I have just arrived back in Beijing after a wonderful week visiting Vancouver. I had so much fun that I was a little teary getting on the plane and leaving so many wonderful friends. Luckily, my arrival was completely charmed…. I was first off the plane, there was not a single person ahead of me in the customs queue, my bags were numbers 10 and 11 to come onto the luggage belt and our beloved driver Tony was waiting for me with a big smile (even though it was his day off). Took less than 20 minutes from when the plane pulled into the gate until I was sitting in the car. A miracle!
The tollbooth where one pays for parking is about a 2-minute drive from the lot. Ahead of us was a big black Mercedes and when they opened their window to pay, a huge billow of cigarette smoke escaped from the car. We then got on the highway to our house accompanied by bicycles, electric carts, an enormous 1970 Cadillac, a horse drawn wagon, street sweepers and a billion cars, none of whom were following any rules that I could make out. My only thoughts: its good to be home and I just love China.
Which has made me more driven than ever to learn Chinese, or Mandarin to be precise. The name derives from the English word describing an official of the Chinese empire. In order to run the country all ministers had to be able to communicate. Learning the official ruling language, rather than using a local dialect, was essential for a government career. For hundreds of years, there has been much conflict as to what the official dialect should be. It has changed depending on who was in power and in what part of the county the capital was located during the various empires. Finally in 1932 the Beijing dialect was declared the standard. The communist party upheld this choice when they came to power in 1949. Now close to a billion people speak the language I am struggling to learn!
And it is so challenging! After being gone for only a week I seem to have forgotten everything. Luckily I have a great teacher who comes to the house 3 times a week to give us lessons. ‘
One of the most difficult things to master is the tones. There are 4 ways to say each syllable. When I’m learning the different tones my teacher says the words slowly and I repeat them with some exaggeration in order to get them right. But in the real world they sound shockingly the same. And each means something completely different. Mai can mean either buy or sell depending on the tone. I recently asked if I could sell Chowder food, rather than buy it for him!
It is even possible to have to have the same tone mean two or more different words. There is a famous story, written by Zhao Yuan Ren in 1930, made up of nothing but the sound shi. I know it to mean ‘yes’ or ‘is’, but shi actually means more than 50 different things depending on the tone, character and context. No wonder I get confused!
That said I find it so exhilarating to learn. And really enjoy practicing on all sorts of people I encounter.
Luckily some words are easier to remember than others…. Nan for instance means man and difficult… In a house filled with testosterone, I never forget that one!