The story might have ended right there without even becoming a story, but for one added element. This came in the form of a woman who boarded a couple stops after I did. She sat across from the Asian couple and quickly picked up on the same murmurs I had heard. Her way of dealing with this observation was decidedly different from mine. She immediately spoke up.
“Where you from?” she asked with a cheery inquisitiveness. I’ll refer to her as the Chicago woman just to keep things straight.
The young woman responded. Her English was very broken, but it was presumably better than the young man’s English, as he never spoke a word of it during the entire ensuing interlude. “We going downtown” was her response.
The Chicago woman sighed slightly and repeated her query. “No, I said ‘Where you from?’” I could hear in the woman’s voice that she wasn’t catching on that these people had limited English skills. The young woman repeated her response that they were going downtown. It took a few more go-rounds on that track before the Chicago woman finally realized that she had to rephrase her question. “What country you from?” she finally asked.
“We from China,” the young woman said.
The very next words out of the Chicago woman’s mouth were this: “Well we’re getting the Olympics in 2016!” It was said with no small amount of provincial pride.
A silence hung in the air for a moment. I wish I could have seen the young woman’s face just then because I’m not at all sure how she was reacting. My own reaction was simply mustering the willpower to not bang my head against the wall of the train car. There was just So Much Wrong with that response; I could devote an entire post just to parsing the implications of that 7-word sentence.
I have to say that the conversation went downhill from there. The Chicago woman began to talk faster from that point, chatting away in a very informal, conversational tone, peppering her speech with all sorts of American idioms that were surely flying right past the Chinese couple. The only bright spot I could find was the thought that if the Chinese couple hadn’t been there, the Chicago woman might well have struck up a conversation with me, though my heart still went out to the couple.
As we pulled out of the Fullerton station and the train began to descend into the subway, the Chicago woman suddenly blurted out, “Now we’re going underground to the subway. Don’t be afraid!” She told them four times in a row not to be afraid (yes, I counted). Y’know, I don’t think it would have at all occurred to them that they should be afraid, but after that bizarre incantation, I wouldn’t have blamed them if they’d become a little anxious.
As we neared the Loop, the Chicago woman began telling them where they needed to go while they were in town. At the very top of her list was Oak Street Beach, which she repeatedly exhorted them to visit. Think about that for a minute. Hey, nothing against the fine beaches of Chicago, but there is so much to see and do in this town – how can you give a recommendation like that to a couple of utter strangers?
As we went along, the limitations on the Chicago woman’s communication abilities became clearer and clearer, and the dubiousness of her tourism advice became more and more dismaying. I became increasingly tempted to join in the conversation and try to lend some balance (and intelligibility) to the information these tourists were receiving. I didn’t, though. By the time I was considering that, we were only a few stations away from my stop. I decided there simply wasn’t enough time for me to introduce myself, outflank the Chicago woman, and impart much useful information. My fondest hope is that the couple may have picked up on the sort of personality they were dealing with, and that they may have sought some fresh perspectives from the folks at… well, Oak Street Beach, since they may well have ended up going there.