During a recent conversation Cheryl asked me what I missed from the States and without missing a beat said English. There were other things I missed: family, friends, Sonshine Festival, shows, my old job at Walman’s, various foods. But more than anything, I miss being able to convey a thought that doesn’t make me sound like a first grade student. Actually a first grade student has a leg up on me. It’s hard living in a foreign culture that is different from western culture in many ways with a language that not only require the correct pronunciation but the correct tones. One of the most famous examples of tone usage is ‘ma’. Ma can turn a sentence into a question. More importantly the wrong tone changes the word ‘ma’ from ‘mother’ to ‘horse’. That is a mistake one does not want to make in a culture that holds family in the highest regard. With all that being said, here are some of last year’s most interesting mistakes.
Tones are a common problem for those learning Chinese because it is something we don’t think about in the West. We use tones for sarcasm, humor, and to express emotions but here it really does change everything. Because of wrong tones usage in sentences, I have:
-Turned people into furniture
-Asked to kiss my teacher instead of asking a question
-Called my wife short instead of my love
-I moved Hong Kong (Superman) instead of moved to Hong Kong
-I almost ordered 100 hundred green tea drinks instead of one drink
-I gave friends to my apples
-I called a young lady a dumpling
Wrong tones could change your whole day, luckily the Taiwanese are a gracious people.
The Taiwanese really are awesome folks that will go that extra mile for this poor white guy that is butchering their language. I have had people ask me at restaurants if I need help ordering food. People on the bus ask where I am from, where I am going, and if I need help getting there. People will apologize because their English isn’t very good. (Side note: Every single person who has said their English isn’t very good has better English than my Chinese.) When doing language studies you quickly learn the words and phrases you will use most often and because you use them so frequently, you’ll say them in the right tones. For abut nine months I used the phrase “I don’t know” when asked questions or even when people started talking to me. The problem that was later pointed out to me by my teachers was that every time I said “I don’t know” the Taiwanese, because of their nature, felt the need to explain what they perceived I didn’t know. I was saying “I don’t know” because I didn’t know what they were saying. I now use the phrase “I don’t understand” sometimes quickly followed with “I’m sorry, my Chinese isn’t very good.”
Stress affects everyone differently. Living in a different country is stressful. You learn routines and that helps so, so much. Imagine you were new to the country you live in and you did not know that language. You can’t speak it, you can’t read it. Where do you go to pay your phone bill? Your water bill? Buy a rechargeable card that can be used for the bus? Where can you get a train ticket? If you can’t read or speak the language, that is a daunting task and will cause a lot of stress. (Luckily we can do all of that at 7-11.) Plus when you live in a new country your body may stress differently than it has before. My body got sick and/or just ached. Some of that is just me getting older and my body has experienced some self inflicted abuse from my years before being a Christian. Some of it is my body’s way of handling stress. One of the most unusual pains I’ve had this past year was my left foot. It was up inside my foot and it was slowly growing to the point where I wasn’t able to walk very much. The end of this story is that eventually that pain just vanished one day. I don’t know how or why but it just left. The part before the end of the story is more interesting.
You see,the Taiwanese don’t give directions like I’m use to. Back in the states when getting directions you might hear how many blocks, streets, or miles away sometime is. You’ll hear street names. Turn right on this street, left on that street, go four blocks and you’re there. When I asked about a good doctor to check out my foot I got, “across the street from the bakery, on the right”. I went to check out the place but it was closed. At the time, I knew such little Chinese, my New Worker’s Supervisor (a lady) had agreed to assist in my doctor’s visit. Two things: 1) Across the street and to the right meant cross the street and go down a couple of blocks to your right. That turns out to be the doctor I was meant to see not the one across the street on the right. 2) My supervisor arrived before I did and was able to figure out, really quick, that the office I thought we were to go to was the wrong doctor. It could have been real interesting sitting there, trying to tell them that I was waiting for my friend, pointing at my foot and saying ‘OW’. It turns out, across the street on the right was a Gynecologist. I have been told that they would not have been able to help me with my foot pain.
Over the past year I have enjoyed sharing my many mistakes with language and I have been reassured that they will probably continue until I retire because of the complexity of Chinese. This coming year I will continue to share some of these stories but I will also start sharing stories of when, by God’s grace, I got it right. Those stories may not always seem like much but I ask you to think again about what it would be like if you didn’t know the language of where you live right now. That will help you understand the small victories I have here when I say something right.