SHANGHAI — The laughing Buddha towers over us, a bulging golden figure sparkling in the firelight and beaming through ashy smoke. Small, weathered women with crinkled skin and wispy gray hair kneel on the silky red cushions before the statue, making eye contact with only the floor as they hold their incense high and pray. Lining the ceiling are red lanterns, hangings, and tiny golden statues.
My dad wipes sweat off his bald spot, frowns through the clip-on shades of his spectacles, and adjusts his fanny pack.

Traveling in my family has always been a paradox. We are Hindus who wait hours in line at the Vatican. We go to the Bahamas and spend the whole day indoors reading. And here, at The Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, my parents harangue our guide with loud questions and snap pictures as people pray and my brother and I lurk behind.

“You speak Mandarin or Shanghainese?” my mom asked our tour guide when he greeted us at the airport.

“What?” he said.

“Mandarin—you know, the language, or Shanghainese? Or Cantonese? Which Chinese?” She had read up on China on the plane and, overpriced LonelyPlanet guide in hand, was eager to show that she wasn’t the average ignorant tourist.

“Oh yes, I speak Chinese,” he said, nodding and smiling. My mom gave up. He proceeded to tell us his name was…well, we weren’t quite sure, but we settled on “MacDaff,” after a variety of options ranging from “Magdeath” to “McDuff.” At the end of the trip, when we saw it in writing, we learned that his name was actually “Mega Death.” Obviously.

Not that it mattered to my parents, who changed the pronunciation every time they called his name.

Pronunciation has always been a problem with my parents. They insist on pronouncing the name “Tara” with an Indian tone. (“It is Indian,” my mom insists after meeting a Jewish friend with the name.) They exaggerate their borderline inappropriate versions of accents when saying an ethnic name in Spanish or a city name here in China, and they exchange “w” with “v” (“Vow, vunderful”). The problem is, they either take themselves too seriously or find themselves absolutely hilarious. I just cringe.
It all started when I took elementary Mandarin my first year at Harvard. Chinese is an extraordinary language. The sound “ma,” when said with one of four different tones, can mean mother, hemp, horse, or scold. “Mama ma ma” can mean “Mother scolded the horse.” The language relies on the intricacies of tone and the movements of the mouth, tongue, and throat rather than only the sounds.

“Why are you taking Chinese? Why not Tamil?” my grandmother asked me in a tone that implied I had disappointed the family in a way equivalent to buying milk at overpriced Pathmark rather than the Indian grocery store.

I, too, sometimes wonder why exactly I love Chinese so much.

I figured it out most when my family and I landed here in China. We got a lot of stares. Apparently there aren’t a lot of circa-six-foot Indians in China. We were clearly tourists. But the occasional Chinese word from me gave street vendors pause.

Instant gratification came in the form of the power of having a secret weapon: language. In America, no one would speak in loud English to share a secret. We expect that people know English. But here, Chinese was lobbed to and fro, expected to be way over our heads. But even with only one year under my belt, I caught some words.

“Ta men shi Indu ren?” asked one woman to our guide at a jewelry store, wondering if we were from India. “Bushi, women shi meiguoren,” I automatically said, telling her we were American. Taken aback, she scampered away laughing, and stood in a far corner with her friends, pointing and whispering.

Bargaining, something I usually run away from (I always felt bad that I was trying to lower the price of someone’s livelihood), is fun here because I can practice my Chinese and strike up conversation with the locals. People are always pleasantly surprised when you take the time to learn their language (except with English). Practicing with a calligraphy maobi, I wrote out my name in characters, and the old man behind the counter almost fell over with surprise and excitement. I talked to a group of store clerks about Hafo daxue here in Cambridge, its high tuition, and even a little about my older brother (who was clueless and standing beside me the whole time).

The best (and worst) was when we were about to get duped. Turns out our tour guide “MacDaff” wasn’t an angel. I guess we should have guessed his reckless personality when he told my parents, both doctors, that he regularly downs 7 beers in 10 minutes. My mother was horrified.

At the entrance to the Jade Temple, one sign said admission cost 10 yuan, another said 20 yuan. My parents insisted that it said 10 yuan in the guidebook, and they wanted to pay that. The lady selling the tickets had limited English, so MacDuff was supposed to translate our request.

“San shi yuan,” he cajoled.

“San shi…that means 30?” I thought to myself, confused. Weren’t we asking for 10?

He was trying to dupe us. The funny thing is, I just assumed that I had understood wrong. My mom, knowing no Chinese, knew immediately from the expression on his face that he was being sneaky. I guess there are some things you can learn from language and some from just being human.

My parents stick out like sore thumbs, but they’re quick learners. When we walk the crowded streets, people run after us trying to sell overpriced trinkets and “real” Coach handbags that they show you only on paper. (“Please friend, come to the backroom to see!”) MacDuff, for all his vices, rightfully told us to beware of the “hockers” the first day. (I thought he said “hookers.”)

We don’t stall, but they follow us. “Bu yao,” I say, which means “do not want.” Sometimes that stops them.

And so there came a point when the instant my dad got off the bus, he would shout “Booyah! Booyah!” and I would double up in laughter.

We may laugh at signs that say “Take Care for Oldster and Child” on the escalator or when the guide tried to tell us about a Chinese mythological creature that has no anus. But I’m sure that here in Shanghai, people are laughing at us Indian-American, tall, hungry vegetarians. It’s the laughter, the comedy of language, that makes it all worth it.

And the Buddha is laughing too.

Originally Published: Friday, July 11, 2008 by The Harvard Crimson (link)