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In Translation

by LMJT 

Posted: 14 September 2014
Word Count: 998
Summary: For this week's travel themed flash.

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When I moved to Shanghai, I bought a bike for my short commute from the guest house to the sixth form where I would be teaching English.

In those first few weeks of September, as I adjusted to the time difference, I cycled around the busy streets to clear my mind before bed and familiarise myself with my surroundings.

The ride became a nightly routine and it was toward the end of my first term that I saw one of my better students – Ron – leaving a supermarket with his mother.

I slowed down and stepped off my bike, welcoming the distraction. I still didn’t really know anyone in the area and it was comforting to see Ron’s familiar face in a sea of strangers.

‘Hi Ron,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘Sir.’

‘I’m Simon,’ I said to his mother. ‘One of Ron’s teachers.’

‘She doesn’t speak English,’ Ron said. ‘She can’t understand.’

He turned to his mother and they spoke in rapid Cantonese.

‘She’s saying you should give me extra lessons,’ he said. ‘If you can come to our house on Saturdays, she’s happy to pay you.’

This struck me as strange since Ron wasn’t in need of extra tuition, but the thought of additional income was instantly appealing. I was beginning to like Shanghai and hoped to stay beyond my placement, which meant making more money.

‘Well, if you think that would help,’ I replied.  

Ron smiled. ‘We can start next weekend, yes?’

‘No problem,’ I nodded, flattered that my newfound teaching skills seemed to be appreciated.

On Friday afternoon, as class cleared out and I packed away my books, Ron stayed behind.

‘You are still coming to my house tomorrow?’ he asked hesitantly, as if I’d have changed my mind.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘10am, wasn’t it? I’m pretty flexible at the moment though, so if you need to make it later-,’

‘10am is fine,’ he said, handing me a neatly folded piece of paper. ‘This is my address. And my cell number. Text me when you’re outside.’

Ron’s family’s house was in Pudong, an affluent area of Shanghai, and I followed him down a palatial hallway into a sleek, expansive kitchen where sunlight streamed through French windows and across sparkling marble worktops.

‘This house is incredible, Ron,’ I said. ‘Have you always lived here?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It was my father’s project for years. Would you like tea?’

‘Please,’ I replied. ‘So, what does your father do?’

‘He’s a Chief Executive for HSBC. He works in Beijing now. We never see him.’

He handed me my tea, then gestured to a door at the side of the kitchen and led me into a study. The walls lined with shelves of books of all different genres, but all in English.

‘Have you read all of these?’ I asked.

‘Those I have read.’ He pointed to the first two shelves. ‘The others I will read sometime.’

I looked at him. ‘You know, your English is excellent, Ron. Surely you could find more enjoyable ways to spend your weekend than this.’

‘Actually, I don’t have a lot do at the weekend, Mr Harris.’

I flinched at his honesty, but laughed at the formality. At 22, I was just five years his senior and the idea of being an authoritative figure was ridiculous. 

‘Please, don’t call me Mr Harris outside the classroom. Simon is fine.’

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Simon.  Yes, that’s better. Simon.’

He held my gaze as he repeated my name and, for the first time, I saw self-assurance in his eyes. Though his grades were consistently high, in class he was always subdued and, at lunchtimes, always alone in the library, never with friends.

I looked away, busying myself with textbooks.

‘I thought we could start by looking at the piece you wrote about the future,’ I said. ‘It’s strong. You just need to watch your use of tense in places.’

We spent the morning reviewing his essay on the journalistic career he aspired to, but – aside from a few typos and grammatical errors - I didn’t feel like I was teaching him anything new.

We hadn’t agreed a time to finish, so when it got to midday, I said, ‘Well, I think that’s enough.’

‘You can’t stay longer?’ Ron asked.

His neediness startled me. ‘I have some chores to get on with this afternoon,’ I lied.

‘But you’ll come again next week?’

‘Of course,’ I replied as he handed me 500 RMB. ‘If that’s what you want.’

‘That is what I want,’ Ron said. ‘Very much.’

These Saturday sessions carried on until the end of term when Ron told me his father had been sent to London for work and he, Ron, and his mother had been invited to spend Christmas in the UK.

When I cleared away my books, he gave me a bottle of wine and a card and said, ‘Please open this in private.’

I stopped in a café on the way back to my room and opened the card he had given me. On the front was a white fortune cat, and inside the card, in his neat script, he had written:

‘’Dear Simon,

Thank you for bettering my English. You have been patent and I appreciate your time.


Then, underneath, in the same printed writing:

‘’Nothing is more curious and awkward than the relationship of two people who only know each other with their eyes. Who meet and observe each other daily, even hourly and who keep up the impression of disinterest either because of morals or because of a mental abnormality.’
A Death in Venice, Thomas Mann.’’

I read the excerpt twice before really understanding its implication and, over the Christmas period, prepared what I would say to Ron when I saw him in the New Year.

But I needn’t have troubled myself because he didn’t return to school.

I never heard from him again and even now, 10 years on, I wonder what he’s doing.

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Comments by other Members

euclid at 10:53 on 14 September 2014  Report this post
He's running a bank somewhere. :)

I don’t have a lot [to] do at the weekend,
You have been pat[i]ent and I appreciate your time.

This was a splendid, subtle story.
It works because of the intractable social reserve of
the English, matched only by the Chinese.


PS my power connection has failed, my time online
rapidly running out....


V`yonne at 13:02 on 14 September 2014  Report this post
Thnak you Liam. A lovely subtlety about this story and  you really do build that 'Lost in Translation' feel. Of course what was lost in translation here was explained by Death in Venice.

I did guess that it was the boy himself who wanted the teacher to come to the house since he translated what his mother said and didn't need English lessons.

The mother rather disappeared. I realise the story was not about her but in a longer version you could develop her if you liked.

I liked the ending. It leaves a lot to discover. I could see this as a developing story, you know. It has a lovely tone and is well written.

Thank you.

Bazz at 13:14 on 14 September 2014  Report this post
Hi Liam, I like the subtlety of this story, it's very well written, but i feel the ending might be a little too abrupt, could there be more detail about why he never comes back to school, does he choose not to come back, is there a second letter perhaps? And I might be wrong but "Ron" doesn't seem a very chinese name, that took me out of the story slightly, it made me wonder if Ron's father was english, and if that were the case, how come he doesn't know more english already?

LMJT at 20:17 on 14 September 2014  Report this post
Belated thanks for your comments everyone. 

Oonah - Yes, you're right, the mother did disappear! I am planning on expanding this piece, so I'll think about what role she plays as and when I do so. 

Bazz - I struggled with the ending (as always!) Good idea that maybe there would be a second letter or message through Facebook years later or something. Ron isn't a particularly Chinese name, is it?! I was completely oblivious to that until you pointed it out. I think it's because I knew someone at uni from China who was called Ron, but I think that was his assumed English name rather than Chinese name. 

Thanks again for the time you all took to read. 


TassieDevil at 09:23 on 15 September 2014  Report this post
Hi Liam,
A belated comment. The almost impersonal, reserved tone worked very well and I enjoyed the ending also. I had a Chinese friend called Ray at school so I had no problems with Ron, especially if he were attempting to anglicise himself and relate to his teacher. In fact the incongruity of the name might jar at first but is not a distraction. I had an open mind about where it was going and wasn't disappointed.

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