A Toe in the Mandarin Waters

The wall

And for my next trick, I will use my powers to decipher the meaning behind these symbols.

About twice a week, the laptop ayi visits my class.

The laptop ayi is the Chinese tech support woman who delivers a trolley of computers to the classes around the school, keeping them safe, making them purr, and treating the trolley like it was her prize pony. After I book the laptops she brings them at the designated time, unlocks them, tips her metaphorical hat, and saunters on her way.

But occasionally an issue arises: the laptops were not safely stowed in their closet for her to fetch them. A computer is missing, or some headphones, or a powerchord. The trolley has been double booked and she wants to clear up all the fuss so that everyone can be happy. At least, I assume this is what she’s saying. My Mandarin doesn’t exist.

There is nothing more embarrassing than when an adult tries to communicate with you and your failure is so abject that a group of six year-olds comes to your aid. As my students see my face redden they suddenly appear at my side, the whole lot of them, the ones who have spoken Mandarin from birth and the ones who learn it recreationally at school. “Don’t worry, Mr. M,” they seem to say, as they shoo me away so the grown-ups can talk. “We’ll handle this.” The gaggle of them converse pleasantly to the ayi, who nods and responds, thanks them pleasantly, and ambles off along down the hall.

Most of what I need to communicate in China is done through my usual hand-talking and a charming, whiplash smile, which has served me well through a few dozen countries at this point. I can nod and grin and flap my arms around like a fool and get through situations ranging from restaurants to police interrogations, and people wave me on, lovable scamp that I am. They appreciate my effort, the idiosyncracies I bring to my agile flailing, and they also want to be rid of me so we usually can work something out.

But in a professional situation, surrounded by busy people who have things to do, not everyone is totally keen to faff around trying to suss each other’s languages. The laptop ayi has business to take care of, as do the janitors, as do the Chinese teachers, as do the taxi drivers I see and the waiters and the people who sell me vegetables. I need to forge ahead and actually try to make heads or tails of the stuff they’re all saying.

And yet, the trembles down my spine whenever I am confronted with Mandarin always seem to much worse than back when it was Korean. Korean: the language I could read from day one. Korean: the language I was pretty decent at, and thus hinged large portions of my self-worth upon for several months when I was at the peak of my studying. Staring down the barrel of a bunch of Chinese lessons, I have unhooked my sense of self from my language ability, because I think if I were to still maintain that connection I would be in for a couple of depressing years.

The issue, of course, is not that Chinese or Korean is markedly more difficult than one another, but rather where all the weight is loaded. Korean can saunter into your mind delicately and light on its feet, with its easy-reading alphabet and most of its phonetic sounds being similar enough to English. I remember sitting in a car as my cousins drove us up and down the switchback passes along the Rockies in British Columbia, easily pouring Hangul into my brain as though there had always been a place for it there, as though it was a missing puzzle piece I hadn’t gotten around to slotting into place. It wasn’t until weeks of classes that I realized how perilously little I knew; it wasn’t until I tried to climb Grammar Mountain that the actual horrors of real language learning confronted me.

Mandarin, by contrast, is all front-loaded, with its tones and its bazillion characters and the hit-or-miss pinyin, and the dozens of dialects and perfectly separate other languages shimmying around China like electrons speeding around a massive atom. On the distant horizon I hear people tell me that Mandarin grammar is actually hilariously easy, that actually speaking is a breeze once you get the hang of it. But the hang of it, which requires learning the tones which escape me, seems a bridge too far. That I am an anal completionist means that I desperately want to learn characters as well, which is a goal just as reasonable for me as becoming a competitive weight-lifter or a space chemist or a level 73 frost wizard.

And yet, I try. Surrounded by Chinese coworkers and passers-by and waiters and mail carriers and taxi drivers and children and old people and married couples and divorcing couples and people in love and people adopting puppies, all of whom are happily living their lives speaking this language pretty well, it seems ludicrous not to try. As people deal with me using agonizing politeness and deep, cringing boredom, it would be shameful not to give them the respect of at least trying to respond in the language of the land. I will respond in my dull approximation of tones, I will spend great long shimmering moments trying to place the meaning of some characters, and I will do my level best to say a whole thing.

It seems petty and lazy and useless not to at least have a go, to look out across the terrifying, heady ocean of Mandarin language and leap into the water, hoping I’ll learn how to swim.

9 thoughts on “A Toe in the Mandarin Waters

      • Seems pretty accurate to me, yeah – the absolute basics of Japanese pronunciation are fairly simple to grasp, it’s attaining a natural rhythm and flow to your sounds that takes time to (and I’ve met many expats who’ve been studying for 10+ years and speak at a high level, but retain a very strong accent – though I suppose that’s true for any language). Meanwhile, grammar is indeed almost intractable at first but eventually starts to unravel and present its logic to the learner. My only addition might be another upswing on the far end of grammar, because reaching the coveted “near-native” level necessitates a mastery of polite language/business Japanese, which is like learning a whole new dialect from scratch, though it sounds like the writer is a little lower level (or was when he wrote the post) and so simply hasn’t had to tangle with this difficulty yet.

  1. So apparently the Prime Minister of Singapore learnt Chinese at a late age. So I vaguely remember someone telling me the other day when I wasn’t really, no wait! I remember:

    So, er, a bit different as not the current Prime Minister and also he was introduced to the language much earlier, he just didn’t really get stuck in til later. For the record, I was listening but I’m low on sleep and I’ll stick to that story and I think I may have stuffed up trying to inspire you and not be afraid.

    But, um, go you!

    Seriously, I’m sure you can do it. Apparently the first three languages are the worst.

  2. Go for it!

    Once you get a couple of basic grammar rules down, the word order is much more intuitive for an English speaker than Korean word order, and there really is far less grammar that you have to remember in order to make yourself understood. Apart from the tones, the pronunciation is no more difficult than Korean, and once you’ve learned how to pronounce pinyin (which is pretty simple as long as you don’t look at it and expect it to sound like the letters would in English), it is a reliable system.

    Tones are a hurdle, and the only way to get them down pat is a lot of listening practice. However, there are only four of them, and two of those are pretty easy to spot (the high, singing first tone, and the falling fourth tone, which sounds like an exclamation – as in ‘No!’ or ‘Hey!’).

    The hanzi characters are a challenge, but can be treated as something entirely separate from learning to speak, and learning 50-100 of the most common is immediately rewarding, and not hard once you get going.

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