Friday, July 15, 2011

Ni he sheh me? Wo bu he.

No, I'm not drunk (right now, anyway), nor have I had my wisdom teeth out, nor have I lost my marbles (now really... Do any of you adults really own any marbles to lose?)

What I am doing is FINALLY learning Mandarin; the mother tongue that hails from the mother land of China... The language I should have started learning when I moved to Hong Kong in, I dunno... 2009.

Of course, Hong Kongers don't speak Mandarin. They speak Cantonese, which is nothing like Mandarin (they can't understand each other at all). This is admittedly bothersome for me, as it means I can't practice my Mandarin with daily street folk here. And I'm pretty sure it's easier to make a marriage work than it is to become fluent in a language you can't speak every day.

So then, why didn't we decide to learn Cantonese given we live in Hong Kong? Glad you asked.
Well, there are two reasons:

- China is the future of the world. There, I said it. I'm not trying to upset any Americans or Europeans here (Australians, let's not delude, we were never in with a chance) but if you are keeping up with what's happening economically, China is where it's at. So, professionally, Mandarin is about to make the world go round in a serious way.

- There are only four tones in Mandarin. There are NINE in Cantonese. Do you know what I mean by tones? It means the exact same word can be said four different ways and mean completely different things. The tonal differences are also very subtle. The first is high and flat, the second rises at the end, the third dips down and up, and the fourth falls down and is very blunt. 

This booby trap baited me when I proudly said "goodbye" to my teacher in Mandarin, and she looked at me like I'd said "emu folds spike on." She had no idea what I was saying, even though I'd said the right words for "goodbye". I hadn't done that down and blunt thing.

I also discovered the words for "what" and "water" are very similar... so, instead of saying to B, "what is your name?", I asked him, "your water is called?" Which is really rather zen, isn't it.

Oh yes, this is gonna be fun. Well, imagine nine of those darn tones and you have a language that will send a shiver up any linguist's spine: Cantonese.

But, there's hope for our Mandarin... I'm told more and more Hong Kong Chinese are now learning Mandarin, and many retail and restaurant staff already know how to speak it. And let's face it... I have been spotted in the odd Hong Kong retail store (shhh) and if you're wondering whether I love a feed, just take one look at my hips. They don't mince words. Or tones.

So, here's a bit of what I learned in lesson one:

Ni jiao shen me? Wo jiao Natalie. Ni you shui ma? Mei you. Ni he sheh me? Wo bu he.

It may look like alphabet soup, but the one thing that surprised me about Mandarin was how beautiful it is... it may lack the smokin' hot sex appeal of French or the blazing richness of Spanish, but Mandarin is musical. Speaking is like singing. And if you don't hit the right note, the message falls flat. I can live with that.

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