Rants & Raves

My Mandarin Rocks!!!

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.

Rants & Raves

Malaysia Spring Break (Chinese New Year)

Forest says:

Well, it has been so long since either of us posted to our blog, i feel obliged to say something about our recent trip to Malaysia for Chinese New Year.  Kuala Lumpur was a trip: small city, very green and lush, no mosquitoes issues (YES!), and the malls were amazing. Yes, sad but true, we spent both days in KL just going from mall to mall, shopping, checking out children’s museums, and eating yummy spicy gravy saucey goupey food… oh, and the Petronas Towers were really surprisingly gorgeous and pretty, not just tall.


KL bookended our trip to the island of Langkawi, about 45 minutes flight up the coast, basically on the Thailand border.  The island itself was lovely, with lots of jungle and wilderness, and surprisingly little development, despite being the #1 tourist destination in the country.  Our first hotel was a bust however, a older property, on a crummy backpacker haven beach called Pelangi.  We made the most of it, but it felt a lot like being in Tijuana or some other border town… Cristina and I had dinner one night out in the town, and had the pleasure of walking the length of the main strip, dodging open sewer holes every 25ft or so… literally.  When we found a restaurant to sit down at, we couldn’t stop laughing at the surrounding crowd of mostly white, young, unshowered backpackers—reminded me of myself 20 years ago; what I couldn’t figure out is how they could afford to be in this town, which despite being pretty darn low-end, was still pretty pricy when it came to food… i fondly remember having $1 meals back when I travelled with my buddy Adam Dawes through South East Asia in 1993, but at these restaurants the cheapest in and out was going to be $10 or so.
After 2 nights in Pelangi we were inspired and moved to another property, called the Andaman, on the opposite side of the island, 30 minutes from the nearest town.  This place was cheaper actually than our first hotel, but absolutely fantastic/gorgeous, with a private beach, a great swimming pool, and a family friendly room set up with 2 trunk beds in the room (family of 2+2 expected in every room i guess).  The weather all week was absolutely perfect, not too humid, in the mid 80s, with blue skies and a few puffy white cumulus clouds.  We snuck in a Mangrove boat tour, swam on some little offshore islands, and generally had a totally chill time.  Fun watching the kids spend 10 hours in one day in the pool, going up and down the slide in the pool over and over and over and over and over again.  Wonder if they will remember this vacation, or only the photos of themselves with gleeful smiles on their faces.
We saw a bunch of monkeys in the wilderness, that was cool too…


And Cristina adds:

Malaysia is a Muslim country, and while we didn’t do anything cultural in KL, like visit the Islamic Arts museum, just going to the big, rich, trendy malls actually gave us a very full cultural experience.  KL has a lot of wealth from oil (the PETRO in Petronas), so there seems an endless amount of malls.  So logically we spent a lot of time in them. The food court a smorgasbord of regional cuisine, the kid’s dinosaur museum very modern and interactive, the people an endless parade of Malaysian social and religious profiles.  Young couples on holiday fasinated me: women in black veil and shroud, with delicate henna tattoos covering their hands and feet, peeking out of designer shoes, or dressed in very smart fashionable clothes with muslim twist: caps on men, women with elaborately trimmed shawls. I liked seeing teenage girls with blingy head scarves and tight jeans. Most of the Malay women had head scarves elegantly wrapped just so, with some jeweled pin to secure it.  It always matched and accented the rest of their clothes. Occasionally, a little hair would peak out.  Sometimes women had an pre-wrapped scarf with a little visor on their head.
Forest and I debated whether or not the veil was any more oppressive then wearing a bra or shaving for men in the West. I thought that when the men or women were traveling without the opposite sex, their manner seemed extremely modest and serious. Except for the wacky Malay teenage boys with their crazy trendy urban dress and silly behavior.  But when women were with men, they definitely seemed more animated, happy, comfortable and proud.
We also though it interesting to see so many “she-males.” I guess in a culture with very strict mores about gender roles, it’s easier to get away with just switching to the other side completely rather than be a swishy guy. The she-males often worked in women’s retail stores in all their glamorous glory.
Oh, yeah, one more thing compelling us to stay in the Malaysian Mall:  the best bookstore in the world: Kinokuniya, a Japanese “Borders”, in KL caters to Chinese, Malay and English speaking customers.  I didn’t get nearly enough time in there, but it had the best selection of graphic novels and comics, which I’ve happily gotten the boys hooked on. I highly recommend Lulu.