According to a highly reliable source, Chinese is the language of the future. For me, that future has not been so forseeable given my paltry Putonghua. I’ve had taxi drivers yell at me and tell me I was completely fabricating a metro station (f.y.i, Dabaishu DOES exist) and received less than friendly deadpan looks from restaurant staff when mispronouncing chǎo miàn (I meant to say fried noodles and ended up saying, well, not a bowl of oily carbs). And true, I deserved the yelling and the stares, though I’m less sympathetic towards the taxi driver who was talking absolute b******s.
Malcolm Moore is also right in that China can be an incredibly lonely place if you can’t speak the language. My mother, a languages teacher by trade, wasted no time in drumming into us that language is a sure-fire bedrock of cultural understanding. Of course, there’s the old saying of making an effort, but this is China: everything is ten times harder, ten times more intense, and ten times more likely to surprise you. The language requires more than a little effort, and it is a miserable language to learn, unless you’re fond of dire repetition. For this reason, perhaps, in Shanghai it is all too easy to fall into an expat bubble of Western bars, folk and media. There are people who’ve lived here for years with little more than xie xie under their belts.
But, for my sins, I decided the best way to spend my month off from university would be to go to boot camp. Chinese classes for one month. 5 days a week. 6 hours a day. 1 hour+ commute each way. Nice.
But the intricacies of Chinese will surely soften the bumpy road. My Hong Kong-nese flatmate told me the word ‘privacy’ is a relatively new addition to the Chinese vocabulary, due mostly to Western influences. “It’s not abnormal or wrong for a Chinese parent to listen in on their children’s phone conversations,” she told me.
Also, for instance, the words above (shàng 上) and below (xià 下) are also used in far more ways than in English (shàng wǔ 上午 literally means above noon, i.e. morning; and shàng can also be used alongside the word for class – kè 课 – when lessons start). Tania Branigan was also mesmerised:
Mandarin’s categories are almost as distinctive to British eyes – the measure word for trousers is the same as for dragons, but different to that for a shirt. Why? Because both are long and skinny.
There you have it. Needless to say I’m anticipating my intensive language course with an equal amount of fear and excitement.
And if I can finally decipher what our handy man keeps yelling at us on Saturday mornings, I’ll be even happier.