Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tongue-tied and Twisted

Daughter was working on her Chinese homework online. To the best of my hearing, she appeared to be saying the same thing over and over again.

"Are you saying the same thing over and over again?" I asked. This was brave of me, because Chinese is a tonal language and Daughter is frequently reduced to tears of laughter when I cannot differentiate between "Shen-JA" and "Shen-JA."

"Yes," she answered absently, typing in Chinese.

I waited. She typed and then went back to repeating the phrase again. I finally broke and asked, "What are you saying?"

She turned in her chair, looked me in the eye and said brightly, "You are a businessman."



I needed to make this less weird.

"Is it a question? Could it be Are you a businessman?"

"No, it's a statement."

"Do they think he doesn't know?"

"Mom, I need to work."

In this class, there are hints there might be wider differences between our countries than language and one owning the other's debt. After six weeks, my daughter does not know the words for colors in Chinese. This fascinates me, because colors are where all language classes I've taken have begun; by the end of the first week, I learn how to say "Hello, my name is Quinn" and talk for a sentence or two about how green always cheers me up. But here in Chinese 1, it's a black and white world. Actually, not even that, because Daughter has no idea how to say black or white. She can, however, go on fairly eloquently about family relationships. Want someone to let the Chinese Ambassador know that this person standing next to you is your uncle's cousin? Hire the kid. She knows many words for the subtle variations of kinship; older siblings, younger siblings, maternal relatives versus paternal relatives. Just don't expect to commend the Ambassador on the color of his tie.

She's also not going to be much help if you want to talk about your home state. Unless, of course, you live in Beijing; that word, she knows. She could convey you are from America (I suspect the character is that of an empty wallet, being held upside-down), but nothing more specific than that. Perhaps this is because all states in America are now summed up by the word "A fully-owned subsidiary."

According to her textbook, all mothers in China are teachers and all fathers are either doctors or lawyers. This might cause a reader to ask why someone would need to learn the phrase "You are a businessman." Perhaps this is some code-phrase for the Chinese version of "To Catch a  Predator."

And finally and perhaps most critically for my constantly-starving daughter, as of yet in this class there is no food but mooncake. This is a delicacy the students were encouraged to find and eat to celebrate the Moon Festival. I have a picture of my daughter discovering the "Moon" in the middle is, in fact, a salted duck's egg.

I don't imagine she'll learn the Chinese words for what she said about that for at least another year.


Blogger Mark Moran said...

Good morning Quinn, Daughter's Chinese lessons, and your commentary, made me think you might like Albert Brooks' novel, "2030," but maybe you've already read it. I think he's a very talented guy:

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Robin Raven said...

What a funny and interesting read. I'm so fascinated by languages, yet have retained so little of the ones I've studied.

The mooncake sounds very disturbing. I'd have said far worse, I imagine, that whatever she said. hah In the south moon pies are a tradition, especially at Mardi Gras, but they are made with marshmallows (its gelatin being made of the skin, boiled crushed horn, hoof and bones, connective tissues, organs and some intestines of animals.) I'm not sure which is worse!

So I think it's safe to stay away from any dessert with the word "moon" in it. Eep!

1:35 PM  
Blogger AndyEM said...

My tough-to-take language lesson occurred many years ago when I was in the Army stationed in Korea where my Unit supported a local orphanage. I was visiting there one day and noticed that the little kids were referring to me as "banko." "Ah," I thought, "'banko' must mean 'friend' or maybe even 'uncle'." I should have left well enough alone, but when I got back to my compound, I told one of the Korean guys about my experience. I could tell the news was not going to be good by the way he held his side while he was laughing. "Banko," ladies and gentlemen, means "Big Nose."

9:03 AM  
Blogger Xinh said...

Not all mooncakes have the yolks in the middle. Usually it's just the red bean paste. Also, the ones that do have the "moon" in the middle aren't raw. It's basically just like an egg yolk in a regular egg.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Mark Moran said...

Hey Quinn, I'm sure there's another blog post coming any moment now ...

10:55 AM  
Blogger Ze'ev Felsen said...

In college, I studied Arabic for three semesters. The first chapter of the textbook (once we had learned the alphabet) included as a vocabulary word "The United Nations". I never learned how to say any of the colors.

6:33 PM  

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