English as a Second Language


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Rumi looks pure. Her skin is porcelain-colored from high-end, Japanese-brand foundation and a layer of bone-colored powder. Her eyelashes are curled at 90 degrees, coated with black mascara and lined heavily. Her lips are glossed clear with just a hint of pink pigment.

I have learned to negotiate the labyrinth of her weird papers without ever seriously commenting on content at the drop-in community college center where I tutor, because when I do, it makes her pout and say my name in a high pitched stretched out way. She is always very sure of what she wants to say, and sure it is merely her misunderstanding of English grammar that is getting in the way of perfect communication.

One thesis went something along the lines of no matter how far apart your eyes are, and how small your mouth is, if you have good white skin everything is good. I have helped her edit one paper and one PowerPoint presentation about a Japanese model named Ebichan. Rumi’s screensaver is Ebichan. Her lip gloss has an Ebichan sticker on it that says “Important!” I try to focus on pronoun problems, tense problems, and prepositions.

Last year Rumi started to come to the center with a list of phrases she wrote down from conversations she had throughout the day. I liked taking a break from helping other students edit their papers about the war, pesticides, and dental hygiene. They are sad papers, sometimes covered in red pen, occasionally with a teacher’s note at the end in a combination of printing and cursive that students can’t make out. I read the notes out loud to them — “It seems like you are still thinking in your native language” — and they look demoralized.

So I like it when Rumi shuffles into the center because her disappointments seem more light hearted and funnier than most. “I have question,” she says. “What means ‘Who pissed in your Corn Flakes?’”

“It means your boyfriend is low class.”

“Oh, sooka?” She can’t seem to shake saying “Is that so?” in Japanese in the midst of an English conversation. “You say ‘Who pissed in your Corn Flakes?’”

“No, it’s crude. I’ve never even heard it before.”

“Oh, sooka…”

“Do you know what crude means?” I ask, and spell it out for her. She uses a pink highlighter on her own questions and sometimes draws diagrams with stick figures to illustrate who is speaking.

Recently she brought in her autobiography for editing help. In it she explained that she started learning English when she saw Gooniizu as a child. “You need an article before Goonies,” I said. “It’s The Goonies, and when you say you’ve seen it ‘hundred of times’ do you mean 100 times, over 100 times, or hundreds of times?”

“Hundred-zu,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Love-love-love Goonies,” she said, and clapped. I told her it was filmed on the Oregon coast, and we looked for Astoria on a map. She said it was her dream to go. I said I would drive.

The morning I picked her up at her apartment to drive to the coast, Rumi looked surprised but also sort of delighted with herself. She said that the night before she had had a fight with her boyfriend who had recently moved in for what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. She said she had thrown books at him and said, “Please leave my apartment!”

According to Rumi, he was tall and blond, with moist skin, but his insides were terrible. I knew she had been throwing books at him for the month he had been living there, and now she wanted me to tell her how to tell him in proper English to line up his shoes in the entryway, air out the bathroom after taking a shower, and not to touch kitchen surfaces when his fingers were wet with food like salmon. She got out her notebook while I drove. I told her I thought someone might die if I told her how to say those things, but I did it anyway. She said he might have already moved out when we returned to Portland anyway. She said that right now he was like one of those medicated warming pads you buy and attach to yourself when you have cramps at night, and that that was all he was good for. Also he was doing all her business administration homework in place of paying rent.

We drove through the mountains and lost cell phone reception. I asked her if she wanted to go to Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark stayed. “They were pioneers,” I said “like…” and she finished my sentence, “like Back to the Future III.” “No,” she said, “Just go to Gooniizu. I love Gooniizu.”

I asked her why she liked The Goonies so much, and she said, “Number one Chunk: he chubby and so white skin. So cute, oh, and Sloth. And Mouth.” She said she also liked the star of Pet Cemetery II. She had the album in Japan where he was covered in rose petals, and asked if I know the one. I said I thought that probably only came out in Japan. “Yeah, now so embarrassment,” she said, “then I buy so many magazines.” Mandy Moore also had good skin. She cried at a Mandy Moore movie because Mandy Moore was so pure. “So pure, so pure,” she repeated. She recommended I see it. I told her I would never cry at a Mandy Moore movie. Never.

When we drove as far west as the road would take us, and we finally saw the ocean, with Haystack Rock protruding up from the waves, Rumi said “Gooniizu!” The rocks were used in the filming of The Goonies, so we parked and walked down Cannon Beach to them. She pointed out where the pirate ship should be between the rocks if the scene were true to the movie’s finale. She turned north and wanted to know where the restaurant was that the Goonies kids tunneled below to find the pirate treasure. I said I thought they built it in Ecola State Park and then destroyed it, and that where the rest of the movie took place, the cave and the ship with the treasure, was probably a sound stage in L.A. We walked to a real restaurant and had fish and chips.

While we ate fries, Rumi showed me her pink digital camera — which she bought because Ebichan advertised it — and a photo of her boyfriend’s back. She had tagged it with a permanent pen while he slept. She had spelled out with Japanese letters in English words, “Waasuto boifurendo ebaaa” (worst boyfriend ever). She had drawn a pile of feces and written in Japanese unco, or poop. I knew she lotioned her hands and slept in gloves to keep them soft at night, and I wondered if she had worn them while tagging and photographing him.

“How many days was it on his back before he noticed?” I asked.

“Three,” she said. “I had to do it. He was sleeping and his so white skin so look like before painting…”

“A canvas?” I asked.

“He’s my type: feminine. But insides terrible.”

We drove to Astoria, but I didn’t know where the Goonies house was. I asked a man standing in his lawn if he knew where it was. He gave us directions, and said, “As a bonus, at the end of this block is the Free Willy house.” I checked with Rumi to see if she had seen Free Willy or cared about Free Willy. “No, only Gooniizu house,” she said, because she was feeling impatient to get there and had never seen Free Willy.

Rumi clapped when she recognized the house perched above the bay, where the mouth of the Colombia river meets the ocean. The light was pink, and I parked so we could walk up the gravel path to get a better look at the house. It didn’t seem super-glamorous in a Hollywood way, but it did seem like an impressive and — to me, in that moment, next to Rumi — prototypically American-looking home. It faced west toward the setting sun in the Pacific, and toward Japan.

Rumi and I walked around and wished we could go in the house for a while. She said she wanted to see the attic where the Goonies found the treasure map. She said the house was now painted a different color, and did I remember when Chunk stood right there in front of the house doing the Truffle Shuffle with his shirt pulled up? She was so familiar with the place it was as if she had been there hundreds of times. But of course, it was her very first time there. Rumi said, “Today my dream come true,” and I couldn’t tell if the overstatement was a function of her limited language ability, or if a dream had really come true for her.

We stood at the Goonies house, our destination, for a long time and talked. Rumi had a paper due. “Why do I forget subjects…and sometimes objects in sentences?” she asked.

“And articles,” I added.

“And prepositions?”

“Oh, and proper tenses, too,” I said, laughing. Then I apologized: “English has lots of stupid rules.” I told her I hardly understood English grammar and punctuation either. When the light faded we started to head back so she could get some more work done before the weekend was over.

I have a suspicion a lot of my English as a Second Language students grew up on American movies like The Goonies, associating the romance, the thrill, and the mystery of big budget Hollywood blockbusters with an actual place, but when they finally find themselves in America, and it turns out to be a real place, a very specific place, in fact a classroom in Oregon where they receive nasty notes in red pen from their English teacher, they feel mislead, lost, and not at all in the America they dreamed of. • 22 February 2008