Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thursday's Special Is...Repeat After Me!

REPEAT AFTER ME by Rachel DeWoskin

Rachel DeWoskin has been lauded for her “razor-sharp descriptions” (The Wall Street Journal), her “considerable cultural and linguistic resources (The New Yorker), and her rare ability to offer “a real insider’s look at life in modern China” (The Economist). Now DeWoskin, author of the hilarious and poignant memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing, returns with a new novel about a young ESL teacher, a troubled Chinese intellectual, and a very unexpected New York romance.

Aysha is a 22-year old New Yorker struggling to put pieces back in place after her parents' divorce and her own shattering nervous breakdown. With her college career on hold, she teaches English to foreigners just to keep her own days straight until a young Chinese student named Da Ge walks into Aysha's classroom fresh from Beijing and challenges her shaky stance until upside-down and right-side up become impossible for either to identify. From rollicking performances in ESL class to dinner dates in Chinatown, Da Ge takes Aysha on a tour of her own world, and at first seems to offer an escape from grief in the form of a bewildering, exhilarating romance. But reeling from the recent Tiananmen Square massacre and electrified by American culture shock, Da Ge also turns to Aysha for a kind of comfort she can't identify and he ultimately can't accept. When he asks her to marry him, his secrets turn out tragically familiar. As Aysha tries to collect, understand, and honor Da Ge's words, her exploration gives all of us a view into how we recover from trauma, both personal and political -- only to find ourselves in the most astonishing places.

An intercultural love story that spans decades and continents, from Tiananmen Square’s June 4th to the World Trade Center’s September 11th, New York City's upper west side to the terraced mountains of South China, Repeat After Me is a manic story of love and misunderstanding, of fantasies and frenzied cities. Funny, irreverent, touching and provocative, Rachel DeWoskin’s novel is above all an exploration of how to write your own story, how to decide where the record begins.

Excerpt from REPEAT AFTER ME

I met Da Ge on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 1989. New York was orange and confident then, leaves breezing the curbs and towers poking above the skyline. I was teaching English as a second language at a school called Embassy when he arrived two weeks and fifteen minutes late. He stood in the doorway watching the class with an expression it was hard to identify—some combination of grin, smirk, and sneer. I thought he might be shy.

“Hi,” I said, “come on in.”

He didn’t move. “I’m Da Ge,” he said, hacking the G out of his throat. Dah Guh. I thought maybe people mispronounced his name all the time. Or that he was a chain smoker and couldn’t speak without choking. When he looked up, it was from the tops of his eyes, with the sullen affect of a teenager.

“The G is hard,” he added. “Dah. Guh.” I smiled, delighted that he knew the difference between a hard and a soft consonant. Maybe he’d be my teacher’s pet.

Although I must say he didn’t look the part. My students and I stared at him, curious. He was wiry, wearing ill-fitting jeans held up by a metal belt. He had a double-breasted navy blue wool coat, which although clearly expensive, gave him a bird-scaring affect. A scar extended from his left cheekbone to his jaw, raw and raised enough to seem recent. His hair flopped over his eyes, and he pushed it out of the way several times. He had the cumulative undereye shadows that mark a real insomniac, and surprisingly shiny shoes. He carried a blue backpack.

When he turned to take a seat, I noticed that the backpack had a cartoon duck and rabbit on it, both wearing spacesuits. Planets floated by. Under the duck were the letters “Ur,” followed by a hyphen. Under the rabbit it said, “anus.” It took me a minute. Uranus! It was a teachable moment; I should have explained why it’s safest not to hyphenate certain words. But I was too chicken.

“Hi, Da Ge,” I said. “I’m Aysha Silvermintz. You can call me Aysha.”

He didn’t respond. I turned to the class.

"Run,” I said.

“Ran,” they said back to me.


Someone said, “Will ran,” someone else, “Running!”

“Ingyum,” I coaxed. “Tomorrow I . . .” She looked away.

“Someone help her,” I said. No one responded.

“Da Ge?”


“Do you know the future tense of run?”

He stared at me lazily, moving his eyes from my shoulders down to my waist and then back up. I felt something like irritation rise hot to the roots of my hair in a blush.

“Run,” he said. I tried to mask my annoyance.

“What does it require in front of it?”

“Something to chase.”

So his English was too good for my class. I decided to let him carry the backpack for the rest of his life.

What is the best language slip you’ve ever said or heard?
A copy of Repeat After Me and a special surprise gift.


Chris Eldin said...

Good Morning Everyone!

I know we have a few international readers---I hope you chime in for this one! I love books with a bi-cultural theme, and this looks like a terrific read!!

McKoala said...

LOL, that's a great extract.

And Rachel is far more attractive than the roastee I was expecting to find here...

Language slips. I've had a few. Never can quite get to grips with Possum.

Chris Eldin said...

LOL, Koala!!! Looks from your expression, you've "slipped" up one too many times!

I give my kids Gatorade when they're sick. They used to call it "Gator Ache" thinking that was its real name.

Chris Eldin said...

Don't know what to say about your comment about Rachel being attractive. We're not supposed to talk openly about the rest of us here being butt-ugly. But since you opened the topic, I'd like to go ahead and say I think Shona is in serious need of a makeover. First of all, she's too skinny. And I've seen her with coffee stains on her shirt. tsk, tsk.

Sylvia said...

I suppose the worst one (which I've told recently but not sure where, stop me if you've heard this before) was when 10-year-old me stood up in an anatomy lesson and explained to the teacher that she was mightily confused and people do NOT breath through their diaphragm. My mother wanted to make sure I knew the basics of sex ed and birth control from an early age. As a result, I knew exactly what a diaphragm was for and I proceeded, apparently, to give a demonstration to the class.

Danette Haworth said...

Best overheard slip: My little boy belting out a song from church, supposed to be "Praise ye, the Lord!"

As sung by son: Crazy the Lord!

laughingwolf said...

welcome rachel: neat excerpt, chris :)

the mis-cue i like most: hearing 'london derriere' for 'londonderry aire' ;) lol

Stephen Parrish said...

Hi Rachel. You had me at "two weeks and fifteen minutes late." And that wonderful last line. If I had the book in front of me I wouldn't stop reading.

I live in Europe so I've heard my share of bungled English. When I moved into my current house the woman next door introduced herself to me: "Hi, I'm your neighborhood!" And it wasn't even a pick-up line, darn it all.

My favorite example is when one (native) relative, eager to demonstrate his knowledge of U.S. geography, referred to Kansas and Ar-Kansas.

Sam said...

Sounds like a terrific story!
My favorite English blip was spoken by my own then 3 yr old son.

"I want you to behave!" I snapped at him.

He looked at me sorrowfully and said, "But I am haive."

Rachel said...

Great excerpt! I'm so excited to read this book now.

I'm living in the Netherlands right now so I make a great many blunders...but in Dutch. The one that caused the most laughter at work has to do with a bottle scraper. In the Netherlands there's a device designed for getting every last drop out of bottles, very popular and I wanted one. They are called "bottle lickers" which in Dutch is 'fleslikker.' I got one as a gift and was telling my colleagues but I accidentally used the pronunciation for 'vleeslikker.' Just one extra "e" turns "bottle licker" into "meat licker." So I said, "I love my meat licker." Everyone had a good laugh.

(for those interested, in English 'fles' would rhyme with bess and 'vlees' would rhyme with base, also both v and f sound like an English f)

Barrie said...

Hi Rachel! What a great excerpt. If I had your book in front of me, I would never start on today's to-do list! I'll be back with a language slip. Must think...

moonrat said...

awesome excerpt! so funny!

i have a terrible story; it's not funny at all. once, i was visiting my japanese friend in japan and her mother took me to a very famous tea house to see a tea ceremony. the woman performing the ceremony showed me a picture of the school's founder. i asked (i thought) if he was living.

turns out, i failed to use the polite verb form the situation required, and essentially asked something along the lines of, "so has he croaked yet?" woops. the entire room fell silent, and the instructor after a moment was like, "neee. we don't really SAY that in japanese, neee." my friend's mother was mortified and rushed me out of the teahouse before i desecrated it further. also, my friend and i drifted apart after that; i can't help but think it had to do with the teahouse.

Anonymous said...

Welcome Rachel!!

I love the exchange in the excerpt. Something to chase, indeed.

Rachel said...

Hi guys! Love these anecdotes - thank you! And thanks for the kind words about the book.

Isn't it funny how whenever we're in foreign lands we speak in third languages? I mean the ones that exist between what we mean to say and what we've actually said. . .

I always remind myself after my own worst mistakes (they're numerous and horrifying) with what the whimsical Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi once said, "Language is like a fish net. Once the fish are caught, you can throw the net away. Once the idea is caught, you can throw the words away.”

Isn't that comforting?

jalexissmith said...

Spending a year working at a Japanese high school provided many funny instances. A few of my favorites:

My fellow teacher who was trying to explain how overworked he was by saying, "I am chewing more than I bite." Another time this man told me, "I am totally snowed under at this job! I am a snowman!" But I think my very favorite instance was when I came into work one day and he asked me if I had felt the ass quack. "Ass quack?" I asked. "Yes, ass quack. You know.... rumble rumble..." And then I realized... this man (yes, an accomplished and devoted English teacher) had a lot of trouble pronouncing Rs and THs. "OH! EARTHQUAKE!..... yes, yes, I felt the earthquake, err ass quake."

Jolie said...

This novel sounds great! It deals with some issues that might be relevant to my own current writing project, so I may have to pick up a copy.

My language barrier story: I once had an British tour guide in France whose name was Nick. He told us this story about going to meet the family of a French girl he once dated. He introduced himself as "Neek," because of how French people pronounce the I vowel, but this was a big mistake ...

The girlfriend's family and friends had a blast calling out his name all night, "Neek! Neek!" because "nique," the French word for "screw," (yes, in the dirty way) is pronounced the same way. Poor Nick didn't figure this out until the end of the night.

Dave Fragments said...

I was very good friends with a restaurant owner (great Chinese food) and one of his young employees (male) convinced a 20 year old girl from Thailand to ask me what and where her "G" spot was... She didn't know much English and I didn't speak Thai. NOT that I wanted to answer that question. I think she realized that when my eyes bugged out and twirled around two or three times.
I sputtered and tried to possibly think of an answer that might possibly be an appropriate response (didn't find it then, still can't figure out one now) but eventually told her to go ask the owner (I didn't think she would ask him but she did...) A few days later the owner (my good friend) begged forgiveness for his employee urging her into ask the question.

There was no dignified way out of that question.

The most "language" fun I ever had was with a group of Chinese scientists who joined our workforce for two years. They only had 6 weeks of intensive English and just murdered the language. They knew nothing colloquial. If you gave them a puzzled look, they knew... They knew... And they were good sports.

"REPEAT AFTER ME" is an interesting book.

Dave Fragments said...

This isn't language but about photocopiers.

Back in the mid and late 80's when the Chinese scientists visited, their institute did not have a photocopier.

The one researcher (Doctor Chang) told us about their "copier"... The man would take two pens and two pieces of paper and reading the original copy, make two identical and simultaneous copies of that paper. One lefty, one right. That is impressive.

Doctor Chang mailed at least 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch thick bunch of technical papers back to his coworkers each day. They didn't have the budget for technical journals. They would share the one copy he sent many times over.

Me and my secretary told him once that we would give him the XEROX machine BUT, he had to buy paper only from us... He thought about that for 30 seconds before he busted out laughing. Apparently humor needs a few seconds to translate.

Rachel DeWoskin said...

Love it. Assquacks, terrible teahouse insults, meat lickers, neeks and the little guy who promises he "is 'haive.'" What could be more fun?

I hope you guys like the poem in Repeat After Me, "The Stupid Jeff," a real ESL poem I got years ago from a fabulous student. Sometimes the wrong things we say are clearer than any other expressions could ever be, don't you think?

Seems to me that language spoken by people w/o access to cliche can often be super expressive, even when bizarre - the snowman is a great example of that. . .

Anyone have good written ones?

xo, Rachel

Sarah Laurenson said...

Love the excerpt!

As for language issues - I work with engineers who should be able to speak and write english since it's the only language they know. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Just yesterday, one of them used the word prevelant when they meant relevant.

Chris Eldin said...

LOL, Sylvia! Yes, I can see where that area of sex ed would have a lot of humor!!!

Danette, that made me spew coffee!! Very funny!!

Chris Eldin said...

LW, Are butts bigger in London?

Stephen, AHAHAHAH! Well? Did you follow through? We won't tell...
And I agree!! This excerpt leaves you wanting more!

Chris Eldin said...

Sam, Very very cute!!!

Rachel, I will remember that one for a long, long time!

Barrie, do come back!

Moonie,you are a bad, bad tea guest. I will never have tea with you, after hearing this story.
(Just kidding!)

Chris Eldin said...

Jason, I love that part!

Hi Rachel! We're really happy to have you over here!! That's an evocative proverb, thanks for sharing.


laughingwolf said...

depends on the diet methinks, chris ;) lol

Meredith said...

I'm halfway through with Repeat After Me, and I'm totally loving it. As a bi-racial person, I really appreciated that Rachel took a candid look at the way interracial couples have to deal with cultural misunderstandings and societal pressure.

As to the language slips...My friend and I were out to dinner with a few Japanese friends. One word for dialect is "-ben," attached to whatever location. For example, people from Osaka speak Osaka-ben. One of the girls started speaking really intensely in the Nagoya dialect, and my friend said, "Ben ga deta!" which she thought meant, "Your accent really came out!" All of the Japanese girls started laughing so hard they were crying. It turns out that when you don't append a place name to "-ben," it's slang for poop. In other words, she declared that poop came out.

laughingwolf said...

a fun one, rachel:


Once there was an elephant
Who tried to use the telephant.

No, No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone!

(Dear me I am not certain quite
that even now I've got it right!)

However it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telefunk.

The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telefee!

I fear I'd better drop the song
Of Elephop and telephong.

~Laura E. Richards

Unknown said...

When my mom gets frustrated, she says she's bumfuzzled.

Rachel DeWoskin said...

Thanks, Meredith! I'm so glad you're liking the book.

And the elephont poem is rollicking! I'm about to read it to my four year old and get her take. (over some gator-ache, perhaps)

Bumfuzzled! Love it.

xo, Rachel

Rachel said...

These are hilarious! I need to stop drinking while reading as it's all coming through my nose.

I came by this today so even though I've already posted I thought it would be fun to share considering the topic...

cindy said...

love the excerpt and the book premise. congratulations to rachel!! my two favorite language slips :

my sister came to the US as a teen. while searching through the papers for a film to see, she went to my mom and suggested we go watch NOW PLAYING! haha! it was in big letters and all. =)

from my sweet pea, who isn't esl BUT is in kindy and learning the nuances of english. she told me one night :

mommy, jimmy told me that he can speak porkacheese!

still possibly a favorite of mine.

i'm sure i've made many language slips being esl--i thought the pledge of allegience ended with "justice frog". and couldn't understand it AT ALL. but memory fails me. =)


Charles Gramlich said...

Well this is sort of a slip. I grew up in the rural south but went to grad school with mostly urban northerners. One time when we were debating about something over lunch I used the good old Arkansas term, "Well shoot fire." I'll never forget the laughter that one evoked. I sort of got the reputation as a yokel after that one.

Chris Eldin said...

Thanks for dropping by, everyone!! These are all cracking me up!!


laughingwolf said...

as in lighting farts, charles? :O lol

laughingwolf said...

oooops, forgot! i'd like to know what your 4-yr-old thinks of it, rachel :)

Rachel DeWoskin said...

This isn't in the book, so I'll tell you all here that I once announced to a crowd of Chinese friends that my professors in college castrate their students. Who knew that a tonal slip in Chinese can change the word "strict" to the word "castrate"?

(apparently 1.6 billion people knew that, but I wasn't one of them until after I made the mistake in public!)

Thanks so much for all your hilarious stories - and for reading the excerpt and chatting about Repeat After Me! I so hope you like it - drop by my website or email me anytime to chat about language or books.


Rachel DeWoskin

KR said...

The book sounds great!! Can you believe that I teach kindergarten and I'm drawing a total blank???? I did have a kid this year write shit instead of shot when copying her spelling words. I didn't even catch it and sent the paper home. The next day, Mom called the principal to say I was teaching inappropriate spelling words...sheesh!

I'll keep thinking so...maybe when I see their darling faces tomorrow I'll remember!

Shona Snowden said...

*gasp* I'd like to go ahead and say I think Shona is in serious need of a makeover. First of all, she's too skinny. And I've seen her with coffee stains on her shirt. tsk, tsk.Can't be me. I don't drink coffee.

Lovely extract!

Sylvia said...


This just appeared in my inbox, exact subject line:

What is the G-Spot - And Where is Ijt?*looks at Dave F* Did you give her my address?

Chris Eldin said...

LOL, Sylvia!! Dave's G-spot commentary had me ROTFLMAO!!!

About two hours to go, plenty of time for a chance to win a signed book!!

Carlene said...

Well lets see one slip that comes to mind is when my kids were small they would tell me they needed some chap lip. I had no idea what they wanted until we went to the store and my son started screaming there is the chap lip. He wanted Chap stick for his chapped lips. One other time my son came in crying saying his uncle was hurting. I was trying to figure out was hurt or bleeding. When he settled down and I could talk to him. He said his uncle bone was hurting. I ask were is your uncle bone. He then pointed to his ankle. He thought it was elbone and uncle bone. Kids, they make you laugh.

Thanks Carlene

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Carlene,

I love the uncle bone!!

Well, it's a bit after 9pm. Either Rachel or one of her writerly friends will be by sometime tonight to announce the winner of a free copy of her book.

Thanks so much for your support!!!

Dave Fragments said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Fragments said...

Sylvia wrote:
This just appeared in my inbox, exact subject line:
What is the G-Spot - And Where is Ijt?* looks at Dave F* Did you give her my address?

Heaven's no, I didn't give her your email. I never give out emails. BTW - It's on your profile. Click on your name in the comment list and you can find it.

I would never answer that question. Especially to a young waitress sending all she makes back to finance her brother's education. I wanted to crawl away rather than embarrass her.

But, Googling it will most likely get one hell of a result. Especially if you have a firewall at work.

Sylvia said...

Dave: I know you wouldn't. It was viagra spam. What an odd coincidence of the subject line, though.

I can't imagine answering the question either (and I agree it was mean thing for her colleague to do to her).

I once told Scottish hotel worker that the word for "Arsehole" in German was Erdbeerkuchen. There was a coach/bus load of German tourists arriving and my suspicion was right, she ended up muttering Erdbeerkuchen at them in a mean way. The staff in the restaurant later asked me why the German tourists all kept asking for strawberry tarts as they weren't on the menu.

I told them I had no idea... :)

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Everyone,

Thanks so much for participating!!!
The winner of a free copy of Rachel's book, drawn randomly, is Dave F. (And bonus because his comments were funny!)

Please email me and we'll work out the details.

Thanks again!!!! Happy reading...