A new experience

I’ve never before been asked the question, “Do you speak English?”

Helen and Kai and I are in Honolulu for a few days, having stopped over on our way to China. This morning being Sunday, I hopped onto Google Maps and quickly ascertained that a thirty-minute walk away from our hotel one could find 檀島華人宣道會 — that is, the Honolulu Chinese Alliance Church. There was a Chinese service at 10:00 and an English one at 11:30, and I figured we could just go to the Chinese service and I could practice my Mandarin.

Actually, it would have been better had we gone to the English service. We would have caused much less trouble to our new friends…because the Chinese service was in Cantonese, not Mandarin. A shy but apparently very sweet young lady, who looked to be somewhere between about seventeen and about twenty-two, was therefore assigned to translate into Mandarin on our behalf, whereas if we had simply gone to the English service, no translator would have been necessary. There are three special chairs in back for visitors who do not speak Cantonese, each with a set of headphones. Katrina (that being the translator’s English name) translates into Mandarin, speaking softly into a microphone that is linked up with the headphones, and all is well as long as you only have three people who don’t understand Cantonese (and as long as they all do understand Mandarin, which would seem to be highly likely since one presumes that otherwise they would be considerate enough to go to the English service). Helen, of course, spent a year working in Hong Kong, and she quickly decided that she could understand the minister fine without the headphones. But Kai and I sat through the service wearing our headphones, while Katrina sat two feet from me speaking very quietly into the microphone so as not to disturb the rest of the congregation. And it says a very great deal for Katrina’s abilities as a translator that I was able to follow a lot of the sermon, because her pronunciation was as clear as a bell — which it has to be if I’m going to understand anything at all.

I might also add that one of the songs was sung in Mandarin, and there didn’t seem to be many people singing other than the worship leaders and Helen and Kai and (this being a song that is also sung in Houston Chinese Church and parts of which I therefore know) sometimes me. I strongly suspect they changed up their song selection at the last minute out of kindness to their visitors.

But the most memorable part of the day, for me, happened before the service started. When the three of us walked into the church fellowship hall, one of the ladies realized that visitors were present and hurried over to give us a cheerful greeting. “Where are you from?” she asked, in accented but clear English.

“我们是中国人 [Wǒmen shì zhōngguó rén],上海人[Shànghǎi rén]” answered Helen in Mandarin — “We’re Chinese, from Shanghai.” (This is as best as I recall and so if there are grammatical problems there you can safely assume the fault is in my memory, not in Helen’s Mandarin.)

“啊,中国人,” she responded, clearly making a rapid mental adjustment from her initial assumptions. Then she looked at me in some confusion…and then made my day by asking, in obvious confusion, “Do you speak English?”

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before; so, as I always enjoy new experiences, that was fun. (I have to admit that I was sorely tempted to answer, with a straight face and in tones of deep regret, “Discúlpeme, Señora, yo no entiendo,” but one should always get to know other people for at least a few minutes before commencing to tease them.)

I enjoyed the service very much, despite being even more lost than I usually am in a Chinese service — communion at least is, after all, a more or less universal Christian language. And the sermon was on one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Romans 8. If I’m ever in Honolulu again of a Sunday morn, I’ll be back at 1110 Isenberg Street.

But next time I’ll save everyone some trouble and just go to the English service.

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