My putonghua (Mandarin) is not good. I am ok with that. I have never officially studied and just pick up what I do. With that said, I have gotten pretty confident in what I can say and understand. However, there are some days when I simply do not get it. Someone will say something to me and I cannot for the life of me distinguish ONE word. It is especially frustrating when this happens in a situation I am familiar with.
I thought for a while that I was just having off days. However, I have yet another example that further confirms the complexities and confusion of accents. I was in a bathhouse (surprise, surprise). It was the first time I had been to this one, so I had to feel it out first. The woman in the locker room starting talking and asking me….something. My mind went blank. Nothing was registering. I felt lost, alone, naked (literally). I usually keep something in my bag to help with a given situation–for example, I have a “bathhouse” vocab page in my notebook… Yep, the notebook I always carry around and never need but the one time I reach for it, it was not there! Lacking my bathhouse vocabulary and completely unaware of what she was saying I attempted to speak. You know, basic phrases to indicate what I was about to do–shower, steam and sauna myself, then have as much of my dead skin removed as possible. She looked at me the same way I was blankly staring at her before and says ting bu dong, she doesn’t understand me. That hurts to hear because I am the one who is supposed to be saying that! I scurry into the shower and wash off the shame of having lived in China a year and am unable to accomplish that basic conversation.
After my shower and lounging in the steam room and sauna, I get on the scrub table. The new woman starts talking to me and all of a sudden my Chinese ears are working again! It made no sense until I asked where she was from. DongBei, she replied. The northeast. Liaoning province, which is where Dalian is located. Dong bei ren, how I love you. When I didn’t understand she would slow down and it more clearly. It was a beautiful thing. The woman from the locker room came into the showers and seemed pretty shocked we were talking. I was too to be honest. DongBei lady served as a translator and we all talked for a while as I got scrubbed down. When I went to the lockers the other woman said something and yet again I could not understand ONE word. This time I smiled and just accepted that we were not destined to talk on this chilly December night.
Another example of the terrible, terrible accents that exist outside of northeastern China. I was speaking with a taxi driver and when we got close to the destination I said the building number, si shi liu (46). He replied si si lou. I said si shi liu to confirm. He laughed, explaining that in Shanghai local people say it this way. So I repeat until he gives me the thumbs up. Si si lou. To my untrained ear I am hearing something about a building or floor in a building. Perhaps four four building or death four building. Yes, my friends, that’s how good my Chinese is! But to be fair, when my friend Andrew was visiting from Dalian, we shared this common bond of not understanding and he has studied quite a bit! For some reason in Shanghai they tend to abandon the “sh” sound and a few other quirks. If I have learned one thing about living abroad or China, in particular, is that you will consistently not get things. You just have to learn how to react appropriately, not get frustrated and smile about it. Part of the beauty of living in a foreign culture.
The following is from the blog Veggie Discourse. They are maps representing (somewhat jokingly) how people from different regions of China view each other. Enjoy.
China According to Dongbei (northeastern) People.
China According to Beijing People
China According to Shanghai People