Tag Archives: Hanzi

Six months on…

1 May

and I’m still jobless (yekhk) but when I think about our state of mind six months ago, things are actually positively interesting. We’ve been around a lot of places in Shanghai and, although we still need to discover many more, we generally know what people talk about when they mention different spots around town or street names. Linguistically, not wanting to brag out too much, but my Mandarin is quite satisfactory. I manage fairly well on the street, in most shops or taxi situations and, most importantly, to negotiate prices. Script-wise, I may know less than 150 characters (I have to double that by July 22nd for my second exam), but six months ago, had anyone told me that within this short period of time I’d be able to have basic text message conversations in Chinese, I would’ve never thought it possible.

It’s interesting to look back. Five days after arriving to Shanghai in November, we were invited by one of J’s friends, a Lebanese who has been here seven years now. We had just moved into our flat, done a thousand things on that day and were really exhausted. That evening, we met what is probably the majority of the Lebanese community in Shanghai. Leaving the party, we felt a bit depressed seeing how comfortable these people were in this city, how well they spoke Chinese and all the things they knew and we didn’t. And, mostly, we thought they were kind of crazy anyway coming to China and settling here, some at a really young age… For about two weeks after getting here, when I walked on the street and spotted other foreigners, my eyes widened up as if I was looking for some sort of solidarity on their behalf just for being here too. Most of the time, they passed by without looking at me.

Today, after having had family and friends coming over and meeting two days ago with other Lebanese people visiting Shanghai, I feel I’m part of a sect. I can spot foreigners who have just arrived to China, their eyes open wide when they see me. I smile compassionately. With other lǎowàis*, we have the same codes, exchange tips on where to find this or that type of food we miss, are always amazed at the Avocado Lady’s stock, make sense of the lùs**, who employs an āyi***, who’s the best tailor at the fabric market, what VPN**** is better to access Facebook or You Tube or all normally censored websites and how many devices you can connect it to… and even mimic taxi drivers!

To top it all, we finally organised our overdue housewarming party yesterday. It also happens to be my birthday today and it’s heart-warming to be surrounded by about 15 people we didn’t know at all six months ago, some of whom I hope will stay lifelong friends.

* lǎowàis: respectful word for foreigner

** lù: road in Mandarin

*** āyi: aunt, auntie, but also meaning cleaning lady

**** VPN: virtual private network, usually accessible at a monthly or yearly fee. It’s basically as if you’re using the Internet from the US or another network from non-censored country. We use VPNExpress.

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).

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…)

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