Big Noses Can’t Really Learn Chinese

" Your Average Big Noser"

Do you ever get the feeling that Chinese people think you can’t really learn to speak their language? There is a Chinese restaurant I have frequented in San Francisco for almost two years now. Each time I go in to get take out, I chat with the staff and laoban (boss) while waiting. They are all native Cantonese speakers, sometimes struggling to find the right word in Mandarin.  Many times I’ve guessed what they were trying to say and helped them with the Mandarin word or phrase. Nevertheless, something humorous and very telling happened last time I went in.

One woman with whom I am very friendly said in Mandarin “Can I ask you something?” I said “sure”. And she replied “I hope you won’t be bothered by what I am going to ask, but, all this time we’ve been speaking with you, have you really understood us or are you just pretending.” Wait a second, I was thinking, I am the one who corrects your Mandarin!  She has heard me having complex conversations with the laoban, who has more fluent Mandarin. Why would she ever imagine I could pull off such a complex hoax, including guessing entire conversations and making up answers in Mandarin, all while having no idea what I am saying? Yet, I think I know why. I think she falls into the category of Chinese people who simply don’t believe it is possible to speak or understand Chinese if you are a “Big Noser” (Chinese slang for the ethnically non-Chinese).

I can never guess who will be a person who eases into a conversation, briefly complimenting my level in Mandarin, but immediately accepting the concept of a Big Noser actually conversing in Mandarin. It is impossible to predict. I have interviewed Mandarin teachers, people whose profession it is to look at big noses and try to get them to learn Mandarin, who cannot accept really speaking in Mandarin with someone sporting a schnoz larger than their own. I had one teacher unable to concentrate, laughing and saying “I just can’t believe it!” while interviewing her in Mandarin for a teaching position. At one point she covered her eyes and said “If I just do this, I will then think you are Chinese and not find it so funny”.  Then there have been others with little to no exposure to Westerners, let alone ones who speak Mandarin, easing right into it and going with the flow.

There have been some posts, including one of my own, about people not speaking Chinese to Westerners. The assumption has been that they prefer to practice their English. This may be true, but I also think some of these people actually don’t believe it can be done. No matter if you have been conversing with the person on a weekly basis for two years. It must be a ruse, smoke and mirrors, a carnival trick. How I wish I could do that, and skip the nearly two decades of study.

Directional Commands: The Answers!

And now for the answers:

“Come in”  进来   jìn lái

“Go out” 出去  chū qù

“Come up” 上来  shàng lái

“Come down” 下来  xià lái

“Go up” 上去  shàng qù

“Go down” 下去  xià qù

“Pick up” 拿起来   náqǐlái

“Put down” 放下去  fàng xià qù

“Put on” (clothes) 穿上  chuān shàng

“Take off” (clothes) 脱下  tuō xià

“Put in” 放进去  fàng jìn qù

“Take out” 拿 来  ná chū lái

Get on (vehicle) 上车  shàng chē

Get off (vehicle) 下车  xià chē

Put on (pin, barrett, hat, decoration to wear) 戴上  dài shàng

Take off (pin, barrett, hat, decoration to wear) 脱下 tuō xià

“Come over here” 过来  guò lái

“Go over there” 过去  guò qù

“Get up” 起来  qǐ lái

“Stand up” 站起来  zhàn qǐ lái

“Sit down” 坐下  zuò xià

“come back” 回来  huí lái

“go back” 回去  huí qù

“bring with” (3 ways to say: bring it with you; bring it as you go somewhere; take out) 带来 /带去/带走  dài lái / dài qù / dài zǒu

“bring back to” (like a book you bring back to the library) 带回去  dài huí qù

“bring back with” (like going to the library and bringing the book home with you) 带回来 dài huí lái

(pinyin is getting messed up in WordPress that should be: stand up = zhan4 qi3 lai2 and the second to last one is dai4 zou3)

And now for the answers:

“Come in”  进来   jìn lái

“Go out” 出去  chū qù

“Come up” 上来  shàng lái

“Come down” 下来  xià lái

“Go up” 上去  shàng qù

“Go down” 下去  xià qù

“Pick up” 拿起来   náqǐ lái

“Put down” 放下去  fàng xià qù

“Put on” (clothes) 穿上  chuān shàng

“Take off” (clothes) 脱下  tuō xià

“Put in” 放进去  fàng jìn qù

“Take out” 拿 来  ná chū lái

Get on (vehicle) 上车  shàng chē

Get off (vehicle) 下车  xià chē

Put on (pin, barrett, hat, decoration to wear) 戴上  dài shàng

Take off (pin, barrett, hat, decoration to wear) 脱下 tuō xià

“Come over here” 过来  guò lái

“Go over there” 过去  guò qù

“Get up” 起来  qǐ lái

“Stand up” 站起来  zhàn qǐ lái

“Sit down” 坐下  zuò xià

“come back” 回来  huí lái

“go back” 回去  huí qù

“bring with” (3 ways to say: bring it with you; bring it as you go somewhere; take out) 带来 /带去/带走  dài lái / dài qù / dài zǒu

“bring back to” (like a book you bring back to the library) 带回去  dài huí qù

“bring back with” (like going to the library and bringing the book home with you) 带回来 dài huí lái

Directional Commands: First the Quiz

"Mandarin directionals muddle one's mind"

At some point in my Mandarin studies I realized I was completely confused about directional commands (e.g. “come here”, “go there”, “come in”, “go out”, etc.). Finally I sat a teacher down to get it all straight.  Now,  first let’s see if you’ve already got it straight. Here are some directional commands in English. Let’s see if you know the Mandarin equivalent (answers in follow up post in a few days).  Please post in English and ones you think I missed:

“Come in”

“Go out”

“Come up”

“Come down”

“Go up”

“Go down”

“Pick up”

“Put down”

“Put on” (clothes)

“Take off” (clothes)

“Put in”

“Take out”

Get on (vehicle)

Get off (vehicle)

Put off (pin, barrett, hat, decoration to wear)

Take off (pin, barrett, hat, decoration to wear)

“Come over here”

“Go over there”

“Get up”

“Stand up”

“Sit down”

“come back”

“go back”

“bring with” (2 ways to say, i.e something you take with you, and another thing you take away with you – as you go off somewhere)

“bring back to” (like a book you bring back to the library)

“bring back with” (like going to the library and bringing the book home with you)

Tone Robots (and How Not to Become One)

"Hello - we - are - tone - robots. Take - us - to - your - leader."

Sometimes you can be so right, you are actually wrong. You’re determined not to speak sloppy Mandarin. You’ve memorized the tone for every word (or character combination) you know. In every word you utter, the tone rings crystal clear and you know it. There is only one problem: You sound like a freaky robot.

You win some and you lose some with each style of learning Mandarin. Some of my students are “loosey goosey” with their tones, hitting on the right ones seemingly only by accident, yet somehow capturing some of the cadence of the language. Then there are some diligent students, with well-memorized tones, who may come off sounding, well, like robots. I’ve seen Mandarin teachers in my school, or native speakers in my San Francisco Mandarin group, giggle uncontrollably when hearing this kind of Mandarin; The kind where each morpheme is separated, thrown out into the air, and violently axed with a 100% accurate tone. Correct? Yes. Funny sounding? Affirmative.

The good news is if you are already speaking this type of Mandarin, you are probably a very good student. Now you’ve just got to smoke some reefer and loosen up. Or, if you’re not into that kind of thing, try this approach: Take some of your study time to focus on the cadence and melody of Mandarin. How does a whole sentence sound put together? When are tones emphasized or de-emphasized? What do native speakers really sound like? You may be surprised to hear tones almost lost in the cadence of speech, while others are clearly executed for emphasis. English is not that different. A learner of English could separately say each word, emphasizing what clear diction he has in the sentence “I – am – going – to – go – to – the – store”. Yet, he would also lose the feel of how an American might more naturally say “I’m gonna go t’the store.”

The best way to avoid becoming a tone robot is to listen to as much Mandarin as you can, and simply try to mimic what you hear. Pretend you are an actor who has to repeat the lines exactly as you hear them. This is the time to shut off your tone-focused brain, and concentrate simply on melody and cadence. If you don’t live in a country that speaks Mandarin, the best way to increase your exposure to the language are podcasts (try Chinesepod.com or do a Google search for others). Download lessons on to an MP3 player and carve out some time in your studies just for listening and absorbing the flow of the language.  Signing – off – now.  I  – do – hope – this – computes.

“Hello, My Name is Have-No-Honor”

shame

Choosing a good Chinese name is a delicate matter and should be handled by the experts only, that is to say only well-educated native speakers. First, allow me to start with a cautionary tale: The story of how I ended up with the name “Have-No-Honor” in Chinese (or something that sounded exactly like that) and how I ran around Taiwan for 6 months introducing myself as a person “without a good reputation”.

I started learning Chinese at the age of 14 in my high school. The teacher asked us if we would like a Chinese name and I said I would like one with the character jade in it. He then gave me the name “míngyù” (明玉) and I was known as “brilliant jade” in Chinese class until my graduation four years later.

Off to college, and the more stuffy atmosphere of Mandarin classes at Georgetown University. The first day of class I was asked my last name in English, which is Meyer.  The teacher then chose the last name “méi” (梅), or Plum Blossom, and I was known as “Classmate  Mei” (梅同学) for the next four years in Chinese class. Then I was off to Taiwan after graduation. I thought, all I had to do was now put my first name with my last name and, voilá, I would have a full Chinese name.

Not so fast! The problem with just throwing together characters is that there are a lot of homophones in Mandarin and the chances of things going seriously wrong abound. In this case my placing of Méi Míngyù together created something that sounded exactly like “without a good reputation” (没名誉), not exactly the image I was trying to give off as a expat sorting her way through socializing in Mandarin.

Finally, one evening lying in my bunk in my dorm room, one of my 3 roommates approached me; she had prepared a little mini-speech in English (clear by the piece of paper she pulled out of her pocket and began to read from). “You name very shameful. It mean… have no honor!  You need new name. Your new name is “Méi Jiérú”, it much better.” And that’s how I got the name I have today, which I am told consistently is a good name. So, do you need a Chinese name and if so how do you get a good one?

You will need a Chinese name if you ever intend to write your name in characters. If you are learning only pinyin and not the writing system, you could get away with saying your name in English, particularly if it is a common one such as David or Nancy. The only problem is that if you really want to speak Chinese with your counterparts, saying your name in English will encourage the conversation to turn to speaking English. Also, if your name is not that common or you are speaking with someone who doesn’t know English, it will be hard for the listener to say or remember your name. It’s the same reason most Chinese expats in the U.S. take on an English name. So here are some tips on choosing a name:

•    If you have a common given name there is usually a set of characters typically associated with your name. You can look this up then have a native speaker help you choose a last name that is close to your surname, or one that goes well with those characters.
•    If you do not have a common name, you should choose a name with a meaning that you like. For example, a person I know with the name “Forever Beautiful” is not a name I would want, just too much pressure. Girls usually are given names that mean ”beautiful”, “white”, “pure”, “clean”, etc. and boys are more likely to be given names with characters such as “brave”, “intelligent”, and “strong”. But names run the full gamut and you can have a native speaker help you choose something meaningful and poetic to you. There are plenty of characters that form beautiful names such as “cloud”, “jasmine”, “poetry”, “dragon”, and many more.
•    ONLY have an educated native speaker help you choose a name. Someone serious about the assignment will not choose one on the spot, but will take some time and talk to other Chinese people to get their feedback. Likewise, before you take on your new name, ask a few native speakers what they think of the name chosen for you.
•    Learn what each character in your name is associated with, this is how you will be expected to tell people your name each and every time you meet someone new.  I, for example, have to say each time when asked which characters are in my name that they are “mei, as in plum blossom mei”, “jie as in clean jie” and “ru as in if ru”. People will often also imaginary write the characters on their own hand for the viewer to see which character they mean.
•    If you just want to play around with choosing a Chinese name, check out this site: http://www.mandarintools.com/chinesename.html - but remember to run the results by a native speaker before adopting the name.
•    Here is a list of English names transliterated into Chinese: http://chineseculture.about.com/library/name/blname.htm – these are not real Chinese names, but instead just the sound of your English name transliterated into Chinese. You know the guys who sit on the sidewalk and tell tourists they will write their English name in Chinese? That’s what they are doing. Just writing out characters to mimic the sound of your English name. So, here a name like “Barbara” becomes “Ba-ba-la”. A real Chinese name would only be one or two characters for the given name and only one for the surname.

Any good stories on how you got your name in Chinese?

How To Say “And” in Chinese: Part Two

Here is part two on how to say “and” in Mandarin. Check out part one for the first half.

Conjunction Concept #5:
Use the word “with” to connect pronouns and nouns
跟                     我跟我妹妹去吃饭。
gēn                 EX:    Wǒ gēn wǒ mèimei qù chīfàn.
with, and                My sister and I are going to eat dinner.
NOTE: “Gēn” is generally used with the adverb “yìqǐ” (together)
跟 …  一起               我跟我妹妹一起去吃饭。
gēn …  yìqǐ            EX:    Wǒ gēn wǒ mèimei yìqǐ qù chīfàn.
together            My sister and I are going to eat dinner
(together).

“Gēn” should be used to to link pronouns or nouns, but not verbs. It should follow this pattern:

(Noun/pronoun) + gēn + (Noun/pronoun) + Verb + Object

Conjunction Concept #6:
Use a sentence pattern as a connector

Here are two common sentence patterns used to connect two adjectives or verbs. It is used to say something or someone is both one thing and another:

Sentence pattern #1
又 … 又 …
yòu … yòu
(both one thing and another)

You should follow this grammatical structure:

Subject + yòu+ adj/verb + yòu + adj/verb.

Examples of the “yòu…yòu…” pattern

他又高又瘦。
Tā yòu gāo yòu shòu.
He is both tall and thin.

她又漂亮又聪明。
Tā yòu piàoliang yòu cōngmíng.
She is both beautiful and intelligent

他又不懂英文又不懂中文。
Tā yòu bù dǒng Yīngwén yòu bù dǒng Zhōngwén.
He neither understands English nor Chinese.

Sentence Pattern #2

Here is another pattern that can be used as a connector

一边…   一边…
yìbiān…  yìbiān…
(to do something while doing something else)

This pattern should follow this structure:

Subject + yìbiān + verb + object +  yìbiān + verb + object.

Examples of the “yì biān…  yì biān…” pattern

他一边吃饭一边看电视。
Tā yìbiān chīfàn yìbiān kàn diànshì.
He eats dinner and watches T.V (at the same time).

我在台湾一边教英文一边学中文。

Wǒ zài Táiwān yìbiān jiāo Yīngwén yìbiān xué Zhōngwén.
While in Taiwan I studied Chinese and taught English.

My Favorite Vague Chinese Words: Part 2

#4 怎么样? zěnme yàng ?= “How’s it going?”; “How’d it go?”; “What’s it like?” “What’s happening?”; etc.
You probably have already come across this one. Very useful, very vague, and very multi-purpose. From “Wha’s up, yo?” to “How’d it all go?”. Find yourself unsure how to plug in a follow up question? No need to look further than“zěnmeyàng

Example: 纽约怎么样?
Niǔyuē zěnme yàng?
How’s New York?/ What’s New York like?

#5 不好意思 bù hǎo yìsi = “How embarrassing”; “Whoops, thanks”; “Oh thanks, I could have gotten that”, etc.
You drop something on the floor; someone is doing you a favor; you need help with something and it is obvious: These are all bù hǎo yìsi moments. Literally it is “not + good + meaning”, but its really used in moments we might say in English “oh, thanks”, or “ oh, I could have done that….”.

#6 随便 / 随便你 suíbiàn / suíbiàn nǐ = “It’s up to you”; “You decide”; “Whatever you want”
Don’t feel like ‘taking the bull by the horns’? I’ve got just the expression for you: suí biàn nǐ. Leave it up to the other person with this expression. It is as vague as it comes, litereally “casual + you”. You are

#7 无所谓 wúsuǒwèi = “It doesn’t matter to me”; “I don’t care”; “Either way is fine with me”
You don’t have much of an opinion about the matter; you’d like the questioner to make the decision; you simply don’t care which choice is made: These are all excellent wúsuǒwèi moments. Someone asks if you prefer to order a chicken dish or a beef dish, and either are fine with you, just simply answer wúsuǒwèi.

Stay tuned for Part 3…

My Top-Ten Favorite Vague Chinese Words – Part One

Vague words are awesome for language learners. Keep a few in your pocket and you can pull them out any time you’re in need of “beating around the bush”, or you simply can’t find the specific word in Mandarin. These same words native speakers also use to talk around a subject or get out of giving the details.

#1 有事 yǒu shì = to have some matters (to tend to)
Man, I love this word! You can use it for almost anything. You can’t make it to a party; you cancel an appointment; you want ‘out’ of doing something; any time is a good yǒushì time. In Chinese, this is a universally accepted vague answer:

Usage: Subject + yǒu shì.

Example Sentences:

对不起, 我不能来,因为我有事。
Duìbùqǐ, wǒ bù néng lái yīnwèi wǒ yǒu shì.
Sorry, I can’t come, because I’ve got something going on.

我星期五晚上不行,因为我有事。
Wǒ xīngqīwǔ wǎnshàng bù xíng yīnwèi wǒ yǒu shì.
Friday night isn’t possible for me; I’ve got something going on.

#2 这样(子) Zhè yàng (zì) = like so, as such, in such a way, things like that
I remember the day I discovered the “zhè yàng” trick and have been a “zhè yàng zì” addict every since. It is so non-specific you can use it in many situations from responding vaguely to something someone said to showing somebody how to do something (without having to say the details):

The “like so” zhè yàng
你可以这样做。
Nǐ kěyǐ zhè yàng zuò.
You can do it like this.

The “In that a way” zhè yàng
哦, 结果你是这样做的。
O, jiěguǒ nǐ shì zhè yàng zuò de.
Oh, so in the end that’s the way you did it.

“oh, so that’s the way it is” Zhè yàng zì
(in response to something someone said)
这样子。
Zhè yàng zì.
“Oh I see” / “So it was like that”/ “Ah that’s what happened”/ “So that’s the way it gonna be.”

“things like that” Zhè yàng
这样的事情真让人生气。
Zhè yàng de shìqing zhēn ràng rén shēngqì.
Things like that really can make a person angry.

“like that” Zhè yàng
如你这样做,我不会把你当朋友。
Rú nǐ zhè yàng zuò wǒ bú huì bǎ nǐ dāng péngyǒu.
If you are going to do it like that, then I’m not going to be your friend.

#3 那个,那个 nà ge, nà ge = ummmm (expression to buy time while speaker thinks)

Need time to think because the Chinese isn’t flowing out of your mouth at the moment? Look no further. Just like our “ummmm” in English, this word can be repeated two or more times to show you are searching for the word or to not leave blank air time during your conversation.

Example:

他说他要请我吃饭, 然后带我去… 那个,那个,那个… 新的博物馆。
Tā shuō tā yào qǐng wǒ chīfàn , ránhòu dài wǒ qù … nàgè ,nàgè ,nàgè … xīn de
bówùguǎn.
He said he wants to take me out to dinner, and then take me to that new, ummmm, museum.

More to come… stay tuned for Part Two

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