I don’t look at our blog that much, since many blogs are blocked here in China, including ours. I can only access it at Forest’s office. But reviewing it recently, it occurred to me that I haven’t blogged in a long time about our language skills. Since so many family members have marvelled at our astounding fluency, I felt no compelling need to boast about it in writing. But today I do feel like bragging.
My Mandarin ROCKS!!!!
Allow me to qualify. It rocks to anyone who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, it rocks to anyone who needs help bargaining prices, it rocks to the Chinese who only expect foreigners to be able to say "ni hao" (hello). Hell, my "ni hao" accent is so good that Chinese compliment my Mandarin prowess based on that alone. Which often invites trouble, because when locals start jabbering in Chinese after giving me props on my basic proficiency, I feel like such a turd following up with a lame "shenme???" (what, or, huhhh?).
I’ve studied twice a week for 2 hours a session privately with a Beijinger since I moved here 17 months ago. Only conversation, not writing or reading. I can navigate typical situations quite well: Taxis, shopping, shooting the shit, housekeepers, restaurants, etc. My comprehension suffers due to lack of non-English speaking Chinese buddies to practice with. Outside of the classroom, I do have excellent conversations while getting foot massages with Forest or some friends: I get a captive audience of 2 or more young Chinese with lots of questions about me, happy to share general info about their own lives, where they come from, what they think of Beijing. Chinese people don’t take offense to personal questions, so it makes for interesting exchanges. Sometimes the miscommunication leads to hearty laughs on both sides.
Chinese folks don’t expect foreigners to speak much Chinese, but they don’t hold back their amusement when you mangle words. And when the wrong tones obscure your meaning a little, even if the context seems perfectly clear, people will often stare like you landed from Mars. I still have a hard time with the word for English, which sounds a lot like the word for sing, so I guess I don’t blame someone for being befuddled when a perfect stranger approaches them asking "Do you say sing?" But given that I am clearly a Westerner, would it be such a stretch to guess what I’m asking? Maybe they think I’m auditioning them for American Idol.
Forest befriended an Argentinian fluent in English and Chinese. He offered extremely valuable wisdom: if you speak quickly enough, people will gather your meaning even if your tones are wrong. Which has been a really useful tactic since my Chinese is basically toneless. Luckily, I have managed to memorize a decent amount of vocabulary. But another weird thing happens sometimes–people expect me to speak in English, so they don’t listen for familiar Chinese words–they try to comprehend my funky Mandarin as if it was English, racking their brain to place such strange vocabulary. It happens to me the other way too. But so many Chinese people speak good English that it happens less.
Considering that we may not be in China for more then a half year, the returns on my time invested in learning Chinese are diminishing. If we stay for more then another year, logically I would progress into reading and writing to gain basic literacy. That way, I could become bold enough to go to a really local restaurant without pictures on the menu, and could maybe read the propaganda banners around town. I am always on the verge of quitting classes. And then I learn one new word or form of grammar that sheds a light on one interaction or another, and it becomes worthwhile.
Carlos gets an hour a day in school, and he can write and read some. This also means he gets to appreciate the depth, poetry and ancient beauty in Mandarin that is lost to me. He understands a lot of what our housekeepers say to him, although he seems to get the Anhui accent more then the Shandong accent…don’t know how he would do with Beijingers. But Carlos being Carlos, we hear nary a word from him, unless we are in the next room with our ear to a glass at the wall. We often wonder if we should have put him in a more rigorous program, but I figure that if he really wants to speak Chinese someday, he’ll have a little key in the back of his brain that will help him unlock it. He’ll know it’s possible. Caetano only speaks a bizarre pidgin style Mandarin-English hybrid, but learns little kindergarten level words and songs. And a couple of good insults. Not really what I envisioned, but we all get what we need.