After a while it was not uncommon for Alex to give me a phone call. I became his companion to the dictionary. Usually it was an idiom that made no sense to him. It could be something like “let sleeping dogs lie” or perhaps a slang expression that he took literally.
“Gree” what it mean when someone call something “raw” or “bad” but it not really bad.”
Try explaining that bad is good and raw is a very positive connotation. After a while it got humorous. Very humorous. But always, with thanks and plenty of relief, Alex seemed to get the difference between the literal translation and an idiomatic expression.
One afternoon he seemed very preoccupied with something. When I pressed a bit, he told me that he was worried about a car that he had. It hadn’t run for months and he was trying to save up a little cash to have it looked at. His main concern was that he’d let the registration lapse because he had no plans to use the vehicle until it was running properly and just couldn’t afford the expense. He wanted t move the car from a driveway to a spot in front of him home.
“So,” I asked, Can’t you just push it there or will it start and run for a couple of minutes while you re-park it?”
“It should start and run, but it says in the book not to operate a vehicle that isn’t registered.”
Alex was afraid that if he got caught moving an unregistered car from driveway to curb he’s lose his license. Maybe there was more at stake there too. I never asked, but assured him that there would be no way he’s be seen moving that car such a short distance.
I’d seen this kind of over reaction before and was even reminded of an ESL class I’d taught while waiting to get hired for my first full-time teaching job. A recent immigrant from South Korea was always looking at a Steno pad he carried around with him when he had a spare moment. Upon further investigation, I learned he’d translated the entire California Vehicle Code from English into Korean on 1 Steno Pad. He didn’t want to miss any questions on the written test.
BY now, my exchanges at the track with Alex were mostly about language and infrequently about horses. Because of the large Asian population in the Bay Area and at the race track, in particular, he’d found a second community; a home away from home.
While our little tutorials were often about the English language, I found Alex could translate some things from Chinese for me as well.
One afternoon during the re-play of a race, an elderly Chinese man was standing close to the TV monitor pointing his finger and yelling at the screen. Throughout the running of the race, he kept up his tirade. Heads turned as his voice and demeanor rose and changes with every step down the stretch.
“What’s he yelling about,” I asked Alex. “What’s he saying?”
Alex watched and listened for a minute then turned and told me.
“He say jockey fuck up.”
“What else, there must be more, he keeps talking.”
“No, just jockey fuck up. He saying it over and over in more than one way.”