Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Plight of the Speechless Chinaman

What do you dream in?

Courtesy of a predominantly English-speaking background - and possibly years of rigorous education in an all-boys missionary school, my mind speaks in English. Dramas, tragedies and romances unfold in my overdeveloped imagination all subtitled in English with only occasional bursts of other Chinese dialects interspersed. Can't recall with perfect clarity but I assume the many vivid dreams I had - even in old Shanghai - were all surprisingly dubbed in English. Even when I speak in other languages, I think first of it in English, run it through my mind with some brief editing ( perhaps even some colourful alliteration :P ) before translating it into the respective dialects.

Believe that the language our mind thinks in actually affects the way the mind works. Like I'm pretty sure Charming Calvin's mind works in Mandarin. :)

Language barrier?
Do you speak my language?

Although my bookish father's pretty much a cunning linguist in several languages, it's obviously not hereditary. Piles of Ladybird books and endless reruns of Sesame Street taught me all I know about the English language but that's about it. My Hokkien's pretty good, my Mandarin's somewhat passable and my Cantonese is just enough to keep me safe from getting severely beaten up by tattooed, overly burly DVD salesmen ( especially since I tend to garble up my Cantonese while shopping - who knows if I'm actually saying voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir to one of those dyed blond studs? ).

Mandarin's new to me actually. Half a decade of deplorable POL ( People's Own Language ) classes, where I actually spent my time doodling endlessly over castles in the sky, barely made a dent so don't be shocked that I actually just picked it up barely three years back. Working in the hospital with a thousand and one patients means, we tend to pick up bits and pieces of other local dialects here and there. Wait till you hear my little broken bits of Tamil and Hindi.

These days, I'm at least able to manage a short conversation in Mandarin before my sadly limited vocabulary runs out. Sadly enough, apart from brief elementary questions on the weather ( and possibly horrible medical diseases ), there's only so much I can put into a sentence before I inevitably have to scratch my head thinking of a word. Complex sociopolitical issues stretch my pathetic grasp of the language a little too much and it isn't long before I start ad-libbing with other words to replace those that I haven't a clue.

Wouldn't be surprised if Charming Calvin hasn't had a titter or two at my expense. :)

At least I managed to stumble through several getting-to-know-you meets in Shanghai about a year back, even with their heavily accented Mandarin. Though it wouldn't surprise me if they were actually hiding behind their wolfish smiles over the inept Overseas Born Chinaman.

Probably sounded something like this.

Paul : Halllloooo... me Paul from Malaysia.
Third Cousin : Good evening. Welcome.
Paul : Fly here from Malaysia I did.
Third Cousin : Yes. Did you have a good flight?
Paul : Fly. Fly. I did fly.
Fourth Cousin : Come in, take a seat.
Paul : Chair. Sit. Yes.
Third Cousin in sotto voce to Fourth Cousin : Do you think he's a simpleton?

Must have thought I'm descended from one of the duller branches in the family.


drownedglass said...

For me, Cantonese has been my bane despite having lived in KL for 8 years! I still avoid ordering crabs in Cantonese for fear of asking for sweet and sour shoes. Or worse - butter cunt.

And Paul, I seriously don't think I wanna know about your dad's cunning linguist skills...

chase said...

Chinese is hard as far as I heard. I could have learned that language if I wasnt a coward and turned down my mother's offer to enroll me on a Chinese school on my highschool before

charming.calvin said...

You need to bring me along when you go to Mandarin or Cantonese speaking places like Shanghai or Guangzhou.

Yes, please pay for all of my expenses while we're doing that. :-p

Dashing Dan said...

You know me. But I have to brush up my Mandarin eventually cos I'll have to teach in it. >.>

m5lvin said...

It's not hard to speak but it's really hard to write and read - well at least so far I can only grab hold of like 30%..even less than that. least I can speak a few other dialects fluently...cunning linguist skills haha...I can speak altogether 7 languages, 2 other languages that I can try to converse a simple conversation while another 2 having a little clue of this and that vulgarities..totall 11...impressive, no? =P

jase said...

hahaha.. well, the same can be said of me. My cantonese is fair but my mandarin is horrible, but thanks to friends it has improved (if you can't speak with them, then its like you're left out of everything). Oddly though when friends start scolding, bitching or swearing about someone in mandarin, it all seems clear to me! hahahaha, I guess if all else fails, just use sign languages.. :)

Allan Yap & Nigel A. Skelchy said...

Grew up with Cantonese speaking caregivers so am relatively fluent in the "pasar" variety. But you should listen to my Dad. Hilarious. ;-)

TJay said...

Eh, Paul ... It could be worse. Silly American that I am in Seattle area my Chinese (from friends of family is horrid) and my college French and post college Japanese is just as bad... the only thing I'm lucky enough to do is either find the toilet and get my face slapped.

Now, if I could find a hot man with what I know... well, then... GRIN

Stephen said...

I'm English. Need I say more about my language ability?

I did learn French at school but I was never very good at it in the first place and forgot most of that later. I know a little bit of Italian as I've had lots of holidays in Italy.

Apart from that I can say "hello" and "thankyou" in quite a few languages just for politeness sake, and also "water" and "beer" (like I said, English) in some of those.

nyonyapenang said...

simpleton or not, no worries. you got the message across, didn't you? LOL

Sue said...

Really funny post Paul. You should be proud of your language abilities. You think in a non native tongue. That is astounding in and of itself. I admire your linguistic abilities and see past your perceived "shortcomings". Now, now try not to be so humble. Have some pride. The gods will not strike you down for it.

Anonymous said...

I have lived in the US for over 30 years, so English is very much my second language. I learned English mostly by watching TV, when I understood the jokes on the Tonight Show I knew that I have ARRIVED.

However, as an educator, I also know that there is a huge difference between being able to speak a language fluently and mastering it academically. That difference, SOMEHOW, is lost on the ethnocentric American mind. Our ever lovely, compassionate and edumakated Pres Bush initiated a lovely compassionate program called No Child Left Behind in which he gives bilingual children a whole three years to completely master academic English! In one of the committees that I have to attend as a teacher, we discussed the difficulty of a mother whose English was not sufficient to assist her struggling child. The comment of my coworker was: When will this mother wake up and realize she is in AMERICA and learn some English!? As if this is an easy task for adults who hold two jobs just so their kids can have the potential of a better life than they had in their home country.

Another coworker once declared that when she travels she only goes to English speaking countries, because if the people in a foreign country have not bothered learning English whyever would she wants to spend her precious dollars on THEM??

Sorry about the long post but this is something I often think of and try to remedy, at least in my school.


savante said...

WS, you have the same problems I do! Butter cunt! Bwahahahah I love that!

Never had that choice actually. Though I don't know if I still would have gone to a chinese school even then, chase.

Very funny, calvin :)

Teach in it? Seriously, dan?

Impressive m5lvin. Now go spread your skills :)

Sign language does have its limitations as I've learned abroad, jase. And beware some local hand signs mean something else entirely in other places.

You do speak the language, nige!

French, tjay? Yummy. Always wanted to learn Spanish.

True enough Stephen :) But these days in England, I bet you could pick up some Hindi.

True, I did get the message across, nyonya. A triumph!

Hardly humble, sue! Just the truth.

That sounds like a pretty good program, michelle. Amazed that he came up with that idea!