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18 November 2015

The English Student

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At first you listened every time another man stepped out from the crowd, leaned forward and called you “my friend.” You wanted to be polite. Then you realized that every time this happened he’d take it as an opening and try to sell you something. So then you started saying “no.” But this didn’t work either. A single word, even a negative one, was all they needed to launch into their pitch. So now you just say nothing. You keep your eyes forward, locked in the crowd, and under no circumstances do you stop walking. Though the markets are, obviously, the worst for this, every street, empty or full, becomes a minefield of strangers selling anything and everything, and nothing you want. So you keep walking, eyes ahead, and occasionally check the time on your cheap watch, as if you are not just seeing the sights, but on your way to somewhere important.

But there are no absolutes in life. A rule developed from experience can lead you astray. Though you try your best to ignore this new boy, who looks to be maybe 14, he sticks with you, asking your name, where you are from. At first you are annoyed, but he is persistent, and there is something strange about his questions. They seem stilted, hesitant, as if this is not a spiel he goes through every day. And he has only a backpack. So why not, you tell him your name, you tell him where you are from, and he is delighted. He asks what your favorite color is, what you like to eat. You answer dutifully. Then you ask after his name, his home, his favorite color, and you realize he is enjoying this. The boy’s interpersonal skills extend beyond language, and he senses your confusion. “I want to practice my English,” he says. “I have been studying hard in school, but it is hard to learn how to speak English without any English speakers.”

This seems so real, so reasonable, that you keep talking to him. The two of you weave through the crowds and across the city as you allow the structure of your sentences to grow in complexity. How much time passes, you have no idea. The salesmen leave you alone, the barkers seek other clients. The city becomes familiar, as you, like everyone else, traverse it in conversation, teaching and learning. What do you learn? Keep your mind open, and don’t let the assholes ruin it for everyone.

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