The university where I work has exchange students. Many of them are from China.
Since I started working in the school’s library, I’ve tried to make anyone walking into the library welcomed. I greet everyone who walks into the building, even those with head phones who don’t always hear me.
I prefer to call people by their given name. I was taken aback the first time I asked one of the Chinese students her name and she replied, “My American name is Peggy.” I didn’t want an “American” name. I wanted her name. I wanted her to feel welcome and didn’t think calling her a name she had newly learned was the way to do it.
Last Monday was the Chinese New Year – the year of the monkey. I decided there was another way to make the Chinese students feel welcome. Somewhere, in the back of my brain, were the words to wish them “Happy New Year!”
What were they? What were they? Ah, ha! Gung hey fah choy.
Okay, okay. how many years of dust had I just removed. I was ready.
A Chinese female came into the library. I said, “Hello,” followed quickly by “Gong hey fat choy.”
She looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language, which of course I was, but it was foreign to her, too.
In English, I tried to explain what I was attempting to wish her a Happy New Year. Our lack of a common tongue plus the unconventional circumstances proved unsolvable. (If we had been talking about school topics, I believe we would have communicated well enough to understand each other.)
She went into the wing to study. I turned to my computer. I asked Google for the Chinese words for “Happy New Year.”
Two options were presented. “Gong xi fa cai’ was Mandarin but “Gong hey fat choy” is Cantonese. Next to the English pronunciation were the Chinese characters to write. I printed the page and went to see the student whom I had puzzled.
I showed her the characters and she smiled with recognition before explaining that what I had tried to say was not “Happy New Year” but something like “I wish money come to you.” I’m not sure she got my humor when I replied, “That works.”
About a half hour later another exchange student came in who I knew better (and longer) than the first.
I explained the confusion I had caused earlier saying, “Gung hey fah choy.” Dan Dan looked puzzled. She asked, “Where did I learn that?”
I quickly dispelled any thought of explaining Stan Freburg, LaChoy (un)Chinese Chop Suey or a TV commercial. That would not be sublime, or ridiculous.
I turned my computer screen so that Dan Dan could see what I had found through Google.
For the second time that evening, I heard the translation of “wishing money comes to you.” This time we both agreed that that could be a good wish for a new year.
Dan Dan did teach me the proper way to express my good wishes, “Cing nyen kwai le.”
I practiced several times so Dan Dan could correct me if necessary. I wrote the phrase down so I would have it for next year.
My plan is to properly greet the year of the rooster in 2017. If I get it right, I promise not to crow.