Living Appropriately: Musings From a History Teacher in Colombia

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am definitely committed to learning as much Mandarin as possible during my time here in Taiwan, for any number of reasons. At first, it was mainly because I was frustrated with not being able to communicate with the locals here, as I feel it detracts from the entire experience of living in a foreign country. I mean, why move halfway around the world for multiple years if you’re not going to at least make some sort of effort to assimilate yourself into the culture and broaden your horizons as much as possible? For me, that’s a huge part of the lure of the entire experience.  There were other factors driving my initial motivation too: during those first few months, when you can’t communicate anything at all, I hated the idea that most people probably just assumed you were a narrow-minded American without the slightest inclination to even learn the basics of the language (you know, the French attitude…at least make an effort!), not to mention the fact that learning Mandarin is a hugely useful skill moving forward in the 21st century economy, no matter what direction my future career path may take. But now that I’m starting to study the characters as well as the spoken language, I’ve also become fascinated with the idea of learning Chinese from a wholly different perspective: being something of a history geek, I’m finding that the idea of learning the oldest written language in the world (most of the characters in use today can be traced back for thousands of years) is sufficiently intriguing in and of itself for me to make the effort.

There are, I think, about 4,000-5,000 total written characters in the Chinese language, so of course it’s a huge, daunting mountain to climb when you first begin. But there are a couple things that you can keep in mind to help keep your initial focus. First, I’ve read that if you learn the thousand or so most essential characters, you can understand about 90% of the written language. Another pleasant surprise has been the realization that many of these seemingly-random characters are, in fact, not so random at all; often times a more complicated character is constructed by combining the meanings of two simpler characters, and this happens frequently enough that once you learn the basic “building block” characters you can often start to understand how they are combined to make a whole bunch of others. I’m still very much at the bottom of this mountain, as my current vocabulary is roughly that of a two year old (I’m great with numbers and colors!) and I can only understand maybe 30 or 40 characters, but since I’ve realized this whole “building block” concept and the fact that I’m really only focusing on those first thousand characters, it’s at least starting to seem much more manageable.

In any case, a related story: while buying a latte at Starbucks a week or two ago, the girl at the counter gave me my receipt with the order number on it: 56. She handed it to me, saying, “thank you sir, here is your number, fifty six.” I smiled back and said (phonetic spelling here) “oo-she-layo,” meaning 56 in Chinese. She gave me a quizzical look and said, “I’m sorry sir, what?” I responded by saying as slowly and clearly as possible, “oo-she-layo!” Again, “I’m sorry sir, what are you saying?” At this point I’m starting to think, “What in the heck?!” but now pointed directly to the order number on the receipt as I repeated my “oo-she-layo” as clearly as I could intone once again. Surely there was no possible way she could fail to understand what I was saying now that I was pointing directly at the number? Or so I thought. Now a co-worker joined her as they both strained a couple times to try to understand what I was saying: “I’m sorry sir, we don’t understand.” Were they serious? It is at this point that I would usually just give up, but I was so utterly dumbfounded and frustrated that I couldn’t even communicate this simple number to them that I had to continue to see how far this would go: “I’m saying the Chinese number (again pointing directly at the receipt), oo-she-layo. How do you say 56 in Chinese? I’m saying 56!” I swear to God I’m not exaggerating when I say that after a couple more failed attempts at this, there ended up being three Starbucks employees hovering around, all trying to understand what I was saying, and finally after what had to have been close to the 10th time the 3rd person finally understood: “Ahh, fifty six! Oo-she-layo!!”

I’m not sure that I have words capable of describing how bizarre, frustrating, and surreal this experience was for me. How could they possibly not have understood what I was saying? Were they pulling my leg for the fun of it? (99% sure they weren’t). Was I saying the word wrong? (definitely not…Chinese can be difficult for westerners because of all the different tones, but this was a very simple word). For a few minutes when this episode was finally over, I was nothing if not completely exasperated…I felt as if I had just stepped off the airplane again last July and had regressed all the way back to Square One. I would say my state of mind probably most closely resembled this guy:

I’ll never get it, Ludwig!

mixed with a strong dose of this guy:

I’m feelin’ you, Johnny Mac

Anyway, I’m over it. The main conclusion that I eventually drew from this is one that applies in more life situations than just in language, i.e., that we see (or in this case, hear) what we expect to see. They didn’t hear me speaking Chinese because it never dawned on them that I was speaking anything other than English (I guess maybe they didn’t understand me when I was telling them the ‘I’m speaking in Chinese’ part). It wasn’t a problem with my pronunciation or with their interpretation skills per se, but simply a matter of what they were expecting to hear.

So…yeah. Gotta put it behind you, Johnny Mac. Onwards and upwards. Makes for a good story, anyway.  🙂


Ni shi renzhen de?

Ni shi renzhen de?

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Andrew Leniton