Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fast and Furious (又快又生气)

This is my last week in China for the summer. So what did I learn besides that food with faces is always more fun? Read on to find out!

Learning Chinese as a foreigner is not as uncommon as it used to be, and there are language schools everywhere in Shanghai to prove it. 

But I do still get surprised looks when I actually manage to speak a complete sentence. My favorite recent situation was in a crowded restroom where the concept of a line is still not respected. A woman kept stepping ahead of me, so I finally said: 我在你前面。(I am in front of you). She stepped back quickly, probably more from surprise than respect for my place in line.

Today I asked for a glass of water with a perfect third tone and was rewarded with a pleasantly surprised smile. Then all further interactions were in full speed Chinese. I managed to catch the key words and made it through!

Last night I was out with a Japanese friend who does not speak Chinese. No matter how many times I spoke in Chinese, the waitress still spoke to my friend (in Chinese), even when responding to my questions. All because she looks like she could speak Chinese and I look like I would never speak Chinese. Clearly the waitress had the wrong expectations (or hope?).

Trump would like it in China, they are so NOT politically correct. They will tell you how fat or thin you look as a greeting. Foreigners are required to register all movements with local police and are restricted from doing business in key areas. They will judge you by your skin with no shame. And in Chinese the word for black 黑 (hei) can be applied to anyone whose skin is not porcelain white.

To most of the strangers on the street I am like some kind of ghost. Many don't believe in ghosts, so they just don't see me. Others stare in fascination. I have started to stare back and sometimes try to engage, but often they seem to be frightened by my attempts to reach across the void and quickly turn away. At really local restaurants I sometimes get a wary glance and a single worn English menu pushed my way, clearly they hope that if they don't speak then I won't speak and all the awkwardness can be avoided. Sadly for them, the ghost speaks and they have to figure out through my muddled tones and stammering pace that I just want some soup dumplings.

The stereotype of hard working Chinese people may be changing with the latest generation but the stories I hear about the level of competition here is enough to make anyone pay attention to the teacher.  The population is commonly said to be 1.4 billion (or 14 x 100 million “14亿” as the Chinese would say). But a better way to understand this is that The city of Shanghai has more people living in it than ALL of Australia (24 million, or 2 thousand 4 hundred x 10,000 in the Chinese style, “2千4百万”).

The recent stock market volatility has sent people running for new safe havens for their money, and so the wheels of change continue to turn faster than ever. Every time I walk a familiar street there is something new happening: new store, closed store, construction on bamboo scaffolding or perhaps a man in his bright red underwear keeping cool. I so wish I had a picture!

For people renowned for "saving face" they apparently have no shame in many ways. Men carry their girlfriend's bags; no matter how sparkly. And if they aren't carrying her bag they often have their own purses (or "murses" if that is still a valid term in the U.S.). 

I see men riding on pink scooters and children's bikes that are far too small for them. Then there was a "trying to look tough" biker all in black with "FUCK" written on his pant leg, and a fluffy gray teddy bear riding behind him. Sex toys are sold at the checkout stand along with condoms and really gross looking meat on a stick. 

Many people speak English but I don't think these people know what it really says on their butts. Is "Flying Suga Mint" better or worse than "Juicy"?

They also have no fear. Words cannot express the beauty and insanity of an intersection in Shanghai. Imagine bikes, cars, scooters, carts and vehicles of all shapes and sizes moving in all directions at various speeds and you have sort of an idea. You must look all ways at all times when crossing the street. I think the picture below captures a sense of the unimaginable. Yes, that man is carrying a large circular saw blade balanced just below his belly on a scooter with nothing to secure it AND he is attempting to cross against the red light, which he did successfully after I took this picture.

I have ridden on the back of a scooter that violated all the road rules, and come within inches of colliding with many other moving objects. I've used the rusty bike provided by my landlord that has slowly working breaks and ridden without a helmet into a pack of cyclists going in the the wrong direction while the fast moving vehicles behind me sped up to get around. All of this and yet rarely do I see an angry exchange. People cut you off, break the rules, stop short, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Yet everyone just weaves around them, like water around a boulder, eager to be on their way and not worried about enforcing a sense of social order in the context of traffic. 

English speakers think Chinese speakers sound angry because English uses tone of voice to express emotion, while Chinese uses tones to express completely different meanings. The difference between "drinking straw" (吸管 xīguǎn) and “habit” (习惯 xíguàn) involves a questioning beginning with an angry ending to the word for habit. While a breathy start and a throaty, uncertain finish provides the sound for straw. 

They speak fast and they sound furious. But like any language, when you spend enough time with it, the strange becomes intelligible.

Two months is not enough for me to be fluent, but I have achieved my goal of becoming comfortable speaking (if not always accurately) and I will take the level 4 (out of 6) Chinese placement exam before I leave.

Next time around perhaps I can become fully fast and furious with the language and not just on a bike.

Monday, July 13, 2015

I hope you'll like this, but I don't expect you will

This is week four of my 8 week immersive study in Mandarin. I feel I'm making real progress. I can order food, ask for products I cannot see, and I even had a 20 minute conversation with a manicurist today. I do all of these things awkwardly, and occasionally I reference my dictionary, but any of you who have attempted to speak Chinese out of a phrasebook will know: being able to use the right tones is an accomplishment. And these days, I can pick out words I don't know and repeat them back to get some clarification. 

I'm focusing on the positive, but I know I still have a long way to go. Last week I encountered a particularly frustrating experience with something I thought would be simple. I already knew the word for "hope" 希望 (xi1 wang4) and I wanted to know the word for "expect". One teacher told me it was 期望 (qi1 wang4). So later I used that word with another teacher, and then I was corrected. She told me "that word is very formal, not for general use". I said, "ok, then how do I say expect?". Her response: 希望 (xi1 wang4), the first one, which means "to hope". "The same?", I asked. "The same," she replied.

"But they cannot be the same!" I cried. This led into an hour long discussion about the difference between "to hope", "to expect", "expectations", "to anticipate" and "Great Expectations".

I assumed that my teacher simply did not understand the true meaning of "expect", so I set about clarifying the nuance. By way of explanation about the difference between "expect" and "hope" I started with something simple. At the time I had with me a cup of bubble tea (a lovely sweet concoction of "tea", "milk" and some sort of chewy black tapioca balls). So I said, "I expect this bubble tea to be sweet. I do not hope it will be sweet since I know that bubble tea is, by design, sweet". With a satisfied grin on my face, I waited for her to realize what I meant and provide me with the proper Chinese to match. But all she said was "你希望这个是甜的" (You hope this is sweet).

In her mind expectations are things that parents have about their children's future; big serious things. And expectations regarding future earnings reports from companies use more formal language (i.e. "We do not expect to make our numbers this quarter" is 这个季度我们没有达到预期的标准), No hope there for sure. 

So I took another approach and asked about taking a test: "What if I am am very confident I will pass the test, what can I say?". To which she gave me the Chinese for "I will pass the test". 

Finally I came to accept that for daily matters the Chinese mind does not seem to allow for that extra bit of confidence that "expect" offers beyond "hope". Either you "hope" for something or you know it "will" happen. 

That makes me wonder if I really should take for granted that my bubble tea will be sweet. Perhaps I should be hoping for sweetness rather than expecting it. Perhaps I'd be a bit more grateful that way. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Seeing the world through different eyes

One of the many reasons I am learning Mandarin is to see the world from a fresh perspective. Every language emphasizes different aspects of the world. There are broad generalizations about the differences between Eastern and Western "thought" but digging into an Eastern language means I get to understand a more nuanced perspective on what is important to people from the "Middle Kingdom" (literal translation of China's country name 中国). 

A theme that continues to come up is that Mandarin does not map 1:1 to English in really subtle ways. Ways that dictionaries struggle to convey. This is why most entries in a English-Chinese dictionaries contain 5-20 possible definitions for single "words". 

After about a year and a half of studying and over 2 weeks studying in China, I think I finally understand one of these multi-definitional situations I encountered.

One of the first things a student learns in a new language is to express their "wants". "I want that food", "I need water", "I want to go to the bathroom", etc. With Mandarin I immediately got into uncertain territory with something that seemed so simple. To my mind these are the verbs I need to know:

1) to want
2) to need

But in Mandarin there are a few verbs that express these concepts (I'm keeping this simple for now):

1) 要 - yao4 - to want
2) 想 - xiang3 - to want
3) 想要 - xiang3 yao4 - to want
4) 需要 - xu1 yao4 - to need

So you see the problem, there are three ways to express your "wants". So when do you use which one? Let's look at some additional layers of meaning to these words.

1) 要 - yao4 - to need, will, to ask for

Oh dear, now this overlaps with #4 as well. And wait, it indicates future tense as well, as in "I will eat this food" rather than just "I want to eat this food". And that is where the key lies, using 要 is a very aggressive "need/want". It comes with built in intent. Not only do I WANT it, but I NEED it and I WILL have it soon. Pretty powerful, right? So I use it to ask for a cup of coffee in the morning. And I get it every time!

In English we say "where there is a will there is a way". In Mandarin, 要 expresses the want and the will at the same time. If you lack the will, you probably need to use a different verb.

The first time I learned this word was in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. When approached by sellers, simply say: 不要(bu yao) and they will understand you do NOT WANT their stuff. Later I learned softer ways to say no. 

2) 想 - xiang3 - to miss, to ponder, to wish

I'm starting to think of this one as the delicate flower of the "wants". It is a soft kind of wanting, it is the kind of wanting you do when you are dreaming of something that you probably won't get in the near future. You may be pondering this want, nurturing the seed of desire which may blossom into 想要 or perhaps all the way to 要, but that will be later. Right now, you simply 想.

You also use this one to tell someone you MISS them, because you are THINKING about them, and you WANT them to be near you.

Today in class we were discussing different approaches to studying Mandarin. Some students do not take their own notes and do not review the notes the teacher takes. They show up and wait for the teacher to feed them information. I responded: 他们"想"学中文,但是他们"不要"学中文。They wish (想) to learn Mandarin, but they do not really have the will (不要) to learn Mandarin. 

And in that moment I understood how powerful these words were, how much is packed into such a compact space. In English we might say, "you say you want it, but do you really want it?". We use the modifier "really" to take "want" from a wish to more of a "need". 

3) 想要 - xiang3 yao4 - to feel like, to desire

Now this last one I think is like a softer form of 要. There is more will than in 想, but not yet so determined as to justify 要. I'm sure with more time and exposure I will unwrap more of its subtlety.

现在我"要"睡觉。And now, I need/want/will go to sleep.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In a land of implication

Most English speakers have heard that Chinese does not have any "tense", meaning they do not "conjugate" their verbs like latin languages and English do. They do however, manage to convey a sense of past, present, future, etc through other grammatical structures. So it isn't as bad as it sounds.

But ultimately I find that Chinese seems to put the burden of understanding on the listener whereas English puts the burden of clarity on the speaker. English grammar forces the speaker to include things like "if", "when", "compared to", "at", "has" in the sentence, whereas Chinese allows (in fact encourages) the ommission of these seemingly crucial words.

The Implied IF

This was the first implied construct I came across in Chinese. A friend told me (in Chinese) "have time, come Shanghai visit you". I got excited and thought he meant "I have time so I will come visit you". But what he meant was "IF I have time, I will come to Shanghai to visit you". Clearly this was meant to be gleaned from the context. I'm starting to realize that these implied IFs are like black holes, you cannot see them directly, but their influence can be detected in other parts of the sentence. But it takes a trained speaker to pick up on such subtle clues. It is not as if Chinese does not have the word for "if", it is 如果 (ruguo). And I see it used. Someday perhaps I will fully understand when it is used directly and when it is implied. For now, I've become suspicious of all sentences, seeking the mysical signs of an implied "IF". Also, I confirm by asking directly whether the second half of the sentence is true before jumping to conclusions.

The way of the NO

There is no single word for NO in Chinese (nor for YES). It depends on the context how a negative is conveyed. But there are two major prefixes that are used to negate verbs: 不 (bu) and 没 (mei). Generally speaking 不 is used for present/future negatives (不要 means "I do not want" 不会去 means "I will not go"). All pretty clear so far. But then you start using 没 and you enter the implied zone, which coincides with a sort of past tense. It turns out that (most of the time) 没 is actually 没有 (don't have) with an implied 有。Which is odd, since that is a very common character that is used directly all the time (我有一个问题 means "I have a problem". Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't. I shall call 有 (yo) the Cheshire Cat of Chinese, and 没 is his smile; it lingers while you cannot see the rest of him.

Comparatively strange

I have learned to build comparison sentences like "A is better than B" using 比 (bi). To use it looks something like this: "A 比 B good". In English we could think of this as "A vs. B". Then I came across this sentence 晨跑当然没有夜跑好啊。Broken down this is: "Morning run, of course, not have, night run, good". This is like: "A is not as good as B", which is the opposite structure of 比. So I thought I had discovered a new structure to learn. But, yes, you guessed it, there is an IMPLIED 比. Sadly, my teacher's English was not sufficient to explain this to me completely. I was told that it is implied and it cannot be added back, so I just have to adopt the Chinese mind on this one. I think of it a bit like Neo's trouble understanding that "there is no spoon" is the key to bending the spoon.  

When I'm 64

The Beatle's famous song in Chinese could have been "age 64", no need for the "when". I'm guessing on this one, but I think the lyrics would go something like this:

我64岁,你还是会爱我吗?(Me 64, you still will love me?)

This is really a stealthy form of the implied IF: "IF I was 64, would you still love me?". Of course, Chinese has a word for when, which is 的时候 (or 什么时候 when asking a question rather than making a statement). So they can always put it in the sentence when extra clarity of emphasis is required. 

Much Ado about Context

Chinese is referred to as a "contextual language", even though ultimately, all language is contextual. We know that especially from seeing how the understanding of our own language fades over time. It gets harder and harder to read Shakespeare, for example. However Chinese does make extra use of context. In America we spend time in English class focused on the differences between "there", "their" and "they're" because they sound the same but mean different things (homonyms). Studying Chinese is like that, except where EVERY word is a homonym and key grammatical elements like IF are implied. 

The Chinese Mind (中国人的思维)

Much ink has been spilled considering Eastern vs. Western thought. But I'll add my 2 cents to the dialogue anyway.

Perhaps the Chinese language (Mandarin being the only one I can speak about) forces native speakers to share more of the same way of thinking in order to understand each other because of the limited amount of explicit context. So people avoid straying into new mental territory too quickly. If an individual strays too far from the shared context they will not be understood at all.  The language reenforces the cultural need to be like minded not because of idealogy but simply because of a pragmatic desire to be understood.

Of course, things are changing in China faster than anyone could have imagined. So perhaps the current generation is finding ways to break that barrier.

Today I had a Chinese Mind moment: where I understood the Chinese perspective on a concept. I was in a class with another Western woman who was asking, "What does this 泳 character mean?" and she was told "It doesn't mean anything, it is part of the word 泳远 that means "forever"". I remember feeling the way she did: confused that this individual character 泳 could not have meaning.  But it is all about the context in which it resides, to the Chinese it literally "has no meaning" without its context (in this case 远). But as analytical reductionist thinkers we want to break it down to the individual parts and gain understanding from the meaning of those parts. But Chinese resists this approach. You will go mad trying to think that 泳 has a meaning by itself. You can notice that 泳 seems to be associated with words that relate to a concept similar to "always", but that should only be helpful to remember the actual words, not to draw any conclusions about the "meaning" of 泳. Richard Nisbett expands on this idea of contextual thinking in his book "The Geography of Thought; How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why?". A worthwhile read on the topic.

I will leave you with this painting from an art gallery that I stealthily took from the street. Rows of synchronized TaiChi (太极拳)practicioners in front of a Chinese temple. There is one lone individual out front: is he leading them? has he broken from the pack? Ponder this with whatever type of mind you have handy.