I have recently started reading a new book, When in French by Lauren Collins. Collins is currently a New York Times columnist based in Paris. In this memoir, she catalogues her move New York to London, London to Geneva. She meanwhile has married a Frenchman and is attempting to learn French.
As a fellow language learner, I both laugh aloud and cringe when she lists her linguistic mishaps. These including telling her mother-in-law that she has birthed a coffee maker. Though I have no mother-in-law at present, I have shared many a mishap with Ms. Collins and feel inspired to document some recent ones, before I depart China in July.
At the start of a recent massage, the masseuse asked which part of my body hurt. I replied enthusiastically “wǒ de bēizi!” He snorted: I tried to say “my back,” (which is actually bèi) but instead told him that my cup ached.
At the gym recently, the instructor of the class asked if I could speak Chinese. I said “wǒ kěyǐ,” trying to say that I can. However, Chinese has two similar verbs. One means “I have the ability or skill to.” Which would have been the correct verb. I said the other one. Basically, I said, “I physically can form speech,” but not “I can speak Chinese.” So in protesting my ability, I proved myself to be lying.
I got into the back of the Chinese equivalent of Lyft and the driver asked my cell phone number, which is how you are identified. I told him and we set off. He began chatting, very fast and very much not in standard Mandarin. I panicked, and answered by “hmmph” for a while. This soon became an inappropriate way to respond and he finally craned his neck around. He was shocked and said, “What! You are foreign!” Apparently he at first did not look and assumed from my recitation of four digits that I was Chinese. Then, mercifully, he slowed down his speech to a crawl and we continued the conversation.
Lastly, on Monday I tried to refill my metro card. The card did not refill, but they charged me. So I gathered myself and went to the counter to remedy the matter. I explained (I think) in Chinese that the transaction was not successful, that I would like a refund. The woman behind the counter looked me dead in the eye and without blinking, raised her walkie talkie. She radioed, “Hi, do you speak English? There is a foreigner here.” I responded, “Hi, I can speak Chinese.” She said, “Fine, go to this other counter.” Needless to say, this encounter made me feel confident of my prowess.
Though I did learn the happy news yesterday that I passed my latest HSK exam (汉语水平考试), it is clear that I have a long ways to go on this project! Luckily, I have Lauren Collins’s book for company.