There are days when I wish I could be the woman in the iron mask, for surely it would be easier to be set apart from everyone by something I did rather than by something I have no control over. Other days I think that I am the woman in the iron mask, as I fix my eyes on some unseen point in the distance and plough down the sidewalks, ignoring the strange looks that I get from those that I pass by, the whispers that I don’t understand, the fact that I am the only Canadian here among the Asians.
When my husband said, “So there’s a business opportunity in Taiwan...,” I should have smiled and said, “I’m sure they’ll find a good person to fill the position,” instead of saying, “That’d be so cool! Do you think you could do it?” But there I was in my enthusiasm, my hunger for places other than home, my naivety that living in a foreign country would be glamorous and romantic.
Instead, it’s lonely and frustrating, as I stare at calligraphic letters that look so cool but mean nothing to me while a nice brown-skinned girl with almond eyes waits with a patient smile. My husband and I were reviewing grocery terms last night, but now I can’t remember any of the words he drummed into my head. So I smile and point, and then hold out a piece of money. I don’t need to explain—my sandy blonde hair and green eyes say the rest. I’m a stupid, ignorant foreigner.
I’m walking out of the store, holding my bag and wishing that there was a Starbucks around so I could order a frappucino, when I bump into her. Maybe I didn’t see her for the tears that had crept into my eyes. Maybe she didn’t see me because she was shouting over her shoulder at her little boy, who is dawdling down the street while she juggles two grocery bags, a purse, and his baby brother.
“I’m sorry,” I say, stepping back, but she’s dropped one of the grocery bags and the baby is bawling. She lets loose a stream of language—Cantonese or Mandarin, they sound the same to me. I cower, reaching for the grocery bag, putting her groceries back in and lifting it up, repeating like a litany, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” though she can’t understand it anymore than I can understand her.
The boy grabs her leg, and the baby pokes a finger into his mouth and stops bawling.
“Quiet, now,” the woman says, and turns to me. “I sorry too. I not see you. Um... pardon... my English not so good.”
For a second I forget my iron mask and stare at her. “No, it was my fault, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“Okay,” she repeats, nodding and smiling. “You are new here?”
I nod and a phrase flashes into my head and I blurt it out. She looks quizzical, so I repeat it, but I’m obviously not getting it right, so I say it in English. “My husband’s job brought him here.”
Her face lights up. “Ah, yes, job!” Then she repeats the phrase that I had bungled, but she says it slowly, with the emphasis where it should be. I sigh and repeat it, and she laughs and we both repeat it, and then we both laugh and give up.
“I’m really bad at language. My husband is much better, but he’s at work.”
She nods. “I know. My husband too. He teach me English, but I not so good at it. Here... we have, how you say, coffee? We have coffee?”
I frown, not sure what she means. Did I lose her coffee when I spilled her groceries? I glance around for something that might resemble coffee.
“Go for, that’s it. We go for coffee. That’s what you do in Canada, right?”
“Oh, go for coffee. Yes, of course.” I smile, still not sure what she means.
“Good! Come. I show you good coffee spot. We talk, yes? Or are you busy?”
Busy? I almost laugh. I was going home to stare at Facebook in the hopes that one of my busy, happy friends back home wanted to talk. Or to stare, equally futilely, at my language book, in the hopes that in time some of the symbols would make sense.
“Coffee sounds good,” I agree, and there’s no mask as we walk together down the street.
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