We want to communicate with our Little Panda once she makes the trek from China to Kentucky, but China has many dialects so learning Mandarin is a crapshoot since your child may come from places where Cantonese or other languages are used.
What to do?
After consulting the almighty I-net, we learned that locals in Hubei mainly use Mandarin dialects so we’re taking the plunge and learning some basic Mandarin. I’ve never been great at languages. In three years of Spanish I learned how to sing De Colores and cuss like a Tolucan bar tender. However, desire is a powerful thing. Armed with the promise of communicating with Little P. I decided to amp up my effort.
My first step was going to the library and checking out a ton of stuff on Mandarin. My first choice? Mandarin for Dummies of course. But as soon as I hit play on my car CD changer, I knew something was off…
“Our hero is taking a trip to China. First he must find his luggage…”
What followed was oceans of Mandarin phrases, pertaining to everything from airports to magazine purchases. There was no repetitions…no simple words…just Mandarin barrages followed by quick translations to English. What the heck am I going to do with that? Unless I’m hyperthymesic…nothing.
I reached back into my mountain of resources and found Chinese Mandarin (the short course) by Pimsleur. It’s seven levels of basic Mandarin packed into one tiny box.
Since I drive a lot, I’ve already blown through four levels of this course and learned a few phrases. I say learn, but in reality I’ve only been exposed to Mandarin…sorta like taking a multivitamin and waiting for your health to change. We’re talking simple language here…stuff like:
Do you speak english?
I speak a little mandarin
I don’t speak well
How are You?
Like I said…basic. But Mandarin is trickier than I thought it would be (which is scary). For starters, the pronunciation is wacked. If you’ve ever tried reading Mandarin, you’ll see what I mean.
Here’s a few examples from:
q = English ch
r = something between American r and French j
x = English sh
z = English ds (as in “fads”)
zh = English j
Pinyin makes things a lot easier, because it spells words out phonetically…
…but there’s another little wrinkle called intonation. In Mandarin, saying the same word with unique tones leads to totally different meanings. One famous example of this is that “ma” in different Mandarin tones means, “Did mother scold the horse?”
(mā mà mă ma?)
Okay, so it’s looking grim right? Learning basic Mandarin is tough…and that’s why I decided to lean on technology. Enter the app Talk Translate.
As blokes like to say, “It’s brilliant!” You speak into your phone and this FREE app translates your English words into Mandarin. Pretty sweet if you ask me. The only trouble is, Talk Translate doesn’t translate phrases into pinyin, so you must imitate the speaker exactly…which could lead to your mom yelling at a farm animal.
Armed with my phone and recent learnings, I felt it was time to try this Mandarin stuff out, so I checked my pride at the door and entered the Firebowl Grill (sorry no website available). This Chinese buffet, in Florence, Kentucky has been one of my favorite restaurants for a while because it combines two things that I love…unlimited portions and Chinese food. I’ve frequented the Grill (as I call it) for years and know most of the staff, so I figured it would be a great launching pad for Mandarin learning….I was wrong.
For starters, the regular cashier was MIA. In her place was a manager who greeted me with, “How are you? Just one for tonight?”
The guy spoke better English than I did, so replying in Mandarin just felt wrong. (Strike One!)
Next, I waited for a waitress to escort me to my table. When I saw her walking towards me, my heart jumped.
I know her and she doesn’t speak English! This is my chance!
She turned quickly and headed towards the dining hall. I had to wait for my opportunity. You don’t just blurt out “hello!” to a fleeing waitress. By the time we reached my table I was practically having a conniption.
“Xièxie!” I croaked.
"Bié kèqì," she replied with a smile. I never thought to look up "your welcome" in Mandarin, so her comment threw off my game. I just smiled and nodded likea prize idiot while she walked away. (Strike Two!)
Things didn't get better during our second exchange, when I decided to let Google translate do the talking.
I typed in “I’m traveling to China,” and kept a pic of Panda ready on my phone. When my waitress returned, I mumbled a half-hearted “xièxie” and thrust my phone into her face. I hit the button for translate, but the voice on my phone was too low.
“What she say?” the waitress asked.
I hit the button again, but my Samsung Galaxy 5 wasn’t cooperating, so I changed tactics and showed her the Chinese characters for “I’m traveling to China.”
“No read, too small.”
I fumbled with the phone and managed to get Panda’s pic on the screen. My friend’s eyes lit up as she began speaking in Mandarin. I won’t pretend to know what she said…but she seemed excited.
I was able to spit our, “nǚ’ér” which means “daughter” in Mandarin but the waitress looked puzzled. She pointed at the picture and then to me with an “ahhhhhhhh.” Her smile was so sweet that I almost cried.
“You go alone?” she asked.
“Wife,” I managed.
“Ahhhhhhh,” she said again and clapped.
I tried spitting out Hubei but she was off again, busing tables, leaving me with a warm heart. I never imagined communication would be that hard!
Across the room sat an older white couple with two Chinese teenagers. It was the first time I noticed such a scene at the Firebowl. One of the teens peered at me sheepishly and I thought how awesome it would be to bring Panda here.
Someday that will be our family.
In the end, I was eager to practice “sai jen” or “goodbye.” This was my last chance and I wanted to do it right so after polishing off three plates of fried rice, I decided to stalk my waitress. I waited patiently and followed her out to the front door, repeating “sai jen,” “sai jen,” over and over until we both reached the entrance. But before I could say a word, she turned to me and said, “Thanks for coming, have a great weekend!”
(Strike Three! I was out!)