Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Learning Mandarin In China

Shanghai Train Station, China, 2013
[Originally written: December 4th, 2013]

When discussing teaching in China with friends and family at home, the one question that is always posed is “Oh, do you speak Chinese?” I would smile in reflex and automatically reply “No, you don’t have to”.
That much is true. To teach English in China, you don’t need to speak Chinese. However, to live in China, Chinese is essential. I first learned this lesson when trying to buy four apples at a market in Benxi. I pointed at the apples and said ‘Su (Four)’ in my best Mandarin accent. The man smiled kindly, then blurted out several sentences in Chinese at lightning speed, grabbed three plastic bags and started to fill them with apples.
“Oh, no, no. Bu! Bu! Wo yao su!” I said, in panic. I wanted four apples, this man was giving me an orchard.
What I didn’t realize was there was a hand-made sign saying 10RMB for 1kg of apples. I had just asked for 4kg. I walked home, bags of apples in hand, feeling somewhat embarrassed and defeated, vowing to improve my Chinese.

Chinese isn’t difficult as far as languages go. Once you know the verb and the vocabulary, you’re pretty much in the know. Grammar is not near a challenge as in French or English. The challenge however, is not that there is no alphabet, but there are four tones. Say ‘Ma’ the wrong way, and you could call someone’s mother a horse. The tones are of such vital importance, you could sit down and learn twenty new words off by heart, but not a single person will understand you due to mispronunciation of a certain tone. I learned my address perfectly, yet no taxi driver ever understands me.
“Dongsheng Xiaoxie” I say, perfectly.
”Ting bu dong” stares the taxi-man.

Water Graffiti, BenXi, China, 2013
I show him the address in Character, and he repeats exactly what I feel I just said. That is the biggest challenge of Mandarin – thinking you’ve mastered a new sentence only to be not understood.

Before I came to China, I thought Chinese characters were complete nonsense. “Surely they need an alphabet, these drawings are ridiculous. Imagine writing an essay in Character!” However, after a while, you start to recognize characters, and soon you realize it’s exactly the same as words. Already I can look at a menu and know what has meat and what does not.

Another challenge of learning Chinese in China is not a lot of Chinese people have patience for those who can’t speak Chinese. I initially thought this myself, but it was confirmed by a Chinese colleague of mine. Plenty of times I have tried to ask for something in Chinese in a supermarket, only to be laughed at by the young cashier with pink glasses and braces. Don’t for a minute think she’ll try and interpret. This is because, in my opinion, most Chinese people (especially in Benxi) are not used to foreigners in their community. They don’t have the same understanding for differences as we do when we come from a diverse world. I am not bashing the Chinese people in any way here; it’s just simply a fact. I have been laughed at trying to speak Chinese, and sometimes I have had staff members roll their eyes and walk away. They aren’t used to interpreting their language – and that, for me, is a challenge.

Chinese is hard, and I have considered staying in China to master the language. I will never speak it fluently, or be able to write an essay in Character – but maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to but four apples only.