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.