On Putonghua

This morning, a distinctly un-Chinese looking fellow came into my class, and I, assuming he was Pakistani, spoke to him in English. He looked confused and responded in Chinese, pointing to his timetable which, lo, had him down for my class. I beckoned him in and he sat at the back, looking a bit lost. He listened and joined in and spoke with the other students. After class, with the help of my supervisor who happened to be using the room next, it turned out his timetable was wrong and he should’ve been elsewhere. My supervisor transated for us, such was his excellent Chinese but terrible English. As we left, I caught up with him again and tried to strike up a conversation. I learned that he’s from Saudi Arabia, and is an undergraduate. His wife is here too, currently pregnant with their second child. I made a pregnant woman gesture with my hands, he lifted his hair to show the resulting prematurely greying hairline. I was about to further the conversation by mentioning that my dad was stationed in Saudi a long time ago, but I’ve no idea what we were doing there so I didn’t want to risk tarnishing our newfound friendship with fables of colonial strong-arming. But when we parted ways I was happy to realise that our conversation had consisted partly of creative mimework, partly of English, but largely of Chinese.

Don’t get me wrong – my Chinese is pretty rudimentary. If you want to go somewhere in a taxi, I’m your woman. If you want to order one of the five dishes I can pronounce, I’m your woman. If you want to ask basic questions or want basic answers, I’m your woman. If you want a sprinkling of random vocabulary on your breakfast cereal I can give you that too. But I hadn’t realised how much I’d picked up until I had that conversation. Most of the time when I’m out and about with Chinese friends, I can pick up a few new words, but conversation always falls back to Chinglish, so having a little breakthrough moment is really encouraging.

Later, when I was in the queue at the shop, I noticed that everyone was speaking Chinese. I was a bit taken aback at this realisation. It’s amazing how quickly you stop noticing that you’re in a world you can’t really understand. I can pick out words and phrases now, but most of the time Chinese chatter is so incessant that it’s just the soundtrack to my life, like the birds in the trees. It feels nice, like being in a little cloud where you don’t have to care about people gossiping or asking stupid questions or moaning or being rude. You should try it.


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