Words fail me…in Chinese

This was going to be a Friday Love List post, but it turned out to be a list of only one love: language fluency. For me – sadly and of course – this means only English. This is enough of a big deal in my life right now that it gets its own post. Love List of charming trivialities to follow.

***

Today I went out to lunch with an extended group of coworkers – that is, not only people who work in my office, but staff members who work in our drop in center for drug users. These other staff members – unlike my office buddies who are from all over China and can speak Mandarin – can all understand standard Mandarin, but they don’t like to speak it, feeling more comfortable in their own dialect (generally, the Kunming dialect).

I can barely understand anything that’s being said when people speak the Kunming dialect, although I now know a handful of words and little retorts that are specific to this dialect. (These amount to knowing how to say “to go shopping”, “potato”, “mushroom”, “really?”, the Kunming version of an interjection that has no translation in English, and a general term for addressing people you don’t know. Not very useful so far.)

It was halfway through lunch when one of my office buddies leaned over and asked me if I understood what was being discussed at the table. When I said that all I understood was that people were talking about a very fat person and the particular qualities of his fatness (I’ll save Chinese feelings on fatness for another time), she whispered: “Only some of them are speaking Kunming dialect – the others are speaking Honghe dialect.”

SIGH. Honghe is an area south of Kunming that has it’s own dialect – apparently intelligible to Kunming people, but a total mystery to me. It’s kind of discouraging. I was just starting to get the hang of having to speak Mandarin regularly, but I can see what a circumscribed little world it is if you want to have a richer life around here.

Even having to speak Mandarin all day is like being forced to walk on crutches – going out with English-speaking friends after work or on the weekends is like throwing off the crutches and going dancing. I relish complex conversations in English. I engage in verbal pugilism. I purposely select the more obscure term for something when I have the choice. I speak more quickly than normal and hack off the final consonants of words just because I know I can get away with it and still be understood. I’m punny, for god’s sake. Be glad you don’t have to have dinner with me these days.

Now, all of this is not to say that I have any big plans for learning another Chinese dialect; I think it’s probably still more important for me to get my Mandarin in order. How else am I meant to deal with the situation I faced yesterday at lunch when a colleague asked me why the Germans hated the Jews in WWII, and wanted to know if Jews consider themselves to be a shao shu minzu (the Mandarin term for the concept of Chinese ethnic minorities)? I will admit that it was difficult to get through this in Mandarin or rather, that I got through it giving a much less complex answer than I am capable of in English. My curious colleague seemed satisfied with my response, but I was left feeling like my explanation had been so simplistic as to be almost meaningless.

So. English fluency: I love you. You are my constant and faithful companion.

And what else is there to say really, but:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

Linguistically Significant

Today I completed my first piece of actual work at the office: I wrote a draft report on the progress of our malaria project.

Wait – did you catch that? Did you see how I made that sound so nice and SIMPLE? The reality is that one of my coworkers sat me down to explain the status of the project and show me the monitoring data on which my report would be based… and then I proceeded to torture her for the best part of 45 minutes trying to understand what she was talking about.

The problem turned out to be very simple: either somewhere in her explanation she forgot to mention the words “statistically significant” (in Chinese? anyone?), or I failed to hear them, but either way I just kept saying, “What do you mean these pieces of data are the same? They’re clearly not the same!” and she just kept saying, “They’re the same! There’s almost no difference!”

By way of explanation: most people in the office can speak some amount of English, but nobody does unless they have to – which is never, unless speaking to our boss since she doesn’t speak Chinese (that’s a whole other mysterious issue). I understand most of what is said to me and answer in Chinese – and then run away back to my desk to write down the words that were just said that I didn’t understand. It’s kind of exhausting.

I have a feeling this won’t make sense to you from afar, so I’ll lay off. But let me say this: I only wish all days could be as simple as not knowing the word for “camel” or “scissors”. The amount that I don’t know is staggering and pokes holes of panic and embarrassment in otherwise confident days.

While I was walking home tonight (hooray 10 minute commute!) I put my finger on why this bothers me so much: I’m not a tourist here. I’m trying to be professional and impressive! In English, I have a very specific set of ways that I attempt to convey professionalism, intelligence, maturity and general impressiveness – it took me a lot of effort cultivate this way of being and I like being able to deploy it effectively. In Chinese, I’m robbed of that.

When you’re ordering in a restaurant or buying a bus ticket or even having a chat with a curious stranger, that way of being doesn’t matter. If you’re American, you figure that if you’re just friendly and open people will respond well to you – I have found this to be generally true. But when you’re trying to impress people in the office, friendliness only gets you so far – eventually you have to understand what’s being asked of you and write the damn report.

So it took basically all day to understand and complete, but I wrote the report.

I have decided that, until my Chinese improves enough for me to be generally awesome, there are a couple things in my control that I can do to be impressive:

  • come to the office early and stay late
  • answer all communication quickly
  • look up words I don’t understand every day so that I don’t make the same mistakes twice

Was this boring for you guys? Sorry. It was a tough day. Tomorrow I’m going to write a post about Chinese people and how they love to share! It’ll be super fluffy – you’re gonna love it. I’m also going to write a post about how I tried to fix my broken internet by eating a bunch of coconut candy but how that didn’t have the intended effect. Actually that’s the end of that story.

P.S. Statistical significance = 统计学意义 (tǒng jì xué yì yì). Blech.

Mushroom Haze

I can’t believe I’ve only been here for two days; they’ve been so packed with new information to process that I’m on sensory overload. I’m also totally exhausted after my first day of work, so I think this will be brief. The highlights of the day were:

1) The aspects of my full physical at the international hospital that involved checking me for color blindness. Here my Chinese failed me. Picture me looking at a series of color-blindness-test-pattern dots (I guess my English is failing me also) and correctly seeing images that I don’t know the Chinese words for. It’s a pair of scissors! “Um – it’s the thing that you use to cut stuff!” It’s a camel! “Er – it’s that big hairy animal with a lumpy back!” They also checked my sense of smell by sticking a jar of rubbing alcohol under my nose. Why not?

2) Going to XYZ’s drop-in center for drug users with one of my new co-workers. There I got a full tour of the drop-in center’s services (HIV testing, health education, room for weight-lifting, giant TV, etc.), met some of the “members” who come to the drop-in center – often bringing their small children – and was given a lengthy and animated speech on the history of the drop-in center by one of the head Peer Educators with a heavy Kunming accent. She wore a lacey see-through top, a giant bouffant hairdo and penciled-on eyebrows. (I will leave you to consider what her former profession was.) I understood maybe 10% of what she said – don’t tell anyone.

3) My first awesome meal in Kunming: Mushroom Hotpot. This is a Yunnan specialty, but hotpot is a China-wide meal featuring a giant boiling pot of broth/oil into which you throw various things; in this case, all mushrooms. As I was sitting with a few of my new co-worker buddies and trying to flex my Chinese small talk muscles, I couldn’t help but think of how RP would have been in dire misery faced with a meal consisting entirely of fungus – but I was in heaven. Unfortunately, I have no pictures, even though I promised a one Mr. N. Rich that I would take some of my tasty meals here. Next time.

And now to bed. Happy July!

P.S. Camel = 骆驼 (luò tuo). Scissors = 剪刀 (jiǎn dāo). HA!