Even if locals know that I am not Chinese, they tend to rattle off in the language anyway. I don’t always make out what they’re saying, but some things stand out.
“Ni ting de dong ma?” Do you understand?
In some cases, I can confidently say, yes I can. When being given simple instructions at a shop, for instance, like “Here’s the receipt, keep it, there is a one year warranty on the product.” After all, once you have heard the same phrase and its many incarnations more than a dozen times, you can pretty much get the gist of what is being said, even if there are a few words you miss out on. Or when ayi or the driver explain what they need or give back a report on an errand they’ve just run.
After nearly two years of Mandarin lessons, you certainly hope that you can get to the point where you can hold your own in a conversation with a complete stranger, and not just the people who are around you nearly every day and are forgiving about the way you mangle their language with your foreign accent.
And isn’t the point of going for language lessons precisely to lessen the number of times you ting bu dong (don’t understand), and the occasions youfeel frustrated and sometimes even stupid for not knowing something as simple as the Chinese word for “scissors”, when you’ve just come from a discussion with your ayi and driver where you’ve emphatically argued your case against euthanasia?
I like to talk to people. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, as well as unearthing the other people’s values based on what he or she says. And the biggest fear I have about moving to a new place is not being able to understand and make myself understood. So I take my attempts at getting my point across quite seriously because I think it helps me to feel more rooted in a new place.
But the language in this particular place isn’t the easiest to learn as a foreigner and as an adult. Many of you who study or have studied Mandarin may be able to relate when I say there are very few words in English, let alone my own language, that I can link back to the equivalent in Mandarin. Studying this language of mono-syllabic characters and their corresponding four tones is a huge challenge to my poor memory. Training my ear, which I previously thought competently musical, to listen out for the differences in tones can give me a headache.
And no, it doesn’t help that the locals’ knee-jerk reaction when faced with a bumbling foreigner is to laugh or scratch their heads. It doesn’t always come across as a very reassuring gesture.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my failed interactions with the Chinese, it’s that their nervousness and blank stare is not about you. Rather it’s about them being uncomfortable knowing that they cannot possibly explain it to you any other way. Sure, there are those who get impatient. And there are those who think that perhaps shouting the exact same sentence will help you to understand. But in general, the Chinese are very forgiving of foreigners because they don’t exactly expect us to know their language. They are quite content to watch foreigners talk with each other in tongues they themselves can never fathom.
Once you try out your very basic Mandarin with them to test your comprehension though, they look at once relieved and impressed. They break out into a smile and say, “Ah, ni ting de dong!” And then they assume that you know more than you actually do, and they proceed to rattle off once more until you find yourselves both shaking your heads forlornly. Back to square one. And you hear them asking again, “Ni ting de dong ma?”
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids‘ Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.