Thursday, August 07, 2014

Hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn!

In case the title made you think that Xena somehow overpowered me and assumed full control of my keyboard, let me assure you that it is not so. The title simply means 'Long time no see'. In Chinese. Woohoo! Yes, I'm learning Chinese. Mandarin, to be precise.

A few weeks ago, somehow, the universe conspired to firmly plant me in a Beginners' Mandarin class. Well, this is what happened. My sis-in-law, who is staying with us now, had signed up for the class and then she got a part-time job and the timings clashed and she couldn't defer it and the stars aligned and bam, next thing I know I'm asking her if I can take over.

I must have been out of my mind when I asked her that because my July and August schedules are already jam-packed. I'm doing four projects at once, and one of them has daily deadlines. And Xena has been sick almost the whole of July and has lost another kilo, adding to my stress. So it was not exactly a great idea to completely ignore the existing contents on my plate and pile on one more thing. But somehow, somewhere, a hypothetical, rolled-up Chinese newspaper was thunking my head, reminding me that this was a sign and that I had always intended to take up Mandarin again.

Yes, I said 'again'.

You see, exactly a decade ago, I had enrolled myself in Cambridge Language School for a 10-week Mandarin course. Viv, who just happened to be with me as I was enrolling, suddenly found himself signing up too. I was thrilled. Here was my chance to show him his aukaat - his level. Muahahaha. My mom once told me that she thought I was very intelligent until she met Viv. Sheesh. Great. Thanks, Mom. So here was my chance at a face-off. To show him what stuff this first-bencher nerdy class topper was made of. He rolled up his sleeves too. Next thing we knew, we had become one of those obnoxious couples. You know, the kind that sits together at the first bench in a Beginners' Mandarin class and kicks everyone's ass? Yeah, that one. Needless to say, everyone hated us. Except the teacher, of course, who loved us. And somewhere along the way, in spite of it being a very difficult language to learn, I forgot about competing with Viv, and started truly enjoying the lessons.

Our teacher ("lăoshī") was from China and she spoke in very pure Mandarin. She was also exasperated at how, in her words, "so many Singaporeans kill the beautiful language with their bad pronunciation". So under her influence, here I was, telling my friends that they spoke bad Chinese, while they gave me looks that could only be interpreted as, "Please go back to your country." I know better now. And I can seriously tell you that the most brutal murder of this beautiful language happened at the hands voices of the back-up singers of the song 'Ajooba' from the movie 'Jeans', who sang "Ooowaanee oowaanee!" instead of "Wŏ ài nĭ wŏ ài nĭ" ("I love you, I love you").

Anyway, back to the topic. At the end of the course, I carefully kept my books and notes in my bookshelf. And never saw them again. Sheesh. It was sad because even Viv and I never practised together. So our Mandarin rusted. Into microscopic pieces. Until it was no more. The thing with learning a language is that you need to keep practising. You need to keep talking in that language. In Singapore, I rarely get that chance because everyone speaks English. (In fact, many of my Chinese Singaporean friends tell me they themselves rarely speak in Mandarin, even at home.) And when I did attempt to speak the language, I got laughed at. I blame the damned tones. Ugh, the tones. You see, unlike other languages, Mandarin has this amazing feature. The same syllable can be said in four different tones, and they all mean different things. So you might end up calling your friend's mother a horse because the word for both is the same, but the tones are different ("mā" means "mother", while "mǎ" means "horse"). My teacher told me that "mā-ma mà mǎ" means "mother scolds horse". Try saying that. Trust me, at the end of it you won't know if the mother is scolding the horse or the horse is scolding the mother!

Anyway, so here I was, back in the same boat I'd boarded a decade ago. I'd missed one lesson (the first one that my sis-in-law had attended) so I was a bit nervous when I entered the class. And obviously there was only one question in my mind -- would I be able to... bag a seat at the first bench? Of course, I got one very easily, because the first row is the 'danger zone' and no one wants to sit there and put themselves at grave risk. Especially during role play when the teacher asks the first person on the first bench to start off a conversation in Mandarin. The back benchers have nothing to worry about, because by the time the teacher is done making sense of what the front benchers are saying to one another, and correcting our 2727364638 mistakes, it's time for the lesson to end.

And yet, week after week, I sit there with courage in my heart, struggling with the tones and the grammar, attempting to string together one coherent sentence. Why? Because I love it. It is a very fun and interesting language to learn (well, the spoken form, at least). One of the perks is also that now I know what Xena says when she tells me something she learnt at school. The other day, as I attempted to stuff an apple slice that was approximately 0.0008876 mm thick into her reluctant mouth, she pointed to it and said "píngguŏ!" And I understood. Omg. I mean OMG. I understood what my kid was saying in Mandarin. I can't even begin to describe the thrill I felt. The other day I was at a shoe shop (where else?) and the shop assistant said, "Nĭ yào shénme size?" ("What size do you want?") and I was so thrilled that I forgot to say "sān shí jiǔ" and said the very boring "39" instead.

Learning Mandarin also helps me make much more sense of Singlish, which I'm fluent at, but never really saw the 'behind-the-scenes' of. For example, the simple "What do you want?" in Singlish is "You want what?" which makes so much more sense when you see that it's a word-for-word translation of "Nĭ yào shénme?" (Nĭ being you, yào being want and shénme being what).

I have two more lessons to go. And after that, I'll be on my own again. I don't know how much better I'll do this time. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. For all I know, I'll be signing up for another refresher in a decade's time. But for now, all I know is that I'm really enjoying it. Especially the fact that I don't need to learn it; I want to learn it.

Good night, bewdas!

Wǎn ān!

(Sorry, I don't know how to say "bewdas" in Mandarin. I don't think I want to ask my lăoshī either.)


Nidhi said...

Great!!! The very fact that you juggle so many different things in your super busy life amazes and inspires me (I am a mother of a daughter who is turning 2 super soon...and many times I find giving myself excuses that I can't do certain things right now as I have to take care of my toddler!)

Varsha said...

:) I tried my hand in learning German when I was in Germany, and little of French, because my husband knows French. However, that died soon after having 2 children.

I still have the notes and the books of German learning. I really like that language.
Though, my fascination for Indian languages is much more, this is the first non-Indian language that I really want to learn to converse in, and teach my kids as well.

Now, you have become the inspiration and I want to get back to my German books.

Obscure Optimist said...

That sounded so tough.. I'd rather learn french or german, because the letters are similar to english.. but the chinese scripture interests me..

I think it's time for me to re-open my german lessons too! :)

Thisisme said...

U have guts to redo this again. Thats a great thing in itself!

Unknown said...

I Thought San shi jyu is Japanese. Guess they share the numbers.
I want to learn Mandarin too but I'm practically tone deaf and doubt mute too.

Arun said...

I have this absurd mental picture of SSSK interviewing Bacchan in Singlish/Mandarin.....

Zainab said...

jian chi bu xie :P

Arun said...

酒鬼 ???

Sayesha said...

Thanks. :)

I know the feeling. I did very well in French in university but can't remember much now. Maybe I can attack that next. :)

All the best! Do it! :D

Thanks. :)

Subhash Chandra,

OMG. Hahahaha! Not a bad idea at all. :P

Persistent? Xie xie. :)

Yes, jiǔ guǐ is drunkard. :D See now you know some Mandarin too. You're welcome. :P

Arun said...

Soooo -- counting in Mandarin -- how rational is it? What do I mean?

Think about English. You have to know one-ten, eleven, twelve. It is thirteen instead of threeteen; fifteen instead of fiveteen; you have to know twenty; thirty, not threety, fifty, not fivety; but then the patterns hold till hundred.

Now think Hindi. We have funny things like "untees" and so on all over the place; only after you get to beyond 100 is there regularity.

So what about Mandarin?

Sayesha said...

Numbers in Mandarin are probably the easiest. You just need to know 1-10 and you can count to 99. E.g. 40 is four-ten and 49 is four-ten-nine. :)