My Chinese stinks.
Yeah, that’s right – I know you’ve read about it before, and I’ve said every time that I should really stop making excuses and get off my butt and work harder at learning this language, but the reality is that I haven’t yet.
And I don’t really want this post to garner a lot of comments about how I should study and take a course, find a language exchange, blah blah blah. I already know that I should speak more Chinese with my husband instead of being lazy and relying on English. Trust me, I already know all of it.
But the fact remains that I haven’t done it yet.
Why, you ask? Lots of reasons (ahem, excuses, I know). Aside from it being difficult and requiring effort, I kind of like being able to not understand all the noise around me. It makes it far easier to tune out the constant barrage of conversations, radio talk and songs, hawker shouts, neighbours arguments in the middle of the night, screams into cell phones, tantrums thrown by children, and curious locals who talk about me every time I walk by. I’m perfectly happy to go about my business in a bit of a bubble of ignorance – for someone who finds it hard to turn her brain off and stop worrying and thinking about things, not understanding everything around me has helped immensely.
And let’s face it, wouldn’t everyone like the excuse of not being able to talk to their mother-in-law because of the language barrier?! (Oh, relax, I’m [half] kidding – she’s a lovely lady who knits me things and feeds me far too much delicious food when I visit. We’re good!)
All that being said, I am not a completely lost cause here in the Middle Kingdom. I don’t just walk around grunting and gesturing and pointing until I get what I want.
I do have a grasp of the basics; the most common things I need to say and understand to get by day to day (I also have a large-ish store of words that are really of no use to me whatsoever in normal everyday adult conversation, thanks to teaching young students – things like “rainbow” and “It’s a pencil”). I understand more and more everyday; maybe not every word of a sentence, but some, and sometimes even enough to put together the meaning of what is being said. I’m even told that my pronunciation is pretty good (but I’ll be the first to admit my tones are terrible).
And my taxi Chinese? It’s pretty awesome, if I do say so myself (and I have the support of nearly every taxi driver who has driven me somewhere to back me up)!
You see, I can say several things really well, and most of those happen to be important things I say often, such as where I live, places I want to go, whether the driver should turn right or left, and when to stop. And since those are the extent of the conversation most taxi drivers have with me, they think my Mandarin is great.
I can even go a step further and carry on some basic small talk with them if they decide to get curious and chatty. I am quite familiar with the usual questions – where am I from (Canada), how long have I been in China (three years), what do I do (teacher), how old am I (it’s a secret), where do I work, etc. Which again, leads to these drivers thinking that my Chinese is really pretty darned good (even if I do play dumb and pretend to not understand when they ask how much my monthly salary is). And which, by the way, I always rebuff in typical Chinese fashion with, “No, just so-so” (see? I’m being honest and Chinese!).
But one recent driver would not let me off the hook so easily.
After establishing where I wanted to go, running through the typical small talk, and complimenting me on my excellent Chinese, he kept on. About what, I don’t know, since I didn’t understand (obviously) and I freely admitted it. He repeated a few things for me, but when it became obvious that I wasn’t lying about the fact that I didn’t understand, he was shocked. He rescinded his compliment about my Chinese skills and wondered aloud why it wasn’t better, since I had lived here for so long.
That’s when I made the mistake of admitting that I am lazy and don’t study.
For the remainder of the ride, I was lectured (in a light-hearted way, mind you) about studying and speaking loudly, confidently, and often in order to practice the language. He gave examples for me, practicing his English by saying the word “America” over and over to demonstrate how loudly and clearly I should speak. Despite my protests that for every word he knew in English (“America”, “no”, “thank you”), I knew the corresponding Chinese translation, it wasn’t good enough for him. I received a full-on motivational language learning speech, all while weaving in and out of rush hour traffic.
And when we had arrived at my destination, even though I had paid the fare, he wouldn’t let me out before I promised to work harder and that my Chinese would be better the next time I rode in his cab.
Even though I know he’s right, a part of me kind of hopes I don’t run into him again anytime soon – he might give me detention if I haven’t done my homework!