areas of study I mentioned I was studying Mandarin Chinese. To which he replied “I’m chinese, study me!” We then began to speak about the intricacies of Mandarin as well as the complexitices of English. One of my biggest struggles with Mandarin has been using the appropriate measure word. (To take a look into this here is a nice website: http://digchinese.com/measure-words )
(Good, better, best)
He then told me a big struggle with learning English is using the appropriate verb tense. In chinese there are no verb conjugations. A statement verb is always in the present tense. One must use context clues in order to decide if it occured in the past, present, or will occur in the future. Example: In english we say “I run” for the present tense, “I ran” for the past tense, and “I will run” for the future tense. However in Chinese “I run” could fit appropriately into every tense, which is why you specify. “I run” for present tense, “Yesterday (or any specific time/date word) , I run”, or “Tomorrow (or any specific time/date word), I run”.
He told me some funny stories of this hurdle derailing conversations, it was funny and light hearted.
Three boys walked into the store, they wandered, looking through every row we had. They walked up to the counter with a multitude of candy, snacks, and Icees. Travis was running the register. They looked at his name tag which read “Travis” immediately looking at him they asked “What’s your name?”
“Travis.” he replied
“No, like your real name.” The boys began to become insistent and I quickly realized what they wanted.Travis didn’t say anything, he continued to scan their items. The boys looked at me and said “Hey, Garrett (they read my name tag) whats his name?”
“His name?” I looked at Travis, he wasn’t looking at me. “His name is Travis.” I said, he still didn’t look at me.
“No, like what’s his name in China?” They said, I didn’t respond, and neither did Travis.
Travis handed them their bags, gave them their change and as they left Travis said “Have a good evening.” Just when I thought it ended, it took a new turn. The boys began to harass him. They told him how much they loved him. They talked slow and said “You. are. awesome.” Travis didn’t respond. As they exited the store and began to walk away one of them stayed behind, put his entire body against a window, and from the outside began to bang on the glass until Travis achnowledged him. “I love you!” the boy said, and then ran away.
That was it, 10 minutes, and Travis was someone else entirely.
No smile, no stories.
He looked at me and said “Travis isn’t my given name, but it’s what I would like to be called.” After he said that I began to recall every chinese international student I knew. Which, granted was but a handful however I didn’t know any of their given names. They were names such as Travis, Eric, John, etc. The only chinese person I knew by his given Chinese name is my Mandarin Professor and typical I just refer to him as 老师 （Teacher).
What was the reason for this? I knew my nepal coworkers by their given names, every european international student I know uses their given name.
I didn’t know how to respond to Travis, he was hurt, and rightfully so. Could you imagine, being told that you don’t belong because of your ethnicity? Being pointed out as being different, being told that your name shouldn’t be Travis because you aren’t white enough for it. As if being white is a title, a title that’s weight is lifted by how well you carry it on. What your name is, how you look, how you dress. The boys weren’t telling me how much they loved me, They weren’t staring at me, I wasn’t being harrased, and the only reason why I was being looked over is because of my whiteness. They spoke to me in a regular mature tone, then immediately looked at him, spoke slower and used small words. What could Travis had done? He was being targeted because of his Beijing accent, because of his physical characterisitcs, there was nothing he could fight. He had to wait out the harrasment.
After work, I bought my dinner and sat on the drillfield watching the clouds and the sun set. I saw a chinese family walking rather close to where I was sitting, they were speaking Mandarin amongst themselves and took several pictures as a family and as individuals. I wonder if their son (who I assume is a new student) has picked his american name, (or rather his white name). I hoped he would never have to face that sort of verbal hatred. And then I wondered, if I ever make it to China, will I have to pick out a new chinese name? Doubtful.
Edit: Travis no longer works at the convenience store, I may have been the last person to work with him. I don’t know why he quit, but I hope he is ok.