“Ma’am, who passed away?”

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(An excerpt from my memoir)

More than 40 years ago, when I just arrived at Brandeis University from Beijing, China, I had to learn American English (which is different from the British English that I learned in China), while struggling to survive in an academically rigorous environment.  

As a young woman, I had severe menstrual cramps, and did not use any pain killers. Compounded by the stress and pressure, I fainted in the dorm bathroom’s common area outside the shower stalls one afternoon.  Surprisingly (and fortunately) there was no one there.  I came to a few moments later, then stumbled into my dorm room.

I was scared, did not know what to do, whom to call, so I called the campus police.

Somehow, I mistook the American way of describing “fainted” as “passed away” instead of “passed out”.

Distressfully, I called: “I just passed away in the bathroom. My tummy feels a lot of pain, please come!”

A few minutes later, in came this heavily built, white police officer, with all the beeping noises from the radio transmissions on his belt, with a thick Bostonian accent, he asked, seriously: “Ma’am, who passed away?”

Sitting up in bed (with all my clothes on), I said: “I did!  I passed away in the bathroom just now, and I am still feeling sick.” 

He did not laugh, but looked at me straight-faced, with lots of compassion and genuine care: “Do you want me to take you to the infirmary to see a doctor?”  I replied: “Maybe… I think I will feel better, my stomach pain is getting a little better now.”

He asked me to rest, and said that if I still needed a ride to the other side of the campus where the infirmary was, to just call again.

Some months later, I realized that I misused “pass away” for “pass out”!  “Damn it!  I should have just said that I FAINTED!” I felt embarrassed. 

More than 40 years later, I am now laughing to tears (probably what the officer did too in his police car). It took me 40 years to laugh at myself, now.

© Joanne Z. Tan    All rights reserved.

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