A few days ago a Chinese friend invited me over to her family’s house for dinner. The evening was such a delightful night of overwhelming hospitality, such a celebration of cultural stereotypes and missed connections that I can’t help telling you about it.
The incredible collection of food the Wangs cooked for me, so I could try “real Chinese food”
My friend, who I’ll just call Pegasus in order not to reveal her identity but keeping in the mythical spirit of her real English name, assumed that I was too inept to take public transportation so she just wrote down her address in a piece of paper and told me to show it to a taxi driver. At peak hour, I started the herculean task of trying to flag down a Beijing cab. Add traffic to that equation, and the fact that Pegasus’s estimate of how long it would take there had been wildly optimistic, and you get a very late Laura at a dinner party organized in her honor. It would have taken 20 minutes on the subway.
I had asked Pegasus the previous day if she had any siblings, a question that made her laugh and reply in her best elementary school teacher voice that China has a one child policy (which I knew, of course, but several Chinese people I know have managed to evade it either through loopholes or by paying a fine, so it didn’t seem like such a stupid thing to ask). However, when she came to meet me outside her building she introduced me to her two younger brothers. Confused, I asked why she said no when I had asked her if she had brothers or sisters. “Oh, no, you asked me if I had siblings!” she laughed. “And I don’t.” At that point in the night we were still speaking English and I was already totally confused.
Jimminy Cricket says ni hao!
A few days ago, my Chinese friend Yifu, one of my most loyal blog readers, asked me why my updates had been so sparse lately. “You are hardened!” he said “you are already used to being Chinese, or pretending to be Chinese!”. I was afraid that he might be right, and I’m getting jaded about this fascinating place, but today, I saw something that got me as excited as I was about every little thing when I got here five months ago.
I was walking home in the early evening, and as I was going by a vegetable stand on my street, I heard a sharp, rhythmic noise that reminded me of sprinklers going off over a lawn. Looking around for the source, I found two tiny little cages suspended from the top of a tent just outside the shop. Inside the cages were crickets, yes, real, live CRICKETS chirping angrily away.
I couldn’t resist the urge to whip out my phone and make a video on the spot, which got a laugh out of the shop attendants. At the end of the video, you can see me turn around and ask in giggly baby Chinese: “Why you have this?”
It was an ambitious question to ask, since I would most likely not understand a word of the answer, but between hand signals and my limited Chinese, I understood they were surprised we didn’t have crickets in my home country. “We do,” I said “we just don’t put them in cages” or, more accurately, something along the lines of “yes, have, but we no put inside that thing” *points and vigorously draws air cages with hands*
If I understood correctly, they just have them for fun, and if you put them next to each other they want to fight, which is why they are so loud. Either that, or they are a talisman of eternal life and those that make videos of them are condemned to a life of unmarried solitude and a barren womb (the worst punishments in Chinese existence, I am sure). Something along those lines, in any case.
Update from Yifu: more on Chinese crickets.
The start of my classes last week make Mandarin Chinese the sixth language that I have officially studied with some degree of seriousness. Of the previous five, I would say I can hold a conversation comfortably enough in all but one, Portuguese, which I saw only for a semester and never got to practice. I am not saying this to brag or make some point about my intelligence, in fact, most of my languages were learned out of obligation and circumstance, and all but English are romance languages that are similar enough to each other that I can almost fake my way through them. As far as amateur linguists go, it’s pretty weak to speak the languages I do.
The point that I’m trying to make is that language classes are not a new thing for me. I was obviously aware that Chinese is wildly different from anything I’ve studied before: an entirely different language family means no cognates to speak of (my best friends!), a different and infinitely more complicated writing system, and the ever-dreaded tones. But even knowing that about Mandarin, I hoped for the best. I still thought of the ability to learn languages relatively easily as one of the few things I’d list as an actual skill of mine. I can’t dance at all, I can’t sing without hurting myself or others, and I fail at all activities that require any type of physical speed, coordination, flexibility or balance. I have forgotten all of my math, and I am pop culture illiterate so I am a dead weight on pub trivia teams. But I have languages on my side! Right? …Right?
Maybe it’s a little premature to write about how much I suck at Chinese. I am actually enjoying my classes very much, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned in this short amount of time given that it’s, well, Chinese. However, I have discovered that, despite how many times I have been told that the more languages you know the easier they are to pick up, I have no noticeable relative advantage to anyone else starting from scratch. My ego is a little sore, but I’m trying hard.
You don’t just have to memorize the character, what it means, how to say it, and what tone. You also should know the proper order of the strokes, which is why they are numbered in little circles here. That’s the back of Chen Laoshi (Teacher Chen)
I think the thing I feared the most, like most Westerners, were the characters, but they haven’t turned out to be the worst.
Don’t get me wrong, the characters are insane. In seven days of class I have learned four or five different characters for the syllable “shi,” all with different meanings. There is little to do with characters but memorize them, which is not particularly fun, but here’s the thing: I can see the difference between characters. The tones, on the other hand, are a nightmare and currently the bane of my existence.
There are four different tones in Mandarin, and a fifth, “neutral” one. Each syllable you speak has a different tone, and the tone is related to the meaning of the word itself. For example, the word si can mean alternatively “four” or “death” depending on the tone. In pinyin (the standard spelling of Chinese using the roman alphabet, the one you’re reading in right now) these tones are expressed as four different types of accent marks, like this: mā, má, mǎ or mà. The way I like to think about it, the first one sounds like you’re tuning in a music class, a little higher pitched than your normal voice. The second sounds like a question. The third, falling then rising, sounds to me like a teenage girl trying too hard to be flirty. The fourth’s like an angry Chinese dad yelling at you.
These things should all be relatively easy to tell apart, you’d think. But you’re wrong. Not if you’re tone deaf, like me. Maybe all four tones in a row, over the same syllable sound obvious. But on their own, without hand gestures to help you figure it out, and combined with a million other tones over other syllables, I have an impossibly hard time. I already mentioned I suck at music, and a significant part of the time, Chinese class feels like chorus, with a score drawn on the board and all. We sit there and do drill after drill of the same syllable in every tone. And every time it’s my turn to say it, I just giggle because I can’t even tell what the difference is. It’s. So. Hard.
If there is any positive side to this insanely difficult to pronounce language, it’s the fact that the grammar is so easy. Imagine this: No verb conjugations. No plurals. No gendered nouns. No agreement. Nothing. It’s like this, translated literally:
I name Laura. I be Colombia person. Tomorrow I come class. I happy meet you. I very good. You good?
Here is my sneak video of Chen Laoshi (teacher Chen) teaching us tones. Notice me giggle every time it’s my turn.