COLUMN: Meeting Chinese ladies at the pool
Meet people when all of you are stark naked and you have a different relationship right away. Few women at the public pool go into changing stalls; most would rather visit as they dry and dress.
It’s mostly Chinese ladies at the times I go, mid-week, mid-morning. There are young mothers with children for the Water Babies program, and there are middle-aged women who work shifts or work at home and can come during the daytime. Elderly ladies come too, and it’s good to see the mix of ages. We are getting to know each other, gradually overcoming the language barrier.
Often I am the only Caucasian there, and I only mention race because of language. I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, but I sure wish I did—these women have lively conversations. They shout and hoot and argue. I try to guess their topics.
At the showers the conversation is simple, “How do you turn on the hot water? Oh! Too hot!” and “Sorry, that’s my shampoo.” These ladies are exceptionally clean and bring four or five bottles of hair and body products. While I wait for a shower I imagine they are comparing conditioners or apricot scrubs. But they could be talking about the Canucks or holiday plans to Brazil.
At the hair dryers the forced air is loud so they shout over it—lots of wind, lots of laughs. They look as my hair dries from flat wet brown to curly blonde. I wonder what they’re saying, but smiles and nods answer that question. Communication by body language; “You’ve got strange hair.”
In the dressing room they tell stories. Lillian is a real comedian and has them all gasping, wiping their eyes as they dry off. Ming sounds angry when she speaks but the others take it as normal so I guess she isn’t. There are serious conversations too, I can tell from the tone. As they struggle into underwear they might be discussing the best bargains at the market or the real estate boom and bust. Mei-Mei is obviously talking about her husband as she tells a long tale with many head shakes and shoulder shrugs. The others commiserate.
I can’t participate in their conversation and wouldn’t want to intrude. I don’t want to eavesdrop yet can’t help but hear. They are confident I don’t understand so they continue freely. I do know a few words and catch them in the fast stream of conversation: lao wai means foreigner. But I was born and raised in Vancouver, so they can’t be talking about me!
There is the ease of speaking your native tongue versus the energy it takes to speak in a new language. I understand the relief of not translating, not planning every comment. I am always glad to find an English-speaking traveller or host on my trips, so I can put aside my iffy French and creative Spanish and relax into English. It must be the same for these women. They are wet and naked together in a capsule of time and privacy outside their daily chores and working lives—of course they speak in their own language.
The more our neighbourhoods change the more I realize how important communication is. It does take time to make contact and begin to chat. I’m sure these Chinese ladies speak or understand more English than I do Mandarin or Cantonese. I’m sure we will move on from, “Is this your towel?” to other casual conversation. “Boy or girl?” is a good starter, and every woman wants to talk about her child. I’ll have to learn more than menu vocabulary and please and thank you. The newcomers will have to learn too. Until then though, we’ll do the best we can because we know we truly are the same under our clothes.
Anne Hopkinson is a Burnaby resident still working on the three Rs: reading, writing, and rambling.