My Language Journey, and Yours

We all know how difficult learning or familiarizing with mandarin can be. Language enthusiast Julie Axelsson speaks of the highs & lows of interaction with our lingua franca.

Having dedicated considerable time and effort to the life-long project of learning Mandarin, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disheartened at the news that my husband’s new job would be taking us to the heart of Guangdong of all places. Don’t get me wrong, I do love learning languages. Yet the thought of having to start all over again with a new Chinese language–Cantonese–before even being close to fluent in Mandarin, somehow failed to spark my usual enthusiasm.

Imagine the joy and relief I experienced when, upon arriving in Dongguan, it turned out that the lingua franca of my new hometown was in fact Mandarin rather than Cantonese. Being able to communicate with folk in the streets from day one made life much simpler! Already during my first week of frantic apartment hunting around Dynatown I found myself taking a break and joining some carefree elderly gentlemen for a chat and some Pu’er tea in a shady parking lot. One of them, an old Beijinger, was particularly grateful for my company. After all, I was able to confirm some of his wild tales about the mythical capital city that his mates had until that point, found hard to believe.

A more pertinent linguistic challenge is trying to come to terms with all the different versions of Mandarin that you hear on the streets of Dongguan.

I should have known of course that Mandarin would be widely spoken in Dongguan, almost everyone here comes from elsewhere. Allegedly 80% of the city’s residents were not born in Dongguan and most of those not even in Guangdong. Which brings about the new challenge of finally having to confront the task of properly learning the geography of this vast country. I don’t want to insult my new Chinese friends by not having heard about their famous hometown or at least being able to vaguely locate their province on the map. Yes, I’m aware that the names of most provinces offer clues as to their whereabouts. But which lake is Hubei1 supposed to be north of? And what mountain exactly is Shanxi2 situated west of? Oh well, I’m sure that it’s much easier to learn the names of a few provinces and their major cities than to master yet another tonal language like Cantonese.

A more pertinent linguistic challenge is trying to come to terms with all the different versions of Mandarin that you hear on the streets of Dongguan. For me it’s not yet about aspiring to figure out where the neighbors’ ayi comes from based on her pronunciation; my ambitions are much more modest. Solving the small mystery of why she’s pointing at me and calling me “boss” is gratifying enough: it’s just her way of saying “laowai” that sounds more like “laoban” 3. Among the privileges of being a foreigner however is that everyone tries their best to address you in proper Guoyu4 rather than their local dialect of Mandarin. As much as I’m straining to understand and respond adequately to my driver’s interrogation about the economic conditions in Europe, it’s not even comparable to the rapid incomprehensible chatter that ensues the moment he answers his phone to talk to his Jiangxi friend.

Another privilege of being a foreigner is of course how easy it is to receive compliments for even trying to understand and utter a few words in Chinese. And I’ll tell you, no matter whether you feel you deserve them or not, you come to appreciate these praises. Over the years I’ve come to realize that learning Mandarin is one of the most humbling experiences you could possibly subject yourself to. The process is frustratingly slow and cumbersome. Hence the necessity for the occasional instant gratification. And so, a “Ni shuo zhongwen shuo de name hao!” 5 will never fail to bring a smile to my face, even though I’m ready with a variety of ways to cancel the compliment like “Na li, na li” or “Meiyou a” 6.

1) Hubei: literally Lake North, i.e. North of the lake

2) Shanxi: literally Mountain West, i.e. West of the mountain

3) Laowai: foreigner; laoban: boss

4) Guoyu: national language

5) “You speak Chinese so well!”

6) Literally ”Where, where” or “There isn’t” both meaning “Not really”