Thursday, May 17, 2012

More Thoughts on Language

I feel like I’m getting better at speaking in Mandarin. I’ve expanded my vocabulary a bit, and my pronunciation has improved. However, overall I’m still pretty bad at it. At best, I speak in a kind of pidgin Chinese. For instance, I wanted to show a picture of my triathlon bike to the local sidewalk bike-mechanic guy, who’s done some work on my bike and is very friendly. Translated literally, I said, “my bike…America…race.” Not very graceful, but he understood and appreciated what I was communicating to him.

While just getting the point across is great, I long for that effortless fluency some of my expat friends here have attained. Getting into a taxi in Guangzhou, I gave the name of the hotel to the driver in Mandarin: hua yuan jiu dian. He looked at me and asked, “Garden Hotel?” I wasn’t sure whether to be happy he understood me so well or disappointed it was so clear to him that I would rather be speaking English.

Fluency would be helpful for hearing as well as speaking. While in Guangdong I went out for meals many times with groups of native-Chinese speakers who were also fluent in English. When they had something specific to say to me, they would of course speak English. But sometimes, when talking amongst themselves about matters they assumed were of no interest to me, they’d revert to Mandarin. It was very isolating. It made me realize how much conversations revolve around unplanned connections and digressions. Sure, they might be talking about a common acquaintance I don’t know, but I might have heard the name of the university at which he works and then asked about that and then the conversation moves in a new direction. Those dynamics are impossible when you are linguistically excluded.

It can be the case, however, that learning a new language makes life more complicated. Chinese speakers have a funny way of adding verbal-stall sounds to their speech. Instead of “uh” or “um,” many use a word I’ve seen translated into pinyin as “nei ge.” So, you often hear people talking and they add “nei ge, nei ge, nei ge” in the middle of a sentence (“zhe ge” is also used). We were talking about this with the boys and they started to use it, just for fun. That precipitated a conversation about the whopper racial slur in the US, which “nei ge” sounds a lot like. We wanted to make sure the boys didn’t develop a habit, imported back to the US, of walking around saying “nei ge, nei ge” all the time.

Sometimes, though, despite my best efforts, my Chinese skills break down completely. Fortunately, humans are pretty crafty about communicating without a common language. I’ve written before about my favorite bao zi stand, where I pick up breakfast many mornings. I figured out how to order two vegetable bao zi—liang ge cai bao zi—and that’s been my regular order.

However, I’ve been eyeing the spicy rice noodle bao zi, and decided to try it. The overhead menu has the Chinese characters and the English translation, so I decided to decipher. Looking at the characters and hunting for the words in my dictionary, I found the character for spicy—la— on the menu, but the characters I looked up for rice (mi fan) and noodle (mian) were not the ones on the menu. Apparently, the English wasn’t an exact translation of the Chinese.

I went for it anyway, translating the English back into Chinese: la mi fan mian bao zi. No dice; she had no idea what I wanted. But, I think she likes me—her regular lao wai customer—so she tried to work with me on it. Her strategy: suggest I count down from the top of the menu to find the number corresponding to the item. Perfect. It was the fifth item. Holding up five fingers would have scored me the right bun, despite my failed Chinese. But, I tried to salvage some linguistic dignity. I replied “wu” (five). The bao zi was delicious.


  1. Hi Doug - that is too funny.. glad u r not starving. Im sure they appreciate your effort and are very helpful. Sounds like a lot of fun?? but surely frustrating on occasion. Love u Mom

  2. Enjoyable story.