Friday, 8 November 2013

Cracking the Code

Learning how to speak Mandarin, it turns out, is not easy.

Decades ago when I first moved to Japan, I must have gone through the same agony, but however frustrating it was then, I can't believe it was anything like this. In China, I have been in a number of 'situations'. Times when being able to communicate with the people around me was hugely important, but woefully beyond my capabilities. Like when I forgot to weigh a few pieces of fruit at the supermarket and my husband had to run back to do this, aggravating a man behind me who turned red-faced with rage and began to rant. I knew what he must be saying: What happened? How could you possibly have forgotten to weigh your fruit? How dare you keep me waiting? Again and again he seemed to be demanding an explanation which I was, of course, unable to give him. Or, on another occasion, when I tried desperately to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go, having rehearsed it at least a dozen times--to find that he still could not understand me. Or when I answered the phone in our office and could not tell the obviously agitated woman on the other end that a colleague was away from her desk. I could manage "not here now, five minutes," but that just didn't cut it.

My frustration at this lack has a lot to do with the Great Expectations I came here with: I thought that given my ability to read some Chinese, learning to speak might be easier for me. But I was wrong--so wrong! Despite the fact that I spent decades in Japan learning how to write kanji, or Chinese characters, learning to read in China is a whole new ball of wax. Characters have been greatly modified here, and the ones I'm familiar with have often been changed beyond recognition. Even simple ones like push, pull, east, and car were mysteries to me at first. Days of the week, pronouns, verbs, nouns--all were woefully mystifying. Then there's the pronunciation. The vowels make me want to weep--no clear, easy-to-follow a-i-u-e-o like there is in Japanese; certain Chinese vowels change with certain consonants, and I can never remember which. And the tones are murder.

But lately, I have been having breakthroughs. Tiny ones, it is true, but breakthroughs nevertheless.

Breakthrough 1:  My husband and I are buying persimmons from a man who is selling them from a cart. As we pack them into a bag, the man, assuming that we don't know how to eat them, indicates that they must be peeled first. I take a pen from the counter and scrawl on a piece of newspaper in Chinese: In my country we also have persimmons. I like them very much. He reads this out loud and nods slowly, then gives me a broad grin. Eureka! He understands!  

Breakthrough 2: I am with a Japanese friend, applying for a courtesy card at a local department store. The woman asks my Japanese friend to fill in my address for me, but I shake my head and write my address in Chinese in the space provided. The woman reads it and looks up at me with a hint of respect in her eyes: Oh, she says, you can write Chinese. And eureka! I understand her!

Breakthrough 3: We arrive home from work to find a handwritten note in Chinese on our front door. It has been scrawled in haste and it takes me ages to work through, but with the help of a Chinese-Japanese dictionary and my husband's character-recognition software,  I finally piece it out: I am your upstairs neighbor. Recently my toilet pipes have been blocked. I need to gain access to your apartment in order to fix the pipes. I came today, but you were not home. Can you please phone me to let me know when you will be home so that we can unblock our pipes? Thank you very much. By the time I've worked this out, my husband has already photographed the note and texted it to our real estate agent. She texts back the following message: Your neighbor needs to get into your apartment because her toilet is blocked and she needs to fix it. Sweet hallelujah! I was right!

I'm thrilled with these tiny breakthroughs. So thrilled that the idea of perfect strangers showing up on our one day off to tear up our floorboards and fiddle with the pipes to unclog a blocked toilet hardly gives me a moment's pause.


Charles Gramlich said...

Most of us seldom realize such difficulties but it is, no doubt, an eye opening experience.

tanita♥davis said...

Ah, Mary. Hang in there - I believe you and P. are already magical, with your language skills. It'll come.

Mirka Breen said...

You are as brave as you are talented, Mary. And I thought English was hard...
DD, a musician, told me most of her Chinese colleagues have perfect pitch because of the tonal aspect of their language. I don't even *hear* the subtle differences, let alone capable of pronouncing the sounds.

A.T. Post said...

I've always wondered how difficult/easy it is for someone who can read and write Japanese to switch to Mandarin. You just answered the question. For once, just this once, I'm glad I'm not in your shoes. Goodness knows I have enough difficulty with Korean (after nearly three years!) and I can read the dang alphabet.

What part of China are you in?

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- It IS eye opening, Charles, and humbling too. I've been telling myself that it's good for my soul, but it's still tough.

Tanita -- (sniff--thank you!!) But if you could see the people we work with you might feel sorry for us! Mere bilinguals are almost pitiful here as many are tri-lingual and there are some who can speak four or five languages, all at a high level. Still, I am getting there, however slowly.

Mirka -- At first, I couldn't hear the difference between falling and rising tones, but now I can distinguish them a little better; at least I'm not wrong ALL of the time. But I think your daughter is right. In fact, I wonder if Cantonese speakers are even more musical because of their extra tones. (Not something I like to think about--those extra tones...) As for being brave, I cannot accept that compliment: I turn into a quivering jelly when I have to phone anybody here. What if somebody who doesn't speak English pick up the phone?

Mary Witzl said...

Postman -- Everybody here tells me it's a LOT easier for Chinese to learn Japanese, and after this, I believe them. Korean would have been easier, I believe (mainly because it's phonetically similar to Japanese, and hangul seems more straightforward to me), but there were no jobs like this one in Korea. We're spitting distance from Shanghai here, but far enough away not to go there every day.

Miss Footloose said...

I so admire you for tackling Chinese! I remember trying to learn Armenian, which is a language with its own unique alphabet.

Same with Arabic which I tried to learn while living in Palestine. I remember one day walking past a little shop and realizing I knew all the letters above the window: M N M R K T. Now in Arabic you don't write out (most) vowels. so if you try this out you get this: MiNiMaRKet, minimarket, the English word written in Arabic characters. The first word I ever could read in Arabic ... Next word was SH U Z - shoes, also English.

Now I'm in France and learning French. It's easier, but still plenty difficult.

Anonymous said...

Coming very, very late to this party, Mary, but wanted to check in and say how much I look forward to your posts! Hooray for the tiny break-throughs!

Mary Witzl said...

Karen -- My daughter has been studying Arabic and has tried to talk me through the writing system. She too enjoys sounding out what words say, piecing together the meaning. I wonder if I would ever manage truly difficult languages like Arabic or Armenian if I tried them, (or for that matter, Mandarin). I'm beginning to think I'm a linguistic one-trick pony when it comes to non-Indo-European languages.

Anne -- Thank you for saying that! I love writing posts and wish I could spend more time doing it. It's ironic that with all these experiences to describe (and emotions to vent), I'm suddenly deprived of the time to write them down.