When you are living in a country new to you, even the simplest moments can be an adventure. And this was true for our experience in China several years ago.
Our First Night Out on the Town, Sans Kids
“Wǒ yào zhè ge (我要这个)," I say, pointing to a pile of savory green beans. “Xiè xie (谢谢),” I respond as the proprietor passes the food my way.
“I want this” and “Thank you” is pretty basic Chinese. But success in communicating these ideas on our very first date night while living in China led Caroline and me to further boldness as the meal progressed.
We had only been in China for just over a month. Admittedly, our language preparation had been less-than-satisfactory. But we were determined to explore the area where we lived and get a bit of needed time away from our kids, then 14, 12 and 8 years old. We'd deal with the consequences when we returned later in the evening.
The restaurant was a typical hole-in-the-wall establishment with a street-side buffet that stood in a narrow alley in the business district between the main Ningbo University Campus and the West Campus.
As we sat at the rather cheap, plastic table under the glaring fluorescent light hanging in the middle of the eight-table restaurant, a television hanging in the corner blared out the latest Chinese drama. The air was redolent of cooking oil, Chinese food, and the strange mixture of cigarette smoke, smog, and grime that characterizes so much of the air in China.
Meanwhile, the proprietor’s husband, obviously interested in the wàiguórén (外国人), or foreigners, that had ventured into their little shop, kept passing by and making small talk. Since our language had been progressing over the past several weeks to move from the stage of understanding nothing, to getting to the stage where we understood “is,” “he,” “I,” “have,” and “you” with an occasional “hello” in the mush of sound. In fact, now we were getting to the stage where we actually were catching an idea now and then.
Beginners’ Attempts at Conversation
Because the husband of the proprietor made a comment that sounded to Caroline like he was asking where we were from, she promptly responded with a phrase we’d been learning in our Rosetta Stone studies: “I’m from America.”
We exchanged names. And then he asked us another question to which all we could say was “Tīng bù dǒng (听不懂).” (I hear; I don’t understand). Next, he asked something again, and this time we thought we heard a word that indicated he was interested in how long we’ve been here. We replied “Liǎng ge yuè (两个月).” (Two months).
Another question was fairly unintelligible, but we guessed that he was asking what we were doing in Ningbo, so we responded, “Wǒmen shì Níngbō Dàxué de lǎoshī (我们是宁波大学的老师).” (We are Ningbo University teachers.)
The evening went on like this with much laughter and apologies for our bad Chinese, but we left feeling quite elated to have communicated more than basic greetings in the Chinese language.
What We Really Said
In actuality, the conversation very well may have gone like this: (Imagine the following is all in Chinese)
Husband of Proprietor: “So… are you enjoying your food? It must be different than in your country…”
Caroline: “We are Americans.”
H of P: “You’re from America, so isn’t America a place where it takes a long time to start a business?"
Dale: “What’s your name?”
H of P: “I’m Guo.”
Dale: “I’m Dale”
H of P: “So don’t you have a Chinese name?”
Dale: “We don’t understand.”
H of P: “It… takes… a …long … time… to start… a business.. in America? (spoken slowly)
Caroline: “We’re here two fish.” (She thinks she’s saying “two months” but has the wrong tone.)
H of P: “You’re here two fish?”
Dale: “Young phoenix, uh, uh, moon.” (another couple of attempts to say yuè, but with incorrect tone)
H of P: “Ah, I see you’ve eaten two fish and there’s a nice moon tonight. Hey honey (yelling to wife), these two are a bit looney!”
Caroline: “We are teachers at Ningbo Great Snow.” (dà xué is university; dà xue with third tone on e means “great snow.”)
H of P: “We don’t usually get snow here…”
Dale: “I’m eating well.”
Caroline: “I like spicy food.”
H of P: “So any ideas of how long it takes to start a business in America?"
Dale and Caroline: “Yes, yes. Thank you.”
H of P: “Well, I hope you enjoyed your food. Would you like me to put what remains in a doggy bag?”
Dale: “I’m eating well. Goodbye.”
Caroline: “Goodbye! Next time I want to speak more Chinese with you.”
H of P: “Your Chinese is already very good!”
In your attempts to learn a language, have you experienced funny misunderstandings?
Share them with us!