Foreign language is hard no matter what your native language

So, I’ve been at death’s door the past few days. No not really-but I got your attention didn’t I? It’s always good for a marriage I think to experience one another’s pain, so I spent the past 6 days with the sore throat Mark had the previous weekend. It was the worst sore throat I’ve had in 30 years. We were each given a different antibiotic that didn’t work for either one of us so we’re assuming it must have been viral, although Meredith has had the same cold and hasn’t experienced the same course of illness that we did. Special Chinese virus for old people? Just glad we have that one under our belts.

So I thought I’d talk a little bit about language. One can manage without Chinese here, but it sure would be easier to have it. If you never did anything but went into a store, picked up your item, took it to the cash register and handed over your credit card you’d probably be fine. But…things come up.

First story: How to Exchange an Item with 5 Words of Chinese

A couple of weeks ago I went to our local stationary store (no Staples in China!) to have a look around and I found a little case to hold my business cards. Rather than buying the sample, I bought one of the ones that was in a box on the shelf.

When I got it home, I discovered it was different than the sample and not what I wanted. Drat! How was I going to ask for an exchange with my limited Chinese? This is a small business and the proprietor speaks no English.

I went back to the store and picked up the case I did want and I took it to the counter with the one I didn’t want. I held out the first and said: “Wo yao jhe ge” (I want this). Then I held out the second with the receipt and said “Wo bu yao jhe ge”. (I don’t want this.)

She immediately knew what I wanted done! Yeah!

And then everything fell apart.

She turned to her cash register and started speaking rapid Chinese and waving her hands. I was clueless.

Luckily another customer rescued me. Apparently the two cases were different prices and the one I wanted was higher priced. Hadn’t thought of that possibility.

This has nothing to do with anything. I just thought it was time for a picture. You see this style of cat everywhere here. (It's like the bank the shop tried to give me when I was buying the rice cooker.) Its arm waves.

Second story: How to Repair Your Suitcase with 4 words of Chinese

About this same time I needed to get a new wheel on my suitcase (remember, it fell off coming here), so I dragged it over to the Samsonite store that’s a couple of blocks from here, armed with my “Wo xiang zhe guding” phrase (I want this fixed). As soon as I entered the store, the sales lady came running toward me, waving a card that had the repair center location on it. Darn, I didn’t even get to say my Chinese!

So, that afternoon I had Chen shi fu drive me to this fancy office building and on the 37th floor I found a tiny room about the size of a large closet, with a small bent man, that was crammed floor to ceiling with suitcases. I handed him my suitcase, saying my phrase. He took it, looked it over and shot back a string of Chinese, shaking his head, the only thing I recognized being Meiguo (American).

I nodded, “Meiguo!” He shook his head again, “Chinese jibberish, Meiguo”.

I held my hands up in the universal language of “I have no idea what you’re talking about” and he called someone to come talk to me who told me that because my suitcase was made in America the man didn’t think he could get the wheel.

Really? That’s not what my warranty says. (He did get it, altho it’s not an exact match.) Then she tried to argue with me that the wheel’s not covered by the warranty because the airline did it, at which point I switched in to my “What? I’m not understanding your English” mode. (And no, I didn’t have to pay for it.)

Here's some porcelain cats. Their arms wave too.

Not knowing the language sometimes feels like hitting a brick wall. And so I spend a lot of time studying Chinese. This week I made a rather daunting discovery.

I thought it would be helpful to look up some words in an online Chinese dictionary which led to me compare the characters (what the Chinese use instead of “a, b, c…” to write their words) of different words. What I found is this: I knew a word like “shi” can have 4 tones and each tone will have a different meaning. What I didn’t realize is that there are actually THREE 1st tone, FOUR 2nd tone,  TWO 3rd tone, and SIX 4th tone “shi” words, each with their own character, so there are actually a total of 15 vocabulary words for “shi”, not 4! This is why people keep saying learning the characters is important. Now I see that Chinese is orders of magnitude more daunting than I thought it was. I also now know why you want to be sure to address your “laoshi” or teacher with a first tone instead of a third tone on the last syllable. Make a mistake and you will be very rude!

But, I’ve experienced a couple of times when Chinese people have demonstrated their difficulty with English. The other night my Chinese teacher was showing us the character for “ma” or horse. He said we’d see the radical part of the character a lot and that it relates to “mouse”. I think we all thought that was weird so we kept asking him to repeat it and after several repetitions he was finally able to get out that he meant “mouth”. He couldn’t pronounce the “th” sound!

I can’t tell you how much better this made me feel! There are certain sounds in the Chinese language that are so hard for westerners (or maybe I should say English speakers) to make, in particular the “c” and “r” sound and we have repeatedly giggled and laughed in class over my inability to make those sounds.

My teacher’s last instruction on the “c” sound: “Brush out like you’re spitting… Ok, not that much.”

A flesh and blood cat this time. Notice the little boy is also trying to make his hand wave.

Yesterday I was buying some pens at a stationary store at the mall, and as I was paying, a woman approached me and asked me to re-write her card for her English speaking co-worker as she was having trouble writing English letters rather than chinese characters. (I thought they looked fine.) I of course did, writing it in cursive, which impressed the lady and sales clerk immensely.

It seems that we all struggle with a language when it’s not our own. But, still, the hill for Chinese seems steeper and higher than for English. You meet so many Chinese people here whose English is far better than my Chinese will ever be. Mark’s secretary is amazing and she has never lived outside of China. Where did she learn such good English? From movies. Ben says the people he knows learned it from watching “Friends.”

So far the Berenstain Bears dubbed in Chinese has not made me a Chinese speaker.

Elevator flowers



About DECRYPTKNIT: knitter on the loose in Shanghai

Hi, I'm Marisa Newhouse, a former pharmacist (for a brief time during the Reagan administration) who's real calling was probably anything that has to do with cooking, plants, literature and especially knitting; hence my last and favorite job, working at Woolyminded, a wonderful yarn store. But now, I have moved half a world away to Shanghai where my husband will be working. Lots of people are interested in what we will be doing here and I have always kept journals of our travels, so I thought I'd do it the modern way and keep a blog.
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One Response to Foreign language is hard no matter what your native language

  1. Kelly says:

    Great virtual tour. So wonderful to see Shanghai through your lens for us less fortunate. Hope Miss Meredith took her video camera. If not I think you and Mark should go stay in the nomad cave so we all can see what that’s like…don’t you agree?

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