About a week after my first "tones" episode I described in the previous blog post, I was talking with my roommate at the time, a Chinese guy named, Jack, whose spoken English was really good. Normally, when we were together we would speak English. This particular day, Jack looked at me and said “Don, if you ever want to get good at speaking Mandarin, you have to speak More. I agreed. Jack said, “okay, how about you tell me what you did yesterday using all Chinese." Okay, I thought to myself. I began by say to him- “WO ZUOTIAN QU CHAOSHI LE”, which (I assumed) meant, "Yesterday I visited the supermarket to buy some things", and to my surprise Jack immediately broke out into hysteria. “What?"- I asked. "You did what, Don!?” I told him what what I wanted to tell him in Chinese, and he began laughing even harder… He looked me and said "You just told me that Yesterday you went out to eat shit…" He continued, "'Choashi' means store in Mandarin, but you just said, 'CHI SHI'- which means 'shit'. You gotta watch your pronunciation man." Indeed. Learning a new language requires dedication and at times looking like a fool.
After arriving to China I found it interesting that whenever I went over to a Chinese friends home they would always ask me to take off my shoes and put on sandals. I thought this was a bit bizarre at first and asked a Chinese friend why this was the case, she said "Well, it's simple really. Outside the ground is a dirty place. Why bring that dirt into your home." I realized "outside" is a dirty place, but in the States we are still okay from time to time to walk in the house with shoes on. My friends comment made more sense however, after I saw how Chinese people will treat the public walkways - as makeshift restrooms, where kids can pee on curbside and public buses, and even grown men can let one fly in the metro stations. It's true, and I've seen it on more than one occasion.
Moral of the story. I now have a very nice pair of sandals by the my door.
There's probably some things you would not mind taking second hand- bikes, iPods, jackets, maybe even jewelry. One thing you'd likely not wish for second hand, however, is something that in China you're offered very often- cooking oil.
In China there's something called "Dee-go-yo" which literally translates as "second-hand oil". This isn't something we're exposed to in the west as oil is cheap and the idea of reusing it is disgusting. But in China, if you go to a more local joint- a smaller, cheaper restaurant, it's very possible that fine cuisine is covered in it.
So why use second hand oil? In China restaurants look for ways to save money, so what happens is they will throw out the oil, or it's drained into a large vat, which looks much as a sewer. Later on, usually about once a month a van will come by in the late evenings with large 20 gallon plastic tubs and workers will scoop the solidified oil into the buckets and drive it back to some unknown location where they take the oil and "purify" it by heating it up, removing the impurities, and then re-bottling it and selling it back to the original restaurants at a discount price.
Oddly enough, second hand oil can actually taste better (like that frying pan your grandpa never washes), but packed away in that oil you discover loads of toxins. Hmmm, yeah. It's not just the MSG that makes Chinese food taste so good.
Learning a new language requires humility.
When I first arrived to China in the fall of 2010, I didn't speak any Chinese. As one might expect, communicating some of of the simplest of things became either tirelessly frustrating or outright hilarious. I had no way of communicating to find an address or even the nearest restroom. I knew I needed to make an attempt at learning some survival Chinese.
China has many languages but two of the main ones are Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin, unlike English, is a tonal language, meaning that one sound like “Ma” can have multiple meanings depending on the tonal use of the word. Mandarin has 4 tones, while Cantonese employs 9 tones. So to give an example, "Ma" if used in the first tone can mean "mother", if used in the third tone means "horse", in the fourth tone it can mean to "to insult" and if in the second tone, it could mean "marijuana".
So some time went by- about a year, and during that time I applied myself to learn a lot of the basic phrases in Chinese. And one day, when teaching a business man in a private one-to-one English lesson, I had went to his company and was greeted by 4 lovely lady’s at the front of the office. They smiled and said to me in Chinese, “Hello teacher, nice to see you. How have you been lately?” I replied to them in my basic Chinese- “I’ve been great, I’ve just started a new job.” The ladies ushered me into a room where I waited for my student. When he came in he immediately looked at me and said “What did you say to the ladies out there?!” Nervously I look him and hesitantly recalled word for word the earlier exchange. “I said 'WO HEN HAO, WO ZUIJIN YOU XIN GONGZUO” Immediately the student started laughing… “I see, he said, you made a big mistake though” He continued, "You wanted to say 'XIN Gongzuo', which means 'new job'… but you said, 'Xing Gongzuo', which means 'a Sex Worker.' You just told those ladies you're a sex worker."
Since that day I've paid a lot of attention to my tones when speaking.