As we taxied towards the terminal after the flight from Kunming to Sanya, Hainan, I listened intently to the flight attendant make the standard arrival announcement. She was half-way through the announcement before I realized she was speaking English! It wasn’t just the usual rushed, slurred delivery that many flight announcers are guilty of after giving the same announcement flight after flight, day after day for many years. This was different. I didn’t get the impression that she was giving a hackneyed speech, at all. In fact, as I’m often the only visibly non-Chinese passenger on many of these inter-city flights, I often wonder if the announcement would even be made in English if I wasn’t on the plane!
Anyway, as I did my best to listen and decipher what the flight attendant was saying, I realized that even in the context of an airplane flight, where I have a good idea of what she SHOULD be saying, I was still having difficulty understanding her. Of course, there’s the “accent”, the intonations and the way the Chinese tongue, teeth and lips pronounce unfamiliar English consonants and vowels after a lifetime pronouncing more familiar Chinese sounds. But, I also got the sense that she might not have been speaking English at all, but merely reading the phonetic equivalent of the English words the same way I might read the phonetic equivalent (goo-roo EEE-Key) of my Chinese name, 顾瑞奇. It brings to mind a similar experience of just a few days ago.
The other day, I walked into a local restaurant here in Hainan to determine if, at some future point in time, I might be able to dine there given my vegan proclivities. However, even in the context of being in a restaurant speaking about food, my attempts to communicate in Mandarin that I didn’t want MSG or seasoning powder (very simple sentences, mind you) were met with blank stares by the wait staff. They, too, had no idea what I was trying to say!
Just goes to show that there’s more to speaking the language than just mimicking the right sounds. Even in a familiar context, one’s meaning can be utterly lost or otherwise indecipherable without the right subtlety–a subtlety that comes only with time, practice and a basic foundation in the language.
If you’re just mimicking sounds, you really don’t know where one word ends and another begins. You don’t know when to make the correct pauses in your delivery to convey the right meaning. And you’re never really sure if the phonetics is an exact replica or just a “reasonable facsimile thereof.” And, particularly in Mandarin, using the wrong tone can skew everything altogether!
Which is not to say that context is irrelevant. If I, a non-native English speaker, were to say to you, “Sanku Bay Marsh” out of context, you might not really understand what I was trying to say. However, if, after you gave me a birthday present, I accepted it, nodded, smiled and then said, ”Sanku Bay Marsh,” you might then get it, and reply, as any decent English-speaker would, “You’re very welcome!”
January 25, 2011 2 Comments
Subject: Jamaican in China!–”That’s MISTER Milk to you, madam!” (Language Lesson #1)
Date: October 22, 2010 8:00:08 AM GMT+08:00
Tales of Dating and Cereal, (Cereal Dating???)
As I’ve said to many a friend when discussing inter-cultural and international dating, “Language is highly overrated.” You don’t need to share a common spoken language in order to meet, date or even marry! In fact, I had a friend in college who went to Brazil, fell in love, and married his new sweetheart all within a week or two, and he didn’t speak a word of Portuguese, and his bride didn’t speak a word of English!
Within a few weeks, he was speaking Portuguese and, while I haven’t heard from him in many years, I’ll attach my own “…and they lived happily ever after” (for as long as the relationship was destined to last) to that story. I’ve always believed that the right motivation is necessary to do just about anything–like learning a new language in two weeks. So, anyway, my point, as I’ve said, is that language is highly overrated!
In fact, in the dating game, I’ve found that NOT sharing a common language keeps the interactions between two people basic and uncomplicated. It forces you to get to the essence of the relationship more quickly when dealing with misunderstandings.
I’ve found that in a relationship with someone who speaks the same language (worse if they speak it well and have an advanced vocabulary) you can spend hours nitpicking every little detail and nuance of “what he said, she said, he meant, she implied, what did you mean by that?” until the cows come home!”
On the other hand, when you don’t have the luxury (or excuse) of hiding under layers of words, or behind shades of meaning, the discussions are brief, simple, and the end result comes quicker. You can forgive misunderstandings that are caused by differences in culture and language much more easily, and get to the essential questions, and answers (Do I love this person? Will I forgive this misunderstanding and move on? Is the essential attraction and commitment still there? In other words: I like you. You like me. Let’s go!)
Yep, it’s pretty basic, perhaps even simplistic, I’ll admit, but I never said I ever graduated to mature or sophisticated levels of dating interaction or romance. Functioning at a third-grade level is good enough for me!
However, with that said, there ARE some instances where being able to negotiate the subtleties of language are very useful.
So, I’m here in China, see, learning Chinese (Mandarin to you westerners, Putonghua to us Easterners), and like many foreigners raised with a foreign “ear,” the most challenging part is learning the tones of Chinese words. Very briefly, the meaning of a sound in Chinese is determined by the “tone” you use when speaking it. There are four tones to every “word” and whether you raise, lower, keep flat, or dip-and-raise the tone of the word affects the meaning–in other words, it becomes a completely different word. This is profoundly difficult for (former) westerners like me to grasp. Tones for us, affect the emotion behind a word, not the meaning. About the only similarity we have in English, is how we raise the tone of the last word when asking a question. Do you know what I mean?
Check out this link with sound clips for each pronunciation
high level – first tone
rising – second tone
falling rising – third tone
falling – fourth tone
“Pinyin” is the system of roman character phonetic representation of Chinese characters
mā (ist tone)
má (2nd tone)
mà (4th tone)
To a westerner, unaccustomed to differentiating such subtle tones, mā, má, mǎ, and mà sound exactly the same. To a Chinese person, the subtlety is detectable, and very confusing in trying to understand a foreigner. (So, using the example in the chart above, if you mispronounce “ma” you could end up saying: Have you seen my mother’s hoofs lately? She’s been grazing and galloping out in the fields for a long time. Do you think I need to re-shoe her?)
Similarly, to a Chinese person, the English words “bowl” and “ball” sound pretty much the same, and they might pronounce it as such. However, “I am looking for a bowl” and “I am looking for a ball would place you in very different locations, and produce quite different outcomes!
That’s “MR.” Milk to you, Madam
My friend, Cong (pronounced Tsong), is nice enough to help me practice precise Putonghua pronunciation. I shared with her some of the challenges I was experiencing during a recent shopping adventure. I had walked into a store and asked for soy milk. (I had learned that basic ability back on Saipan, for heaven’s sake! I thought I was an expert!) First a little language lesson.
Wǒ = I
yao = want (pronounced “Yow” like how)
dòujiāng = soymilk (pronounced dowjyang)
So, putting it all together, I thought I was saying:
Wǒ yao dòujiāng
Which means “I WANT soy milk.”
However, when I practiced it with Cong, she explained to me that what I was actually saying was
Wǒ JIAO dòujiāng
Which means “I AM CALLED Soy milk.”
You see, what had happened was….jiao (pronounced “Jyow” like “how”) and
yao (pronounced “Yow” like how to the untrained ear (and that’s how I learned it), they are pretty close;.
Yep, sure. Go ahead, laugh.
Picture me as I stride confidently into a store, look the sales clerk/cashier straight in the eye, and announce:
“Hello. I am called Soy Milk!”
HER: [Blank stare. Perhaps a chuckle]
ME: “I said, I am called Soy Milk!”
HER: “um…pleased to meet you? um… Milk.”
“That’s Mr. Milk to you, madam!”
Hmmmm. Something’s not going right here.
The subtle difference between yow and zyow was lost on my foreign ears, so I confused the two hoping, as I always do, that any compassionate listener would at least be able to figure out what I was attempting to communicate in the context of our conversation. (I’ve found that to be a very optimistic expectation, unless the listener is motivated by virtue of being a good friend or a romantic partner!)
So, anyway, in such a situation, I have two choices. I can
1. leave empty-handed, go back home, and eat my breakfast cereal dry.
2. start using foreign hand gestures and sign language to communicate the concept of soy milk to someone who already thinks I’m a bit strange to be named after a plant-based beverage.
Dry cereal’s not so bad, really.
Next time in the Language Lesson Series: Foreign hand gestures and sign language!
October 22, 2010 No Comments
Today’s adventure in thought inspired by life in China touches on an idea that most everyone can appreciate. It is particularly targeted to those in the midst of a pursuit of a formal education. I’d share it with you here, but this particular post was written as a special article for the Saipan Tribune, so that’s where you’ll have to go to read it! The first line reads:
“Not many things surprise me.”
Click here to read the rest! (opens in new window)
But wait! Because you’re special, you get to see a photo of some of the people I make reference to in the article that Tribune readers didn’t get to see!
September 29, 2010 No Comments
Subject: Jamaican in China—Speaking Spandarish, Tiananmen Tour, Mock Meat and Lunch Lotto
So, I met Cong through the Couchsurfing.org website before I left Saipan. She graciously offered to take me around to a few places in Beijing once I got there. We agreed to meet on Thursday (Day 4). Interestingly, as I had learned through her couchsurfing profile, she speaks Spanish (quite well), and so do I, thank you very much.
As we conversed, any word Cong didn’t immediately recall in English, she said in Spanish so I could understand.
(FYI: Maybe I should write the lived-but-never-chronicled Jamaican in Washington Heights saga and tell you about dating my college girlfriend who was a half-Chinese, half-Dominican Latina. Washington Heights is a neighborhood in upper Manhattan, New York, where the culture of the Dominican Republic reigns supreme!)
So, this English/Spanish/Mandarin speaking Jamaican boy in China, is hanging out with a Mandarin-English-Spanish speaking Chinese girl from Beijing, and our conversation is an interesting mix of Spanish, Mandarin and English…um, let’s see…Ok, give me a minute…Spanglarin!? Spandarish!?? Yeah, that’s it! Speaking Spandarish!
We went to the Apple store and used Baidu.com (the Chinese “Google”) via the free wi-fi access to plan our day.
At the Apple store in Beijing getting directions
“Can we take a photo with you, please?” (Y’know, I’m going to start charging you girls money soon)
Jamaican on the Streets of Tiananmen
On the way to the restaurant (my third time this week), we stopped at a juice bar where I introduced her to wheat grass. She was adventurous, tried a bit, and liked it! That’s amazing! Personally, I hate the stuff! I just drink it for the chlorophyll and health benefits!
She noted that seeing me enter the store, grab a blade of grass from a tray and eat it, was just about the most shocking thing she’d seen in a while. It was like seeing someone stoop down on the sidewalk, and start grazing on a lawn!
Say “cheese!” oops, that’s dairy….um, say “soy protein!”
So, check this out. A little-known secret of restaurant dining in Beijing is what I’m going to call ”Pay List Lotto!” (If I recall correctly, the mandarin phrase for check translates literally as “pay list.”) According to Cong, you can request a special feature on your check for the meal that has a scratch-off lottery option. Most times, you just reveal a “thank you!” but she once won money!
The restaurants won’t automatically offer the ticket since they’re charged some sort of tax when they do. Even if you’re hip to the game and request it, some restaurants may weasel their way out of giving it to you claiming to be out of the tickets. But now you know!
Ahem, It goes without saying, of course, that one of the most important phrases I am determined to learn is how to ask for that darn ticket!
Did we win?!
And, thanks to Cong, in a just a few hours, I’m already starting to recognize and understand Chinese characters!
All in all, a great day! Thanks, Cong! There had been tentative plans to attend the Couchsurfing Foodie Night later that evening, but I was in a stay home mood by day’s end!
New life to live, new things to learn
green grass to drink, and even money to earn!
September 3, 2010 No Comments