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Big trouble with little Chinese

The first night I was on my own in Taichung City, I went out for some dinner. But, one problem with China is that you can’t read the street signs. Basically, I never go more than a few blocks from my house, because I can’t ask for directions. And, even if I could, I don’t know my address. Coming out of the restaurant, I got a little turned around. I knew that I was probably not more than a block from the apartment, but didn’t know where it was, exactly.

Fortunately, I always carry a piece of paper in my wallet, which reads, in Chinese, something like, “If lost please return to, “ and then it has my address in Chinese. I flagged down a police car, and handed the paper to the cop. He pointed vaguely behind him and I thought he meant I should walk back the way I had come. He shook his head “no,” as I started walking, and he opened the back door, like a chauffer, motioning me inside. I got into the cop car with a little trepidation. In Panama I actually refused to ride in a police car for fear of being robbed and or killed. The cops began driving around the back alleys of Taichung City, making me very nervous.

“Maybe they are looking for somewhere to hide my body.” I thought. I figured, however, that they wouldn’t want to shoot me in the car, because of the cleaning involved. Besides, who would want to have to lift my 215 LBS body off the back seat and bury it. I figured I was safe as longa si stayed in the car. If things got ugly I would just refuse to get out.

As it turns out, they were just typical Taiwanese trying to be helpful to foreigners. They took me down an alley, which turned out to be the right alley. One of the cops even walked me to my door, and waited till I was inside.

“Thanks, Boys” I said, shaking his hand. “Same time tomorrow?”

Not being able to speak Chinese caused me no end of grief. At McDonalds, I ordered a Flurry with sprinkles and instead got a chocolate milkshake with no sprinkles. I ordered a large coffee and got two small coffees instead. I constantly just had to accept whatever they gave me.

A friend taught me how to say “I want chicken.” I walked into a restaurant, tried out my new phrase, and was thrilled that the waitress understood me. But, my moment of pride was short lived, when she came back with, “We have chicken cooked many different ways. How do you want your chicken?”

I was so hungry, that I would have accepted anything. Moreover, I was doing well to say, “I want chicken.” The only other useful phrase I had learned was “up to you.” I was hoping the girl would take the initiative and say, “this guys doesn’t speak Chinese, so I can’t expect him to know how he wants his chicken. He said up to you, so I will just bring him any chicken dish.”

Instead, she just kept repeating. “How do you want your chicken?”

Finally, I cancelled the chicken and ordered coffee, which she brought me with a smile, missing the point.<!–page–>

I showed up for kung fu practice one day, and found my whole team hanging around outside the school. I was about to open the door, when one of them said. “Don’t go in there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why” was about the most useless word I had in my Chinese vocabulary, as all it did was cause people to give me an explanation that I couldn’t possibly understand.

“Blah, blah, blah.” Came the Chinese reply.

I’m sure that if I had spoken the language it would have made sense. But, since I didn’t. I just did what I always did in Taiwan. I closed my mouth, put on a big smile, and went along with the flow.

One day, out of sheer desperation, I handed my cell phone to a stranger, and said. “I need a taxi.” Could you imagine someone doing that in New York? The least that would happen to them is that they wouldn’t get a taxi. But I couldn’t make the call myself. I didn’t know where to call. I didn’t know where I was, and didn’t know how to tell the taxi to come get me.

The day I decided to start studying Chinese was the day that I had to stop a stranger on the street to help me with the ATM machine.

Originally, one of my co-workers offered to teach me Chinese for free as part of a language exchange, an idea which I immediately rejected.

In every country I have ever been in, people have suggested that. “Let’s meet for an hour. You teach me for a half hour, and I teach you for a half hour.”

First of all, you wind up speaking English the whole time, because your Chinese is not quite good enough to understand the explanations of grammar. Also, language exchange is dependent on both parties wanting to learn, and teach on any given day. I have never seen a language exchange go more than three or maybe five days, before both parties grew tired of it.

In the end, Amanda agreed to accept money for my lessons.<!–page–>

On top of the difficulty with speaking Chinese Mandarin, in Taiwan, there was the added problem of the Taiwanese language. Before I was learning Chinese, I believed that Taiwanese was Chinese with a funny accent and a few different words. Since then, I had come to learn that Taiwanese was actually a separate language, with maybe a ten percent overlap with Chinese. People over fifty years of age speak Japanese and Taiwanese, but probably don’t speak Chinese. The uneducated people also speak Taiwanese instead of Chinese. So, I realized that if I wanted to live in Taiwan, I would eventually have to learn to speak Taiwanese as well as Mandarin.

The tones are the hardest part of spoken Chinese. Our ears aren’t trained to hear tones. We recognize words by the vowel consonant combinations.

But Chinese native speakers recognize words by tone.Often my teacher will warn me. “Don’t confuse this one with that one.” To my ear the two are so far apart I could never confuse them. But to her, they sound nearly identical. By the same token, when I believe I am saying something perfectly, often she doesn’t understand me.

Communication problems with my teachers add to the frustration and difficulty of learning the language.

Yesterday, my teacher, Amanda said to me. “This word means when someone asks you something and you tell them.”

“Oh, you mean the answer.” I said.

“Yes.” She agreed. A few minuets later I forgot the word for answer, so I asked her. “Amanda how do you say answer in Chinese?”

Amanda proceeded to give me the answer to the next question on the exercise we were doing, which happened to be “factory.”

“No, I mean the word, answer, how do I say it in Chinese?”

“Factory.” She repeated.

“No, a few minutes ago, you told me the Chinese word for answer. What was that word?” I said.

“Factory?” She asked, tentatively.

And that was it. I had to let it go. Learning Chinese is like watching a merry-go- round. You pick out a favorite horse, in this case, the Chinese word for “answer.” You saw it the first time it came around. Now you will just have to wait till it comes around again.<!–page–>

Foreigners learn Chinese the same way that children acquire their native tongue. You learn words and phrases as they come up. You reject words you don’t need, to leave room for the ones you do need. The problem is, that it takes about eight years to learn your native tongue.

Sometimes, my co-worker, Jim, tries to teach me something useless, and I put my hands on my ears, and shout. “I already learned two useful words today. Don’t mess sit up.”

One day, he was trying to teach me the word for “two cycle engine.” But, I had just learned how to say. “Give me a quarter of a roasted duck.” I had been looking at those ducks for eight months, but didn’t know how to buy less than a whole one. At some point, I will need the word “two cycle engine,” then I will listen and acquire it.

Sometimes, people try and teach me Chinese characters, by pointing at a sentence, and saying the names very slowly, as if they were sounding it out. But Chinese is not phonetic. The sound a particular character makes is strictly random, and has little to do with the shape. Therefore, there is no sounding out, only memorizing.

For as industrious as the people of Taiwan are, there is definitely a “give me a fish” mentality. Sometimes, when I am trying to learn to pronounce a Chinese word, I will show the Chinese characters to my friends, and then ask them to repeat it out loud. Instead, they just read it silently, and then act on whatever it says. If I show them a sentence, like, “Take me to the train station,” in Chinese, they will think I want them to take me to the train station. When in reality, it would be more helpful to me if they would teach me to say this phrase myself, so I could get there in the future

Teacher Amanda taught me to write BUPAMUFA, the phonetic alphabet, used by Taiwanese children when they are learning characters. Even native speakers have to be reminded of the pronunciation of the characters. So, they write phonetic script next to the characters. They usually outgrow this system by about forth or fifth grade.

It is a little degrading for me, sitting and struggling with BUPAMUFA, when my eight-year-old students have just about outgrown it. They laugh hysterically, watching me doing my homework. They all say, in Chinese. “Teacher Antonio is a baby, he is learning BUPAMUFA.” It reminds me of “Cinema Paradiso,” where Alfredo, as an old man, has to go back to school, and finish his elementary diploma, and all the little kids are teasing him. It serves me right for making fun of the Chinese delivery boys in New York.

I was doing my homework, and one of my students said. “Teacher, your Chinese so bad.” I was like. “Hey kid, go get your bicycle and deliver some kung pao chicken.”<!–page–>

Now, I know about 70 Chinese characters. Although the daily vocabulary of a university graduate comprises about 3,000 words, if you had a vocabulary of about 2,000 characters you could struggle through a newspaper with the help of a dictionary. I learn about twenty characters per week. That means, barring illnesses and holidays, it will be about two years before I could even think about reading a newspaper. Chinese alphabetical order depends on the radicals, the 120 base characters, which the Chinese language is composed from. So, it would be a year before I could even start using a dictionary.

My teacher doesn’t know English, so she teaches me to pronounce the characters and how to write them. But she can’t tell me what they mean. I tried going to an ABC (American Born Chinese) friend who was raised speaking both languages, but she can’t read Chinese.

So, once again, the Chinese are teaching me patience.

My students help me as much as they can, but their Chinese reading level is way below their English reading level. English is so much easier to read and write that most small children in Taiwan can manipulate written English better than Chinese.

Speaking several languages is a benefit because the concepts are already in your brain. You just have to fill them with the vocabulary from the new language.

“Now, we are going to learn something really hard.” Said Teacher Amanda. “Sometimes, we tell a third person what the second person said.”

“Indirect speech.” I said.

It was one of the concepts you have to learn when you learn a new language. I guessed at how it must be done in Chinese, and my teacher was surprised “How can you learn so fast?”

I tried to explain, “it’s all the same thing.” But, she didn’t really understand.

For those of us working in Taiwan and China, we learn Chinese for survival, with speaking as a priority. But for my new friends, Ben, an American university student, and Jodie, a young girl from an Australian university, their approach is very different. Ben said, studying in America, they were taught that there was zero probability that they would ever have a conversation with a native speaker. So, their focus was on reading and writing.

Studying only speaking, by the end of one year, you would have at least two thousand words. Even if we wanted to write, we would have to wait until our Chinese is at an intermediate level, because the writing teachers don’t speak English.

Ben and Jodie, on the other hand, know how to read and write every single word that they can say. Also, their pronunciation is perfect, because, instead of conversations with native speakers, they spent ours with working with tapes, which said “Ma, horse, Ma, horse, write the Chinese word for horse.”

But, their fluency is zero because they have never actually spoken the language.

Ben summed up the difficulty of learning Chinese. “Every time you look at a word, you have to remember three things. You have to remember what it means, how to pronounce it, and how to write. I am usually doing well if I remember two out of three.”

He said that when his teacher asks him to read texts out loud, it is often frustrating, because he understands what the words are saying, but he doesn’t remember how to pronounce all of them.

“I studied Chinese at university, back in Sidney, for three years.” Said Jodie.

“That must really help you with your studies here.” I said.

“You would think that it would be.” She began. “But obviously the education at school was directed at Mainland China. So we I never learned BUPAMUFA.”

“I knew that people didn’t learn that outside of Taiwan.” I confirmed. “But I imagine you can read regular Chinese.”

“Well, yes and no.” She said. This is the scary part. “When I learned to read, I learned the reading system called Simplified Chinese Characters (Genti Ze). But Taiwan uses traditional characters (Fonti Ze).”

Apparently traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, and Korea. But Mainland China, the reason why we are all learning Chinese, uses simplified characters.

Great! Now, in addition to pinyin, Romanization, BUPAMUFA, Taiwanese, Mandarin, Beijing Mandarin, Taiwanese language, and Traditional Chinese characters, I have to learn Simplified Chinese Characters. It’s a wonder the Chinese ever get anything done, apart from learning their native tongue.<!–page–>

How can Chinese, as take out, be so wonderful, but as a language, suck so bad?

In discussing the smelly, Chinese language, Ben made some equally insightful comments.

“Why can’t they just Romanize?” He asked.

Romanization is the process of adapting the Latin alphabet to Asian languages, as an official system of writing.

“Bahasa was Romanized. “ He pointed out. “Now anyone can go to Indonesia and learn the language in like a day.”

“One day?” I asked doubtfully.

“Well faster than Chinese anyway.” He conceded. “If you had a severe head injury, it would only take two months. Chinese takes five years.”

Romanization makes things a lot easier. In Indonesia, without any training at all, you would be able to read street signs and write down your address. You would be able to recognize loan words, such as telephone, taxi, and airport. Alphabetical order would apply, so you would be able to use a phone book. And, from day one, you would be able to look words up in a dictionary.

“Vietnam uses the Latin alphabet. And now their computers don’t need a special keyboard.” Said Ben. “Have you seen how long it takes Taiwanese to type something? First they hit one key, and about fifty choices pop up, and then they pick out the word they want.”

“And no one actually knows the whole Chinese alphabet.” I added. “Even my junior high school kids sit and write characters for several hours a day. Any time I ask them to write something in Chinese a bunch of them huddle around a desk, arguing about how to draw a particular word. And, there are always two or three of them who don’t know the right character.”

“Things like that make you wonder why they hold onto this system.” Said Ben. “China has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, because their writing system is so hard.”

“Even my Chinese friends joked that if they didn’t write for two months they would forget how. One friends said that after he graduated university, he didn’t have to write much, and his written Chinese dropped off dramatically.”

“So why do they do it?” Asked Ben.

“They say it is their culture.”

“Even if they didn’t Romanize. They could use BUPAMUFA as their standard system of writing.” Said Ben, meaning the Taiwanese phonetic alphabet. “It only has thirty-odd characters, so you could learn it in a day. It fits on a keyboard. And it’s Chinese, so they wouldn’t have to worry about loosing their culture.”

“Look at Korea.” I said. “They used Chinese characters for the longest time. Then, they invented a phonetic alphabet, and that is now their official written language.”

“They also cancelled tones.” Added Ben. “In Japan, today, probably seventy percent of the writing in any newspaper is phonetic. In fact the older people are complaining that their children can’t write Chinese characters anymore.”

“Old people!” I said. “I can’t wait till they die.”

“They will.” Said Ben. “And then the whole world will write phonetically.”

Antonio Graceffo’s new book, “Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves, Adventure Writer in the Kingdom of Siam”

is available at Please pick up a copy or ten.

Barnes and noble aslo has it but with a photo

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