Saturday, November 8, 2008
How Do You . . . What?
And then there was Mustafa, my marvelous, sweet, gentle giant of a student. I nicknamed him “Mustafa Mountain.” He was a heavy-set young man in his mid-twenties who towered over me so much that I actually had to look up whenever talking to him. Mustafa had a way of not easily connecting how English works with his own thought processes, but he did a lot to show me how English can sometimes be so illogical that I think it amazing anyone can learn it well.
This is what happened the first day I met Mustafa in my low intermediate-level class at the university:
“How do you do?” I said as I stretched out my hand to shake his.
“How do I do what?” Mustafa replied.
“No, no. This is a greeting: ‘How do you do?’”
“How do I do what?”
“What’s your name?”
“Mustafa Bakhtiari. You are my new teacher, Mr. Firsten?”
“Yes, that’s right. How do you do, Mustafa?”
“Why you keep ask me how I do . . . How I do what??”
“It’s like saying ‘How are you?’ Mustafa. We say it the first time we meet somebody in a formal situation.”
“Oh, okay. I think I understand,” Mustafa said with a big smile of relief spreading across his face.
“So, how do you do?” I confidently reiterated.
“Very well, thank you,” came the unwanted response.
“No, you’re not supposed to say that in the answer, Mustafa.”
“No? Oh, so what I say?”
“How do you do?”
“Huh?” Mustafa said with the saddest look of confusion I’d ever seen on a student’s face. I closed my eyes momentarily, realizing what a dumb thing I had just done, inadvertently setting the scene for total confusion ― and I knew it.
“You are asking me that question again,” Mustafa said slowly with some consternation in his voice.
“Listen, Mustafa. When you meet somebody for the first time and the situation is formal, you say, ‘How do you do?’ Then the other person says, ‘How do you do?’ too.”
“You ask question and he ask same question. Nobody answer question.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now you’ve got it!”
“I got what?”
“Never mind. Let’s try it again, okay?”
“How do you do?”
“How do you do, too?”
“No! You don’t say, ‘How do you do, too?’ You just repeat, ‘How do you do?’!”
“Please. I am trying to learn English. Not easy!”
“I know that, Mustafa. I say, ‘How do you do?’ and you just repeat ‘How do you do?’ and nobody answers that question. You just shake hands and smile at each other, okay? And then you can continue the conversation by asking each other’s names, career interests ― whatever. Do you understand now?”
“I think yes, but not sure,” poor Mustafa replied, looking quite insecure at the moment.
“Okay, let’s try it one more time,” I said, feeling this was it. It was either now or never. Taking a deep breath, I said, “How do you do?”
“How do you do?” was Mustafa’s response. I was ecstatic! We shook hands on cue and everything seemed right with the world.
“My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?”
“What do you do, Mr. Firsten?”
“You didn’t answer my question, Mustafa. You’re supposed to answer my question to be polite.”
“You say I must repeat question. I repeat question! ‘How do you do? How do you do? What do you do? What do you do?’”
“But that’s only for ‘How do you do?’ Mustafa, not ‘What do you do?’ You can answer that question!” I could feel my blood pressure rising. The word stroke popped into my mind. “Let’s try that last part again, Mustafa. All right?”
‘Sure,” he said looking down at the floor and grumbling a little. Another deep breath. “My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“Nice to meet you,” I adlibbed.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Mustafa replied, feeling comfortable with a sentence he’d learned in his elementary ESOL classes.
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?” I went on.
“What do I do when?”
I just stared at him. I felt a little numb and kept staring. Mustafa had succeeded in sucking all the energy right out of me. I didn’t have the strength to answer his question. I knew very well where it would lead us. But I was his teacher. I had an obligation to answer his question, didn’t I?
“No, no, Mustafa. That’s not what it means.”
“That’s not what it mean? Why you ask me that if it not mean that?” I could see the frustration building up in him. It reminded me of magma rising up a lava tube in a volcano, getting ready to blow its cork and erupt.
“What do you do? means ‘What’s your job or profession?’ So that’s what you should answer.”
“I don’t have job. I am student! You know I am student. All you do is ask questions they don’t mean what you ask. And you ask things you know I am not. I go home now. Maybe I see you tomorrow ― maybe!”
And with that, Mustafa turned around on his heels and walked despondently out of my classroom. I felt awful, as if somehow I’d let him down, even though I knew I hadn’t. But he did come back the next day, and he stayed in my class a whole semester, and learned a lot of English.
The last I heard, Mustafa lives in Los Angeles. We kept in touch for some years, but that didn’t last, unfortunately. He once told me that now, when somebody asks him, “What do you do?” he says, “I’m a CPA.” and always smiles as he thinks back to that crazy day in Mr. Firsten’s ESOL class in Miami.