To explain the Chinese word for a legal “right,” my teacher used the example of alcohol. “A little kid doesn’t have the right to drink beer,” she made the class repeat in Chinese, “but I do have the right.” A second and third time we drew this distinction. Our class amounted to a bunch of foreigners loudly, slowly, and incoherently distinguishing ourselves from children by alcohol tolerance. We may have sounded drunk. I saw a few Chinese kids laughing outside the window. I couldn’t blame them.
To pound the point home, my teacher started cold-calling, asking us to repeat the sentence individually. The Chinese kids had stayed in the window, realizing they had front-row seats. My name came third. “Little kids don’t have the right to drink beer,” I began, “But I do—”
“No you don’t!” Said a Chinese accent that sounded like mine. I turned and saw the only other American in the class, a man in his mid-twenties, pointing his finger and scowling. We had introduced ourselves earlier, so he knew my age. Then again, so did everyone else.
“In the United States,” my American colleague started, “he’s too young to drink. You have to be 21.” So much for sticking by your countrymen.
“Is that true?” the teacher asked. We had recently learned a grammar pattern for comparison, and now she whipped it out. “Are you like a small child in that you can’t drink beer?”
I intended to clarify in English. Just as I had lifted my tongue for some Anglo-Saxon, very un-Chinese sound, though, one of the four identical, massive signs in the room caught my eye: “CHINESE ONLY. DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH, [KOREAN] OR [JAPANESE].” That also ruled out Korean and Japanese. It would have been hard, anyway, since I speak neither.
“Well?” my teacher said.
“In China I can drink, but in the United States I can’t,” I said in first-day-of-class Chinese.
“Is that because your mom and dad don’t know?” The Chinese outside the room were pink with laughter. And my classmates were, too.
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” I said.
Then she asked for my parents’ email, home address, and cell phone numbers.
After a few jabs at the expense of American alcohol policy, the teacher returned to the vocabulary list: “elbow.” My classmates, try as they might, could not link this new word with the dubious legality of my drinking.
“When he bumps his elbow, it’s like when he is drunk, which he is not allowed to be,” said a girl from Kazakhstan.
“We all have elbows, but he doesn’t have the right to drink in the United States,” said the friendly American.
After class, a few classmates and I hung around and talked about our weekends. The teacher stayed also, hovering by the “CHINESE ONLY” sign.
The conversations drifted to hometowns, favorite foods, music interests, and reasons for studying at Tsinghua. Our goals ranged from getting a business edge to impressing some long lost Chinese family to learning Beijing Opera. Despite all the differences, though, no one displayed any more nationalism than my countryman had earlier.
We had come here to learn, from the Chinese and from each other.
“Yes, everyone except you wants to learn,” someone from Pakistan told me. “You probably just came to drink.”