Monday, March 2, 2009

In Which I Can't Remember How to Say "Paper" in Chinese, but Who Cares!

Not to brag or anything, but I am in possession of a ream of white copy paper. And it is all I can do not to sleep with it under my pillow. I cherish this paper.

It is a testament to the triumph of communication, and I acquired it through a little method I like to call "speaking Chinese."

Yes! These truly are days of miracle and magic. I could hardly believe it myself when the words came out of my mouth and were understood. By an actual Chinese speaker!

Needless to say, I'm finding Chinese a bit challenging.

It is a language of extreme subtlety, with four distinct tones that conceal universes of meaning. Say the word "tang" with a flat tone and I'll get soup. But the same word with an upward tone? Sugar. And, of course, with a downward tone, this word is an exclaimation of dismay when I sip overly-hot tang (soup, not sugar)(well, no, I guess it would work if I ate overly-hot sugar, too). To recover from that infernal shock, I might need to tang -- with the evil down-up intonation, my greatest nemesis -- or lie down for a little rest.

Don't even get me started on shui. Water? Or sleep?

Then there's the matter of actually getting the words to emerge from my mouth. Chinese requires of my tongue certain gymnastics that English never has. For example, the word "shi" is generally pronounced "shr," with the tongue curled in a U and pulled up and back. Shr. Shrrrrr.

The other teachers at my school have been extremely kind about helping me with the language, exaggerating their pronunciation so I might hear the distinctions.

"Shr," I say.

"No," another teacher will correct kindly. "Shr."

"That's what I just said: Shr."

"No, shr."

The teachers also give me helpful phrases, which I write phonetically in a notebook: I'm learning. How much is this? I'd like some water, please. I walk to and from school dutifully repeating these phrases over and over to myself. Sometimes, unfortunately, I forget what they mean in the first place.

So, The Incident at the Bookstore was something of a surprise. I'd gone there to buy posterboard and magnets, but noticed packaged reams of paper stacked under a table. This would be extremely helpful for my lessons, I decided. But no price tag!

Just then, a store employee wandered by and asked if I needed help. At least, I assume that's what he asked. I actually had no idea.

Now, normally in this situation I would say, "Umm...?" This is my standard reply: Umm...? It's accompanied by an expression of extreme befuddlement and followed with "I'm sorry."

This time, though, I was on a mission. I needed this paper. "How much is this?" I asked. And I asked it in Chinese!!!

I thought he said 50 yuan, but I ended up paying 40. Regardless! For the first time, I had meaningfully communicated in Chinese!

I floated out of the bookstore and all the way home.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations, Rachel! I'm so proud of you. That must be SO intimidating! Well done! And "and I acquired it through a little method I like to call "speaking Chinese.""? LMAO!