An English Lesson
by Jenny Rhymer Auld
“You can call me Aries” he said, at our first meeting, in a cafe near the campus of National Taiwan University. “I was born in April.”
“Like my brother” I said. “April.”
A thin young man in a black t-shirt and jeans, quick movements, a ready smile. Aries explained over our coffees that he was born in central China, raised in Finland, and was currently a graduate student in data science here in Taipei. He spoke six or seven languages. “I’m a scientist, but I’m interested in other things too. There is more to life! I’m really a global person. I’m easy to talk to.” He laughed, as if to mock his own confidence before I could.
“No I get it. I know what you mean,” I said.
I had answered Aries’ ad on a Facebook page asking for help passing his written test for English proficiency. I’m in Taipei for eight weeks, but I only teach at the gallery on weekends. I have lots of time on my hands. Helping Aries for a few bucks a week seemed like a good idea.
“My English writing is really bad,” he said sadly. “Maybe like a high school student. And I don’t have much time. I get up at six am. Swim. Then study until eleven pm. Half an hour only for fun. It’s enough for me.” He laughed again and slapped his thigh.
“I understand that you need to pass this test for your studies,” I said. “But to be so young and already so accomplished — I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
He went quiet. He seemed not to understand what I was talking about. His phone buzzed, and he looked at it. “Oh. Free time is over,” he announced, and moved to get to his feet. “Need to go.”
This was his free time? His precious half hour?
The next day, the day of our second meeting, I emerged from the MRT station to see Aries perched on a scooter. His wiry body was curved into a C shape over his phone. He looked up, nodded at me, popped his helmet on, and thrust a second one into my hands.
“It’s okay? You rode one before? We have to go to my lab. It’s pretty far.”
“Yeah! I have! I love it!” I chirped. ‘Love’ is too strong a word. In my terror, I was overcompensating. I have indeed been a scooter passenger in Taipei traffic on previous visits. It’s not so much “traffic” on a scooter so much as it is white water rafting, if the water is an ever-churning pit of deadly chunks of metal, and you are astride the equivalent of a motorized twig. But I thought if I died this way at least it would be Doing Something Interesting.
“Don’t kill me” I bleated. I hiked my skirt daintily and climbed on.
Aries may have looked like a nerd but he didn’t drive like one. I’ll just say that.
We somehow survived the trip, parked and walked across the campus. “Here we are,” Aries said presently. He gestured up at a massive structure with a striking cylindrical feature running up its core like a mighty steel tree trunk. I couldn’t tell whether it was decorative or functional.
“This is the best building at the University. Very expensive. The equipment inside.” Aries lowered his voice reverently. “I mean, billions.”
“Oh,” I said blankly. My liberal-arts brain can’t conceptualize numbers over a couple thousand.
The lesson, held in his blindingly-bright computer lab, mainly consisted of my reluctantly peppering a stressed out young man with bad news for two straight hours. He wanted me to look at a couple of written pieces and point out all the mistakes.
“All of them? Like every single little one?” I said.
“Okay, here’s another place you need to watch your subject-verb agreement. It must be annoying since you don’t have to worry about that in Chinese. . . Okay here it is again, see? The subject is singular so the verb has to be “goes” not “go”. . .oops there it is again. Sorry! I didn’t make this rule up. In fact it’s kind of pointless but what can you do, haha. Um, okay this isn’t really an English idiom, I know what you’re saying but. . . oh, and same thing here, we don’t really say it that way in English.”
Et cetera. I kept glancing at him. He looked as though every red pen mark loaded another five pound weight onto his shoulders.
“Sorry,” I said again. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. We’ll work on it.” I had to stop myself from hugging him.
“Let me get your money,” Aries said, as his phone buzzed to indicate the end of the lesson. He looked at it, and the clock on the wall. He sighed. “I won’t have time for dinner.”
“Bloooody hell,” I whispered to myself, as he went to fetch the cash.
I don’t miss university.
I walked out into the night air, which was relatively cool after the scorching day. Groups of students strolled and chatted in the dark. I just followed the flow toward some brighter city lights beyond the campus. The nice thing about Taipei is that, as in New York, a subway station is never far away. You don’t, strictly speaking, have to know where you are, and I didn’t.
I walked past restaurants buzzing with families and students. I saw the lively people through windows, contentedly barbecuing, dipping, dishing food out for one another. I saw elderly grandmas and grandpas being helped out of cars so they could join in the family dinners.
I walked past a store full of tropical fish tanks, a Volvo garage, a luxury hotel, a hair salon, a shopfront temple with incense and lamps burning alone, as though lit without human hands, past a palatial bank with a chandelier as big as a car, immediately flanked by what looked like someone’s actual personal living room opening onto the sidewalk like a stage set, then a pastry shop, a florist, a hardware store, a violin shop. I walked and walked until the people thinned out and I found myself facing a concrete overpass with an river of scooters roaring past.
I retreated from the nightmare down a narrow alley. I saw two friends waving goodnight under a lantern. One of them held the hand of a little girl with pigtails. It was a comforting sight in the dark.
I kept walking past closed doors, dark rows of parked scooters, and metal shutters until at last, there on a corner, was a softly glowing building with a languid young man smoking a cigarette on its porch. The sign said Pillow Cafe. Inside, an aged corgi stopped at my table for a moment. She paid no heed to my ni hao, but waddled past me to her bed by the record player, and lay her weary body down.