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Conversations with my Chinese teacher

14 Mar

I get along very well with H., my Chinese teacher. Apart from teaching me Mandarin, we actually talk about lots of other things and ask each other questions about our respective countries and cultures. She’s been teaching foreigners for a long time and therefore is very exposed to Europeans and Americans. Less so to people from the Middle East, so she sometimes asks me what’s going on Syria these days. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the Chinese media convey very matter-of-factly information, such as: “there are some skirmishes between a faction of the population and the government.” We then had a whole conversation about the Arab spring and she didn’t know what the word “dictatorship” meant.

Other times, she gets really perplexed about some specific issues pertaining to western culture and asks me about them. I think she perceives me as somehow mid-way between a Westerner and non-Westerner, having lived in Europe for a long time and being familiar with it, whilst not being a European myself.

The other day, she told me in a very serious way: “Lì Yà, I need to ask you something. Can you tell me what’s the difference between cheese, butter and mayonnaise?” So I explained to her that mayonnaise, even though it is white, is not a dairy product, how you could derive different products out of milk through either fermentation or concentrating fat. Likewise, the sequence of a “western” meal was very alien to her. She didn’t fancy butter and bread (Chinese eat neither). Aside from the fact that she thinks there are too many dishes, what she finds the least logical is the alternation of hot and cold dishes. “But how can I eat ice cream after eating a warm dish?” From what I’ve understood so far about the Chinese conception of the body and philosophy of eating is that you have to maintain the balance of your guts (and by extension of your whole body). So you shouldn’t brutalise it by eating really warm food and then iced food or the other way around.

She also doesn’t mind me asking questions about China. I also enquired about the sequence of Chinese meals (tea, cold (room temperature) appetizers, hot appetizers, main course, rice to make sure you’re full if you haven’t eaten enough of the rest, and I think desert is more of a western influence), about Chinese manners and other things derived from our lessons. I refrain from asking anything directly relating to politics, periods of Chinese history or other sensitive issues. I let her do the talking and every now and then she expresses quite strong opinions about some policy and other governance issues, but without ever elaborating too much. However I do get to tease her sometimes and she’s always taken it well, even on Mao, who apparently comes from her hometown in the province of Hunan. She was once explaining to me how the hometowns of various presidents became really wealthier or experienced economic booms due to the guānxi (i.e. almighty personal relationships or networks – good luck doing business in China without the guānxi) with the government of the time. So I told her, with unambiguous extra sarcastic enthusiasm: “Yeah well this guy may come from this town and this other one from that town, but surely no one beats Mao Zedong!” And it made her laugh!

One Hundred!

4 Mar

I have come a long way since my post titled “Zhōng wén” as I can now write ONE HUNDRED Chinese characters!!! Yes, I can! This means more than one hundred words as each character is a word of course, but combining characters make other words.

At the time I wrote the “Zhōng wén” post (November 2011), I was seriously discouraged about being able to write Chinese. Soon after, I decided to persevere and took a more methodical approach. I bought the special Hànzi (Chinese characters) gridded pads and started with the basics: I, you, he/she, it, we, you, they, to be, to have, father, mother. Then I learned characters that would enable to make sentences, in order to write more intelligible stuff and remember characters more easily. My first sentences were: “My father and mother do not live in China”, “Hello/How are you?” (same thing in Chinese “Nǐ hǎo”, literally “you good”), “Very good and you?”. Over time, it got a bit more elaborate: “Are you hungry? I’ve got an apple and a banana.”, “Are you thirsty? Would you like to drink tea?” or “His older brother is a teacher.”, “Too expensive!”, etc.

As you write and write and repeat and repeat characters – it takes an awful lot of time and I think by now I can cover the walls of our bedroom with all of my writing sheets, you start developing a relationship with each character. For an inexplicable reason, I like the characters “I”, “tea”, “méi” (i.e. negation for the verb to have or negation for the past), “to be” and “this”. For equally elusive reasons, it took me ages to finally memorise “banana”, “can”, “study” and “Chinese”. Not a trivial combination regarding the latter three…

When I browse through my books to pick on the next characters to learn, I become very choosy. No not you, you look very unsympathetic, not you either you’re too complicated. You’re not too bad, but not very inspiring. I don’t need to know you now, you don’t fit with my sentences. You sound exactly like the other one I know, you’re going to confuse me. Ah, you look alright, likeable and useable. You too and you too!

Although a hundred is not much and I have to pace the learning because I need to do repeat sessions before getting on with new words, it has become slightly obsessive. On the streets, I keep trying to decipher shop fronts, advertising boards, etc. and get very excited when I can.

Zhōng wén*

30 Nov

The frustrating thing about learning to write Chinese characters is that you have no sense of any alphabet, at least not in the way that H. has asked me to do it. Sure, I can recognise a few strokes but they don’t mean anything at all to me, either phonetically or in terms of associating the stroke to any general or specific semantic concept… If I understood correctly, strokes are not letters and if they are, it’s only for some words which don’t have a graphic concept. Also, you don’t know how flexible the strokes are, meaning when does your writing becomes wrong? Is it ok if this rectangle becomes more squarish or not?

It’s not that I’m not enjoying writing ten times each of the 29 words she asked me to write. It is actually quite relaxing to replicate each character and overall I find something quite aesthetic in the two pages I’ve just filled. However, I do doubt my ability to recognise, let alone write again, most of these words in the future and therefore my capacity to read or write (not replicate) to ever develop…

* i.e. written Chinese. There are different words for written Chinese (Zhōng wén), spoken Chinese (Hàn yǔ) and Mandarin (Putòng huǎ i.e. common dialect).

Bésame mucho…

24 Nov

I am a person who does lists. There’s always a list of something in the back of my mind, like what I want to bring back from my room in Beirut to Shanghai, interesting companies to send my CV to, to do lists at work, etc. And I do derive some pleasure from crossing out individual items as I’ve achieved them or acquired them.

Since arriving to Shanghai, I’ve witnessed several oddities or been in weird situations. Here are my two lists:

Mysteries to unravel

  1. The guys wandering around town with their bicycles equipped with trunks and continuously ringing a bell. They are clearly indicating to people around that they are here but I don’t know why. Most of the time, the back of their bike is empty or has a few items that don’t seem to have anything in common. Sorry I haven’t got a picture.
  2. The pyjama ladies: women going around town in their pyjamas at any time of the day… The pyjamas I’m afraid to say are often childish, with teddy bears or other similar patterns. I really don’t know what it is… Maybe the pyjama has another dressing or fashion value over here… Here’s a stolen picture of a prime example below. I so wanted to get a picture of her that I ran to catch up with her.   
  3. Why do all CD street sellers play “Bésame mucho” all the time????

Mystery no.3 brings us to my second list.

Weird or absurd situations

Globalisation is certainly fantastic but it also leads to situations, which are so disturbing that you feel the two hemispheres of your brain are being dislocated or that your sense of personal geography is being severely stretched. For example:

  1. Hear “Bésame mucho” and occasionally other bossa nova songs on the streets of Shanghai…
  2. Be asked, however kindly, by a Lebanese guy to enrol to a salsa class taught by his Chinese girlfriend…
  3. On your first week in Shanghai, end up at a house party with 10 Lebanese people and speak Arabic while eating French cheese, mozzarella and (tops it all) kabis (Lebanese pickles)!
  4. Repeat after your teacher new Chinese words and try to get their intonations right while Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole sing Christmas carols in the background at Starbucks in November.

On the cuter side, but equally odd to me…

Chinese people may be dog eaters, but Shanghainese are certainly fond of their four legged friends. Dogs are very pampered here and their confidence and jolliness do reflect their spoilt brat status. Also, owners like to accessorise them and definitely make sure that they don’t get cold.

Unbeatable. I saw two shoed dogs yesterday.

Aì Lì Yà

18 Nov

I now have a Chinese name and it is Aì Lì Yà! Aì being for my surname and, unsurprisingly, Lì Yà for my first name. In Chinese culture, everything goes from the general or wider context to the particular. So you always put your family name first and you introduce yourself this way as well. The same goes for giving or writing dates, the year first, followed by the month and day.

Back to my name, I did know, thanks to a Google search a few months back now, that my first name would most probably be Li Ya. But I didn’t know what it could mean and let alone all the intonations. My friend Clo, who has been studying Chinese since she’s 16, told me then that it could mean beautiful (Li) duck (Ya). We cracked a few jokes about it but I did like it very much and that’s how my blog was named Joli Canard.

When H. said I should have a Chinese name and named me Aì Lì Yà, I immediately asked her about the meaning to see if I would be officially baptised Beautiful Duck. So Aì means to love (except that the character above is only a phonetic one indicating the surname) and Lì does mean beautiful. I anxiously asked if Yà meant duck but H. looked at me, frowned slightly but unconvincingly and ignored my question outright. She said Yà means the second one. Sorely disappointed, I told her the beautiful second does not mean anything! She said: “Why? Do you want to be the first one?” Almost insulted by this remark, I said that I just wanted my name to mean something a little more meaningful! She calmly raised her eyes to the ceiling, thought for a moment and then said: “It could also mean Asia.”

So here we are, I am called she who loves beautiful Asia.

(I still love duck though…)

First Mandarin lesson and homework

15 Nov

I’ve started Mandarin lessons yesterday. After a lot of researching of schools, I decided to go with a private teacher at least until Christmas. Many reasons for this, the primary one being that if I register with a school now, I will be missing too many classes while I’ll be away for Christmas and New Year’s and, given the tuition and the intensity of the course (4 hours everyday from Monday to Friday), it would be a pity to waste so much money and time.

My teacher’s name is H. Tiffany from the relocation agency recommended her to me. She’s very nice and incredibly patient. The first lesson was mostly spent re-learning how to read pinyin (for those who don’t know, pinyin is the phonetic transcription of Mandarin) and work on the four intonations. I had such a hard time with this and we did it so many times that at the end of it I couldn’t pronounce my name correctly anymore and after two hours, I was glad the lesson was over.

This afternoon, after a bit of procrastination, I finally started my homework which consisted of the whole five chapters of pinyin from the book and mp3 that H. gave me. Basically, I have to repeat and read simultaneously each chapter twice. I cringed when I saw that each mp3 was between 6 and 9 minutes. I did not enjoy it yesterday, what will make me enjoy it this time round? Plus there’s no one to correct me… I started nonetheless, reluctantly repeating after my computer each sound and syllable…

An hour and 15 minutes later, I had done the first, second and third chapter. Quite satisfied, I pursued with the fourth chapter. As I was starting to enjoy the exercise and feeling more confident in my pronunciation of tones 2 and 3, I heard a knock on my door. It started slow but became more and more persistent. I walked to the door and was about to open it but then realised that the door is not equipped with a hole and because the knocking became more aggressive (even though it wasn’t really banging) and I could hear two voices from outside, I decided not to. I waited for a second, then heard a door slamming… I’ve clearly been bothering my neighbours. Concerned, I started testing all the walls and it turned out that most of them are made of bond stone.

Although I could understand that anyone could be annoyed by my monosyllabic repetitions and voice strangulations, I was really upset that all I was able to achieve with my first efforts to learn Chinese was to antagonise my neighbours… :-(


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