It is common knowledge that in order to learn about a particular culture, then one of the best ways is to learn the language. But when that language is Mandarin Chinese – probably one of the most difficult languages to master – then this becomes a challenge.
While living in Beijing, I often get locals saying 你的中文很好 (ni de zhongwen hen hao: your Chinese is very good). At the beginning, I was happy at such compliment. Later on, I realized that saying these words actually meant the opposite. Oh well, I figured, I don't think I was the only foreigner in town with such problems.
In 1997, having found a calling for the study of Chinese politics and diplomacy, I forced myself into taking Chinese lessons. I figured that one day I’d have a chance to visit China. And so, why not get a head start?
At first, it was evening classes at the local community center in Victoria, Canada. But I felt the pace of the lessons too slow, as I was surrounded by white-collar workers (forced by requirements from their employers), reluctant students, and pensioners. So, I got a private tutor. That worked out for a while, until I got bored of her teaching patterns.
|Cover of Dreaming in Chinese|
In the end, I opted to register in a Chinese course for undergrads at the University of Victoria. My Mandarin skills grew significantly during the two years I took that course. I even became one of the best students in class. More than that, I got to hang out with undergrad students, including a pretty Chinese-Venezuelan girl, whose name escapes me. However, learning Chinese in Canada didn’t give me the context which surrounds the language. Sure, I knew how to say things, but I barely heard any Chinese actually saying it, other than my professor, who was actually Taiwanese.
Therefore, I was excited when in 2005 I found out that I’d be moving to Beijing. Nevertheless, having lived and traveled extensively in China for 3.5 years, and having made multiple trips there since being back in Jakarta, I can say that my grasp of the Chinese language remains rather… mediocre. I know, I should’ve studied more during my stay there. But somehow, the 3.5 years went by in a second.
Regardless, my stay in China remained an eye opening experience, and my daily interactions with the locals (albeit with poor Mandarin) made me understood the Chinese people more, even if it’s just “a little more”. I got to know some of their habits (good ones, and many bad ones), learn some of their traditions, and identify the nuances with which they lead their daily lives.
I got to know that whenever I proposed an idea, and was responded by 行 (xíng: okay), then things will be okay. But when the response was 没问题 (méi wénti: no problem), then problems would be just around the corner. And that when the waiter shouts out 马上 (mă shàng: immediately), then you’d know that she’ll only be back at your table once everything’s already been finished.
Looking back at these experiences, I then sought guidance on what I believed to be discoveries of the Chinese culture through my day-to-day chit chat with the office’s drivers, the ayi (maid), the baoan (security guard), and at times, the lovely hostess with beautiful almond-shaped eyes – this last one never actually happened. As always, in my times of uncertainty, I resort to my trustful books. This time around, I read Deborah Fallows’ Dreaming in Chinese: Lessons in Life, Love and Language and Eveline Chao’s Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School.
Needless to say, the two books tried to elaborate on Chinese culture using slightly different Chinese language expressions. While Fallows looks into the culture and traditions underlining terms such as 我爱你 (wŏ ài nĭ: I love you) and 老百姓 (lăo bái xĭng: common people), Chao elaborated on what Chinese women really mean when saying 你很坏阿 (nĭ hĕn huài a: you’re so bad!) or what 断袖余桃 (duàn xiù yú táo: cut sleeve, leftover peach) actually implies – it’s a euphemism for homosexuality.
Fallows provides a nice introduction to deciphering the Chinese language, a language that’s complicated at many different levels. She explained the many dialects in the country, the semantics of time and place, and even the reason why the Chinese hear tones when we foreigners can’t. Indeed, the book is very informative; it’s an easy read. I also enjoyed the personal anecdotes that she included in her narrative. I too experienced some of the things that she went through.
|Cover of Niubi!|
However, I have to admit that I already know much of what Fallows describes. For someone like me, who may still be a novice Mandarin speaker, but who has lived in China for some time, Fallows’ book merely provides a reconfirmation of the things I learned while living in China. When describing the problem with tones, Fallows expressed that a waiter smiled when she said 我要打包 (wŏ yào dă bāo: I want some take away). She later thought that she must’ve pronounced the word incorrectly as 打报 (dă bào: to embrace). Reading this. I’m sure that the waiter was thinking of something else, something along the lines of 打炮 (dă pào: blasting cannons), which is a dirty northern Chinese slang for “having sex”.
Chao’s book talked about 打炮 and many other Chinese expressions that I never truly had a chance to learn while living there. The swear words, mocking and derogatory terms, words of love, and everything else that I would need to roam the underworld of Beijing, Shanghai, or any other cities in China. Chao not only provides the definition of each expression, but also their etymology, thus making the book a refreshing read; it didn’t feel like a list of expressions that one would find at the back of a travel guide.
In the end, if one was to ask me which of the two books served the purpose of my enquiry, then I’d say that both of them did. Both demonstrated that the Chinese language contained many marvelous understandings of the people’s culture and traditions.
But if one was to ask me which one would make my life in China easier the next time I’m there, then I would have to say that Chao’s Niubi! would better serve that purpose. While informative, I feel Fallows’ book only scratches the surface.
Chao's book would help me get around China better, allowing me the power to hark back at cab drivers who would try to rip me off. I’d also be able to make sure that the masseuse coming to my hotel room would be the right type of masseuse. It may not get me a job as interpreter for the Embassy, but I’d surely feel like more like a local. And this boost of confidence is exactly what I would need to explore further the Chinese way of life.