Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The interpreter was with Stacey at the bird sanctuary.  His days off were not a lot different from working days, except it meant that he didn’t have to wear a name tag and only had to speak to people of his own choosing.

He was taking a series of pictures of a great blue heron, who, cooperatively, was standing 20 yards beyond a large, bright, interpretive sign all about great blue herons, and featuring prominently a large, clear picture of a great blue heron in exactly the same pose as the bird directly behind it.  “This is great,” he said. 

“The heron must have been trained to do that,” said Stacey.

And then a young woman’s voice came from behind, “Look, Carly, a crane!”

“Crane?” said the interpreter.

The interpreter turned to find a family of four.  The parents were young and lean, late twenties or early thirties, dressed head to toe in Mountain Equipment Coop.  They oozed the self-satisfaction of having achieved familial perfection at a relatively young age. The father was wearing a front-facing padded harness containing a bug-eyed infant who dangled like a parachutist caught up in a tree.  Beside him was the mother, a small, pale woman holding hands with their pre-school-aged daughter.  She was pointing at the heron.

The interpreter stepped aside to make sure the woman could see the sign.  “It’s actually a heron,” he said.

“I see the crane!” said Carly.

“It’s a beautiful crane,” said the mother.

The interpreter tapped the sign helpfully, hopefully, even underlined the name back and forth with his index finger. "It’s a heron,” he said.  “Cranes are different.”

The father walked to the sign, had his hips pressed against it as he pointed out over the marsh. “See the crane, Matty?”

The interpreter watched them walk back up the gentle slope to the main trail.

“IT’S A HERON!” he yelled after them.   He turned to Stacey.  “Am I invisible today or something?”

“No, they’re just in their own little cute little family world.  They don’t want input.”   She had heard the rant before, and was trying to head it off.  She was not successful.

“All the work that went into the production of that sign.  And not just the physical activity of printing and assembling it. The research, the writing, the re-writing to dumb it down enough that even the dimmest person could understand it.  What a complete waste of time if the visitor doesn’t have the mental curiosity or energy to bother even looking at it!  Why do people like that even come to a place like this?”

They kept a sensible distance behind the crane family and waited to see which trail they would take at the t-junction up ahead, and  then went the other way, to the right, which put them on narrow palisade of second-growth Douglas Fir interspersed with Pacific crab-apple and elderberry, the whole row  infested with Himalayan blackberry.

“Over the years I’ve seen at least half a dozen saw-whets along here,” he said.  “I bet we can find one.  Look deep into the blackberries, and beneath the overhanging Doug fir boughs, and also in the holly bushes farther on.”

They slowly worked there way along, squinting into the vegetation, hoping to spot golden eyes staring back in apparent alarm.  Eventually they became aware of a quavering high-pitched squeal.  It was getting louder.  An elderly woman was approaching, pushing a baby stroller.   It was the kind of small stroller with candy cane handles that folds together and then in half, the kind you could take on the bus.  It had a squeaky wheel. A zippered, blue plastic canopy enshrouded whoever or whatever was riding within, protected from the rain.  The woman was Asian, and was dressed like someone eccentric stepping outside onto a balcony to water potted geraniums— floral muumuu, round, flat-sided silk cap, and plastic shower slippers.  A knit shawl was wrapped around her shoulders. 

“What the...?” the interpreter asked.

 They stepped aside to let her pass.

She smiled broadly and said, “Hellooo. Good morning.” ‘Morning’ sounded like ‘mo-ling.’

“Good morning,” said Stacey, brightly.

The woman continued a hundred yards down the trail, and then stopped, seemingly to inspect a sprawling holly bush that filled a gap between the thick trunks of a pair of Douglas firs.  She peered into the branches, and then stepped off the trail, disappearing from sight behind the shrub, leaving the stroller untended in the middle of the trail.

“I don’t think it’s wise to leave a baby alone like that,” the interpreter said, “if it can even breathe in that thing.”

“Maybe it isn’t a baby.”

“What else could it be?”

Stacey guessed, “Oxygen tank?”

They watched from a distance, waiting to see if the woman would emerge from the shrubbery.

The suggestion of an oxygen tank caused the interpreter to imagine her alone off the trail in some form of distress.  He said, “Maybe we should make sure she’s okay.”  They hurried to the stroller.  “Hello?” he called into the dense underbrush.  There was no response. He looked to Stacey.

“Maybe she’s peeing,” Stacey said.  “I don’t think she’s going to answer in that case.”  She rolled the stroller back and forth a few inches, tipped the handle down to raise the front wheels.  “There’s no baby in there.  It doesn’t feel like there’s much at all in there.  I’m going to go check out the blind.”

The Interpreter followed her down a short side-trail into the dim, musty bird blind and stepped over the narrow bench to flip up one of the wooden flaps.  This provided a panoramic view of marshland with a torn-paper mountain backdrop.  He sat there a long time without raising his binoculars.
Stacey gave up and flipped her flap back down. “Well?  You see something other than widgeons and mallards?”

He didn’t respond.

“What are you looking at?”  She swung her legs over the bench and came up behind to place her chin on his shoulder, an attempt to align her gaze with his.  

He gently leaned away from her and reached to close the flap.  “Nope.  There’s nothing here.” 

They left the blind and walked back to the main trail.  The stroller woman was splaying the legs of a tripod. A relatively new and advanced point-and-shoot camera was affixed to its top.

“That’s a relief,” said the interpreter.

 “See? No baby,” said Stacey, “and no O2 tank.  It’s her wheeled camera case.”

“Clever,” said the interpreter.   

The woman waltzed the tripod up to a large holly and struggled to wedge it among the branches.  She clicked several shots.

“Don’t tell me she’s shooting a saw-whet.”

The woman heard the interpreter speak, and turned.  She beckoned them closer.  She crouched and pointed into the holly.  She said, “It is hard to find a saw-whet, but my favourite.”

“Wow,” said the interpreter.  “That’s a good find.”

The woman nodded and beamed at him.

“We never would have found that.” 

“No, you would not,” she said. 

They watched her collapse her tripod and disconnect the camera and arrange these items within the child-sized volume of the stroller.   She zipped the cover closed, said good bye, and headed back toward the parking lot.

Stacey said, “Because she didn’t look like a typical birder, we couldn’t imagine she was after the same thing we were.”

The interpreter said, “The stroller threw me off.   When she was coming toward us, I assumed she was some weird grannie who would drive to a wild place and push her hermetically sealed grand-child along a bumpy trail in the rain.  Like that made any sense.”  He was fishing his camera from his backpack.  He added, “The way she said hello kind of reminded me of my friend in high school’s grandmother.  She smiled the same way.  She even had the same kind of hat.”

“What friend was that?”

“A girl I knew.  Her name was Becky.” 

She was suspicious.  “Was Becky a friend, or a girlfriend?”

“I didn’t have a real girlfriend until after high school.”

“That was a somewhat evasive answer.”

He stuffed the lens cap into his back pocket and sidled into the holly, trying, but failing, not to be pricked by the leaves.   He clicked several pictures of the bird, down on one knee to avoid intervening branches.  Shifting to get a slightly different angle, he said, “With Becky, girlfriend was not an option.  Parental decree.  No white boys.  Becky was the oldest of three sisters, which didn’t help.  It would have set a dangerous precedent.”   He took two more pictures, and backed out of the holly.  He brushed damp fir needles off his knee.

She said, “Her parents were racist?”

“They were moderately xenophobic, like most people.”

“Did you try to talk to them?”

“Yes.  One evening we all sat at their dining room table.  It was tense and unproductive.  They didn’t speak English very well, and I didn’t know what to say.  I had no way of charming them.  It was clear that they wanted me to go away and not come back.”

“How old were you?”


“Was that the end?”

“The next morning Becky phoned with a terse message--that I was officially banned from their house, that she was not allowed to speak to me at school, that I was not allowed to talk to her ever again.  Before I could say anything, she hung up.  I was devastated, and totally bombed a calculus exam, but on the evening of that same day I got a phone call to come on over, the coast was clear, her parents were out until late.  When I got there I was surprised when her grandmother met me at the door with a big, friendly grin.  This set a pattern that went on for a while.  Parents were out, over I would go.  Grannie was Becky’s ally, which was helpful, except that she always wanted to feed me.   Sometimes, before I had even taken my shoes off, she would grab me by the wrist and drag me into the kitchen and serve me something.  'Come, eat, you too skinny.' Most of what she offered was totally foreign to my experience, and utterly unappealing.  I remember a sort of slimy steamed bun that had what looked like a human finger inside.  Another time was a bowl of creamed corn with tiny withered shrimps sticking out of it.   I didn’t like her food, but ate as much as I could because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.  She would lean against the table, encouraging me, ‘Good, eat, more’.   Then she would dig around in the fridge to find a cold bowl of something even worse.  It was mild torture, now that I think about it.  I think she meant well.  Or maybe she was the parents’ ally.  She was a double agent.”

Stacey said, “I think she liked you.”

“She was an artist.  She painted watercolours.   Mostly Chinese motif, misty, jagged limestone landscapes rising out of the water, and frilly-finned orange-and-black-and-white goldfish, but she also painted flowers from her garden, and barns and old houses that she adapted from pictures in calendars and coffee-table books.  She was pretty good.  She liked singing too, which I found out when she discovered I could play guitar.  She dug out a book of Christmas carols and had me strum along while she sang all the old favourites, but in Cantonese.  Once we got the hang of working together it was fun.  At times it was hilarious.  Becky mostly found it mortifying, of course.  But then one night the parents came home early.   That was that.  Becky shoved me out the side door as her grandmother and parents yelled at each other.  It was terrifying.  I never went back, and I never saw the old lady again.   She must be long gone by now.  In the blind I was thinking about her, wondering where I might have been when her light blinked out.”  

As he packed away his camera against the rain, Stacey asked, “What became of Becky?”

“I don’t know.”    

“You didn’t keep in touch?”

“It was easier not to.”

“Have you ever googled her?”

“What for?”

“Because you still think about her?  I sometimes google people I knew in high school, including the boys I liked.”

“I don’t.   High school is a lot longer ago for me than for you.  Anyway, no doubt her last name is different from when I knew her, so I wouldn’t even know what to google.” 

“You could try her original name.  Maybe she kept it.”

“And get a listing of real estate agents and graduate students from all over North America.” 

“So you have.”  She had caught him in a lie.

He said, “I love the internet, and I also hate it.”

“Why do you hate it?”

“Because it lures you into searching for answers that you’ll never find, or provides answers you would rather not have found.”

And then from the other direction, voices.  Two women and a girl about seven, running ahead, were coming down the trail.  The child almost crashed into Stacey, who said, “Hey there.”

The little girl had big brown eyes and curly brown hair.  Arriving next was her mother, also brown-eyed and curly-haired, followed by a sexagenarian doppelganger, her hair mostly grey.

His interpreter’s instincts kicked in.  “Would you like to see an owl?  It’s in this holly bush.  Come here, you have to crouch down to see it.  It’s a very small kind of owl.  Only about this big.”  He held cupped hands, one above the other, about six inches apart. “It’s called a saw-whet owl.”

The mother and child came close, holding hands.  They crouched and peered up through the ragged leaves.  I see it!” said the mother. “Look sweetie, a baby owl!”

“It’s not a baby,” said the interpreter.  “It’s just a very small species of owl, called a saw-whet.  Not all owls are big.”

“It’s so cute,” said the girl.  “Where’s its mother?”

“It’s not a baby,” said the interpreter. “It’s a grown-up owl, just small.  Saw-whet owls only get that big.”

The grandmother joined the scrum.  “How darling,” she said.  “A baby owl.”

“Well, actually, at this time of year, you will not find baby owls...” 

Stacey took his arm and hauled him away.  “Strike three,” she said.  She marched him down the path, her arm looped through his.   “You’re not working you know.  You don’t have to talk to anybody or explain anything to anybody.”

He was fuming.  “They were three generations of dumb.”

“Yes, they were, but there’s nothing you can do about that.  How about no more talking to strangers today, okay?  If we meet any other people, say nothing, smile and nod, and if they say anything stupid, just plug your ears, okay?”

“The one I didn’t talk to first was the stroller lady.  I let her walk on past.  You spoke to her, but I didn’t. I speak to the dumb ones.  I choose the dumb ones, you speak to the nice ones.”

“You like her because she reminds you of Becky’s grandmother.

“She knows how to find a saw-whet, which is an off-the-scale, awesome skill.”

They stopped at a gap in the scrubby vegetation at the edge of the marsh.   He raised his binoculars to scan a flock of shorebirds in a distant muddy corner.  Nothing more exciting than the usual Long-billed Dowitchers.  They continued on, and Stacey asked, “What was Becky’s last name back then?”

“Why?  Do you want to re-google her for me?  You would never find her among the bazillion hits, even if you knew exactly who you were looking for. There are only so many Chinese surnames.  One of my lab-mates in grad school was from China.  He explained to me that there are actually only about twelve different Chinese surnames, but you can add a few more because of dialectical variation and the hodgepodge of guesses on the spelling of any given name in English.”

“No, I don’t want to google her.   I’m just being curious.  You don’t have any family out here.  I’ve not yet met anyone who knew you before you became an interpreter.  I’ve lived with you for six months, and most of your life is still a mystery to me.  Her grandmother is one of the farthest-back stories you’ve ever told me.”

“It wasn’t much of a story.  It was more like a random, old memory.”

“It was a nice memory.  It’s sweet how you and her grandmother bonded.”

He stopped walking, and watched as she wandered away.  Then he looked at the ground, the brown dirt, and at his shoes, and then he looked at her again, at her yellow pony tail.

She eventually stopped and turned around.  Her head tilted.  She said, “What is it?”

“Pang,” he said.



She came closer.  "I didn't hear you."

He waited until she was near. "Pang."

"Pang?" She was now within an arm's length.

“A brief, intense pain.”

She said, “You felt a pain?  Where?”  Her hand hovered in the air for a second. She placed it on his chest.  “Are you okay?”

He looked down at her hand, and he said, “Becky Pang.”

Next story...


Nature ID (Katie) said...

Please let your blog followers know if you end up publishing your Interpreter Stories. They're well written, creative, and humorously too true. Thanks!

swamp4me said...

Oh, Hugh, we do so love you and your stories. My husband and I laughed until we cried...we can so relate to how the interpreter feels! Thanks so much for this latest installment.

PSYL said...

I laughed when I saw the crane part - definitely heard it way too many times when biking along the dyke.

People don't Google other people now, Facebook is better.

Once again, another great story.

Hugh said...

Thanks Katie.

Swampy, thank you. It's nice to know there are others all over who face the same nonsense, yet carry on.

PSYL, Thank you, and continued happy Richmond crane-watching. I toyed with including a Facebook reference in the conversation, but I guarantee the interpreter would never use FB and Stacey would be well aware of this (although she herself might use it). Plus, had the interp been looking for BeckyP in the past, pre FB, as Stacey sort of accused him of, his only viable option would have been Google. So I kept it simple. Simpler.

Tim said...

...and for a brief moment, Google employees will puzzle over a brief spike in the search term for Becky Pang.

Garden Lily said...

I love these Interpreter series... Please keep 'em coming.

Eskarina said...

I think the moral of the story (assuming there is one) would be not to underestimate little old ladies!

Thanks for the good story!

Hugh said...

Tim, oh that that were the case. Funny tho, if you google it (I just did), one of the first things to pop up is a Facebook page.

Thanks, Lily. And thanks for the encouragement.

Eskarina, I hadn't thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks.

Dvae said...

Great story Hugh - love the oblivious birders. We talked to some folks this weekend who swore they had a snowy owl roosting in the Douglas firs along the edge of their farm field. Hmmm.