It’s hard to explain. I must be some kind of linguist. Every time I so much as cough in Chinese people come crawling out of drains and jumping out of trees to praise me. They gasp, genuflect, wonder why I’m not working elsewhere, perhaps as a president, or a professor. Evangelists with the power of tongues sound worse than me. Send money now!
But really, I’m not sure these locals are being genuine. They are, after all, famously inscrutable. You couldn’t scrute them if you tried. I see others speak Mandarin and they seem to know a lot more than me, in the same way that a NASA scientists seems to know more than a goat.
If there is doubt about my Mandarin fluency, my mistake might have been learning Spanish first. Of course I didn’t “learn” it. I “picked it up” on a South American holiday. “I am Australian” is “Soy Australiano”. What a piece of piss languages are, I thought in my own.
I was posted to China and laughed in its face. “Throw as much Mandarin at me as you like, China!”
I studied, a little, tiny bit, in my pre-China home of Hobart, Tasmania (Motto: "Noone should ever move to Beijing from here.") I found the only two Chinese people in town who weren’t too busy running a restaurant to teach me. In a shock twist, they were bookish, academic types teaching at the university. After a few lessons they assured me my Chinese was fantastic, and off I went.
If the South Americans spoke a form of pidgin English, I got to China and discovered the people spoke Martian. Mandarin is a language that is – how shall I put this? – not much like English, and really, really hard.
After six-plus years I’ve learned how to get by. I have a Chinese teacher, and in a minute I will show you her photo. Sometimes I lie about who’s who in photos just to get a laugh. But this one is real. I’m warning you ahead of time so you’ll take me seriously.
|The first Chinese teacher there ever|
was, Confucius, an Anglicised
name approximated from the
English "confuse us".
There are some basic rules to Mandarin, and here they are:
1. It is tonal. It contains four tones. These should be avoided like the plague. Now I know what you’re thinking, this is a bad thing to say, especially for a wordsmith. “Like the plague” is a cliché. Mind you, clichés are the tools of the trade and have stood the test of time. But each to their own.
2. When trying to sound like a Beijinger, try not to sound so much like an academic from the emperor’s court, and more like a pirate from Dorset.
Beijingers sound rough and shear the ends off words. Yi dian means “a little” and could sound like ee dee-an. Instead it comes out as ee deeyARRR.
Shi, bu shi? is verbal punctuation meaning “right or wrong?” It should sound like Shuh, boo-shuh? But my favourite old Beijinger in my pool locker room belts it out as Shuh b’ARRR? He revels in the Beijing accent, though I sometimes swear the main rule for responding to someone is “just make a noise”.
In any case, I’ve embraced Shuh b’ARRR. People usually laugh, because I don’t look much like an 80-year-old Chinese guy, but at least sometimes I don’t add ME HEARTIES! at the end.
In Shanghai they sound finer. Beijingers sound more guttural, as if they’re about to clear something from their throat, which is actually usually the case. Shenme? means “What?” and should sound like shummah. In Beijing it’s shemARR. In Shanghai it’s more like szemma? If Beijingers sound like pirates, the Shanghainese sound like a radio not quite tuned properly.
So I’ve learned the accent, I’ve learn some slang, and of course I’ve learned the swearwords. But tones just get me into trouble. My teacher, who despite her Facebook photo is a genuine teacher and not one of the many teacher/masseuses who advertise in town, gets driven to despair.
daan with third tone.”
“I don’t do tones,” I say.
This is a bit like saying I don’t use eggs in my omelettes. And it probably infuriates my teacher in the same way I’m enraged when my wife says: “I don’t do north-south-east-west”. (I accept she’s spatially-challenged, but when we come up with a better system, I’ll let her know.)
|Down the ages, learning Chinese became more fun.|
One problem is so many Chinese words sound the same, only they have different tones. I’ve mentioned this example before but it’s outrageous language chiefs still haven’t addressed this dangerous, potentially life-threatening situation: The word bi (pronounced bee) can mean pen, nose, compared-to, and vagina.
I was once chatting with a woman whose nose looked like a pen and ended up sounding like a dribbling madman. And that was when I was keeping it clean.
Apart from silk and temple, si can mean four or death, which is why the Chinese say four is an unlucky number. Mimi can mean secret, or boobs.
I know English has homonyms too, so for the Chinese it can be hard when they’re learning their language over there, or when they’re standing in the wind trying to wind in their kite, wondering if their efforts are invalid or a person in a wheelchair.
But there’s a lot more of it in Chinese, and that’s where tones are useful for some. I used to get angry when people didn’t get my drift. If a Frenchman asked for some steek in Australia, the waiter would guess he wanted steak. But in Chinese, a different tone is a different word. You’re not just mis-pronouncing steak, you could be asking for a space shuttle.
Still, thanks to the context of a sentence, usually my meaning gets understood, though it’s not delivered in the sing-songy lilt that can make Mandarin so pleasing to the ear. In English, I can sound articulate, urbane, even educated. In Chinese I usually sound like I’m standing in overalls with a pitchfork, belting out monotone words like I’m knocking bricks out of a wall.
Sometimes Chinese politeness gets in the way. My wife the doctor looks Chinese, so locals expect she can speak Mandarin well. In her first week at her clinic she tried to book a driver (si ji). The number four is another si. And a chicken is a ji. The tones went wrong, but the receptionist said she’d get onto it straight away. The head receptionist rang back a minute later asking if the new doctor really wanted four chickens and what the hell kind of medicine she was up to.
La means spicy, but also “to pull”. My friend the Australian diplomat once tried to order spicy chicken and thought he should add ba, a little polite word to imply “if that’s ok?” When the waitress asked what he wanted, he beamed “la ji ba!” The waitress blushed, and that was when my friend learned that “ji ba” is slang for penis.
|Mandarin seems basic, but once you|
peel back the layers you find it is
many parts stuck together. With a
few white bits.
On the street one day I bumped into Mr Zhao, a man I hardly knew from my swimming pool, who said he was off to work. “What salary?” I demanded. “Err, a normal salary,” he said back. Months later I learned that while gongzi is salary, I’d needed to say gongzuo for “job”.
But I don’t always sound like a rude dullard. Sometimes I make the mundane sound dramatic, which I suppose is a skill writers should have.
I always thought swimming pool was youyong shi. Turns out a pool is a chi. Mr Zhao and I were standing beside an otherwise empty pool one night, so I tried to say “Tonight, this is our shi”. How he laughed. Two years later I learned I had gazed thoughtfully into the distance and said profoundly: “Tonight, this is our business.”
Or I might have said “Tonight, this is our shit”. They sound very similar.
Near dinnertime last week I went to pick a few things up at the shop, and told our new Ayi (maid) not to give the children any food. When I returned the kids were feasting on chewing gum, given to them by Ayi. When I’d calmed down I realised I’d left the house declaring: “I must go to the shop! The children have no food!” Clearly she thought she’d help our Dickensian plight with what little she had.
One trick is to know a few key phrases, a few pieces of slang. Practice them and deliver them – hopefully at appropriate moments – and bang, people think you’re fluent. Then of course the trouble starts. They spurt out some long stream of words and I’m left there staring at them with my mouth open, having morphed in a second from Russell Crowe in A Brilliant Mind to Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber.
|Our daughter Evie returning home from|
It’s a roller coaster, but roller coasters are fun. One high came at a dinner party at my in-laws’ when, thanks to a poster on my kids’ wall, I was able to say what a moth was in Chinese, whereas my brother-in-law could not.* He’s been here for 20 years, calls himself fluent in Mandarin, and is the boss of a law firm. To be fair he deals in corporate law, not moth law. But still I, and not he, was the toast of the Chinese guests, an awkward social situation I carefully defused by looking his way and bellowing “IN YOUR FACE!”
But another night in my pool locker room one local marveled at my Mandarin capabilities. I think I had just fired off one of my big guns, telling people I had “gone up sevens and come down eights” (qi shang, ba xia). It’s a piece of Beijing slang meaning one was discombobulated, all over the place.
I strutted into the sauna with a smirk on my face, and greeted an old local with the most basic Chinese there is.
He looked up.
How could he have mistaken that? I expanded it into “Are you well?”
“Ni hao ma?”
He just looked more baffled, and actually shook his head in bewilderment. So we abandoned the whole exercise of saying hello. I can tell you, this is a lot worse when you’re standing there in the nude.
|Another Chinese character, yesterday.|
* ObviouslyI’ve forgotten what “moth” is now. That’s not the important bit.