October 9, 2006

Why can’t you speak??

In the classic science fiction novel “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, all it takes to acquire new knowledge is to go to a clinic and have it directly uploaded into your brain.

Sadly, listening to Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese Lesson 4 while lying in bed is nowhere near as efficient.

Although I speak fluent Cantonese, trying to understand Mandarin is tougher than I was expecting. It is hard when everyone I encounter already expects me to be able to speak. After all, if I am Chinese, then it follows that I must speak Mandarin. When I stand frozen like a deer in headlights because I have absolutely no idea what was just said to me, the expression goes from confusion to suspicion.

It is even worse if I get out (rather smoothly if I do say so myself) the phrase I learned in my tapes “I don’t speak mandarin. I can speak guangdong hua (cantonese)”. At this point, it is really confusing, since it has been almost 10 years since Hong Kong has been handed back to China, and with Mandarin as the primary language of instruction, there isn’t anyone who lives there who doesn’t also speak Mandarin.

The killer thing is that Jonathan (who can say hello, thank you and no thank you, and is more naturally outgoing) gets radiant smiles when he attempts anything at all in mandarin, something it seems few foreigners try.

And when he can’t get his point across, they look at me, as if to say “Could you please speak up and rescue me from having to decipher this person?”

So, I revert to pointing, and speaking in Cantonese, hoping that some of the cognates will be recognizable. It’s a bit like speaking Spanish to a French person. Although the written language is almost identical (Hong Kong and Taiwan hold out using unsimplified characters), I am only learning characters now, chugging away at learning to read via flashcards. With about 200 characters under my belt (a working vocabulary requires about 2000), I can figure out only the most basic things, read some road signs, tell the differences between hotels and restaurants. Although this will prevent me from looking at a menu and not ordering beef when I want chicken, whether I am getting gelatinous chicken, chicken feet or chicken gizzards is a bit beyond me at this point.

So much to learn! Hopefully being in China for a month will help me solidify what I already know, and undoubtedly will teach me more than I bargained for…:)

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