Sunday, 23 March 2014

Getting The Tone Right

It is late at night, and I am spectacularly lost. I have just been out for sushi with colleagues on my own, and although usually there is someone with whom I can share a taxi home, tonight nobody is going my way. I have been given good instructions, but somehow I still have managed to get myself into a neighborhood I find totally unfamiliar.

All the buses have stopped running and taxis are thin on the ground. And even if they weren't, there would be the problem of having to explain where I want to go to the taxi driver in Chinese. I can do this pretty well now, but what I still cannot do is make myself understood; apparently, I'm still butchering the tones. The way it usually works is this: my husband and I get into a taxi after one of us, usually my husband, has worked over a laborious spiel explaining our destination, honing it and repeating it ad nauseam. We then give the instructions to the taxi driver, who gapes at us uncomprehendingly and asks us to repeat ourselves. Which we do. After half a dozen tries, he finally seems to get it and we drive off, most of the time in the right direction. It is, to say the least, very frustrating.

The last time I had to do this on my own, it  took me over ten tries before the driver understood. Tonight, I am reluctant to go through the misery and humiliation. So I retrace my steps and go back over the bridge I've just crossed. I go past the gated apartment building with the giant stone lions in front and along a path bordered by willows. When I get to the Korean restaurant I remember from ten minutes ago, I try going left instead of going straight on. And I walk for more than fifteen minutes, but I can't see anything familiar. So I try a different route, then when that one culminates in a dead end, a different one. I end up on a vast road that is utterly deserted--weird in China--and rather dark. I suck my breath in and squeeze my eyes shut. There is no alternative: I've been walking for over an hour now and my husband, home marking papers, will be starting to worry. I've got to find a taxi.

Ten minutes later, I spot one and hold up my hand, my heart pounding in my throat. For once, I have no competition and the driver obligingly screeches to a halt. I get in, clear my throat, and tell him where I want to go. He gets it the very first time.

I am, as it turns out, less than a minute away from home. This is how bad my sense of direction is: even when I'm almost home, I have no idea where I am.

I end up paying full whack for the taxi, of course. But for once, I don't care one bit.


Charles Gramlich said...

I would probably do the same thing. Although once I've been somewhere I do remember how to get there again for a while.

Mirka Breen said...

I have heard from the musicians in my family that Chinese speakers have perfect pitch because of the subtle tonality of the language. I know less than zero about this, only that proper pronunciation of the proper names of our Chinese friends is harder, for me, than chewing on rocks.
You've come a long way, Mary.

Kit said...

Phew! It must have been scary being lost late at night. Good to know that you can communicate when it's desperate though.

Angela Ackerman said...

The challenges of living abroad--you amaze me Mary! I think for me, the language barrier would be too hard for me to try living in a non-English speaking different country.

I wonder, could you write down directions, or have someone else write directions in a way that a cab driver can understand? Then you could just hand this to the driver if he can't quite understand where you mean. Or, is there a landmark within walking distance of your home you could have the taxi take you to and them find your way home from there?

Kim Ayres said...


Anonymous said...

Oh, Mary, I would have had a meltdown if that had happened in a place where I knew the language, let alone in a place where I was just learning it! I hope this was the turning point for you and the intonations will just keep getting better and better!

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I'm pathetically challenged when it comes to finding my way. I like to think this problem has forced me to use my words, but it's just making the best of a bad situation.

Mirka -- I feel like I'm chewing on rocks every day here, and what a great expression. :) I've heard the same thing about Chinese people, but then I've also heard a few singers here with tin ears, which cheers me up a little.

Kit -- It's really not all that scary here late at night; it's rush hour that's the horror story. ;)

Angela -- I've got phrase books and bits of paper with directions written on them (and when it comes to it, I can write this down myself in Chinese), but it's just easier being able to produce the right sounds. It also means I don't have to mess around looking for my glasses and bits of paper. As for landmarks, there are almost too many. It's a concrete jungle out here, with skyscrapers on every street.

Kim -- Sure, it's funny NOW. ;)

Anne -- I'm getting better! I'm actually one of the better students in our class in fact, though it's pretty much a case of being a one-eyed kind in the land of the blind. But it gives me something to strive for.