Thick Skin

Rachel Palfini

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Mandarin is the first oral language I have studied. In high school, I took four years of Latin, but we rarely read aloud, as Latin is a dead language and impossibly difficult to converse in (Latin grammar is very complicated). One of the reasons I enjoyed studying Mandarin so much my first year at Whitman was because there was a lot of emphasis on speaking, which I had never had in my other language classes.

That being said, when I originally decided to study Mandarin, I didn’t realize that I would need to toughen up and grow thicker skin. For whatever reason, some people are really mean to those who are studying another language. The other day I was at a foot massage parlor with my host cousin, host sister and her husband, and one of the workers was mocking me and saying, “she doesn’t understand, she doesn’t understand.” It’s hard to describe how saying 她听不懂 is mean, but trust me, he wasn’t being friendly. This was especially frustrating because I did understand what my host cousin was saying to me. I didn’t understand every word, but I knew the general meaning. I had to bite my tongue from saying “I don’t like you. You’re mean. You try learning English,” all of which I can say in Mandarin. I didn’t say any of that though, but I did look pointedly at him and said that I did understand.

Another example that I think of, which has happened more than once, involves numbers. I think numbers are one of the most difficult topics to really know well in another language because when you are translating in your head, you can’t mess up the order at all. Here are a few examples of how numbers literally translate in Mandarin:

8 = eight
45 = four ten five
176 = one hundred seven ten six

To make it a little more difficult, in Shanghainese, four and ten sound similar because Shanghainese drops the ‘h’ from words. Four = sì and ten = shí, but once you don’t pronounce the ‘h,’ you have to rely on tones to know the difference, and I’m not at that point yet. So, sometimes, when I’m buying food or a souvenir, the shopkeeper will say the price really fast. Which means, I have to repeat the number to give me time to translate it in my head. In that extra five seconds it takes me to figure out the price, half the time they give up on me and say the price in English and half the time they just glare or get their calculator. I really want to tell them that I understand numbers in Mandarin, I just need a few more seconds than a native speaker. Patience isn’t a really a virtue here, so I just need to toughen up and learn numbers faster.

That being said, I’ve met some really kind people who help me improve my language skills. My host cousin is the best. His name is Finn and he’s 26 (27 in Chinese years but that’s a whole other topic). At the first extended family dinner my first week in China, there were an extra four people at dinner all asking me rapid fire questions in Chinese. It was really overwhelming and I asked everyone to speak a little slower. Finn was the only one who made a conscious effort to speak slower and I really appreciated that. He’s come over to our house a few times for dinner since then and I really enjoy talking with him because he does speak slower so I understand what he’s saying and sticks to topics that I have some general vocabulary knowledge about. The other day we went to see Rio 2 together and it was so much fun talking afterward because I understood the vast majority of what he said. He’s also trying to practice his English so we would take turns pointing to objects and saying their Chinese and English names.

The other day on the metro, I also ran into this nice youngish man. He was probably 30. In the morning no one talks to me on the metro (everyone stares at me though), so I usually just stand and review my flashcards. He saw me studying and asked how long I had been studying Mandarin, where I was from, basic questions. He spoke a decent amount of English so I also asked him about that. He was super nice and I think it’s because there is a general understanding among people who have/are learning a second language that’s it’s really hard and it makes it so much better when people are patient and nice.

I don’t think I’ve ever been impatient with someone who was studying English, but I know I will be a lot more patient in the future. It really makes your day when someone friendly helps you. So my entreaty to all of you is, if someone ever wants to practice English with you, or is clearly struggling because it’s their second or third or fourth language, be nice. Be friendly. Smile. It makes a huge difference.

-Little Sparrow

PS- In other news, ECNU turned green while I was gone….

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

East China Normal University

 

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