For our Oral Chinese midterms last month, each of us had to come up with a five-minute speech on a topic of our choice. This part was no big deal – we do this fairly regularly in our Kouyu classes. This time, though, we’d be marked by our classmates on the basis of our “fluency,” “lack of foreign accent or inaccurate tones,” “overall logic,” and “activeness of performance.” Those marks got averaged, and the two highest from every class would get sent to a school-wide speech competition of all the foreigners studying at the advanced level.
Because I hate public speaking – in Chinese and English both – I decided to make my speech funny, but also inappropriate enough that it wouldn’t get picked for the school-wide competition.
Naturally, when I thought “inappropriate,” the first thing that came to mind was the argot of cab drivers. But that alone wouldn’t get me five minutes – I timed myself using all of the cabbie curses I could ever remember hearing, and I topped out at about a minute and a half. Something else would be needed.
Eventually I came up with the idea of “Genzhe Xue,” “Learning by Imitation,” which became the title and provided an excuse for me to imitate cross Chinese aunties, hyperactive 5 year-old students, racy soap operas, young kung-fu novices, and, yes, foulmouthed cabbies.
Anyway, long story short, it backfired and my teacher and classmates loved it – especially the foulmouthed cabbie impression – and my ass got sent to the school-wide competition, where I blurted out a shorter, tighter version of the same speech while on a massive adrenalin high. I’m a bit blurry on what exactly I said. but here’s how it went, as far as I can remember it:
“Learning by Imitation”
So last year when I was teaching English in Harbin, I didn’t have any time to take Chinese classes, but my overall Chinese level still improved a bit. This was because in my day-to-day life, I was dealing with Chinese people, and because every time someone said something in Standard Mandarin I’d listen carefully, then repeat it to myself a couple of times later on when I went home, trying to imitate their accent and remember what words they’d used. I did this a lot – studied under a lot of teachers, you might say.
For example, in the little shop downstairs from my apartment, there was a middle-aged woman who was always fussing over me – I don’t know why – and thanks to all of her clucking and fussing, I can imitate a Chinese auntie:
“Aiyo, what on earth are you wearing? It’s so cold out! Are you looking to freeze to death? Aiyo, ramen again – why not something else? This stuff’s harmful to your health! It’s bad for you! Bad! –Ng, OK, 2 kuai 6. Ng, exact change. –See you later! ‘Bye-bye!’ –Dress warm! Don’t catch cold, y’hear?”
Then there were my five- and six-year-old students. They were cute – whatever they said, it was always in a rush:
“Foreign teacher! Foreign teacher! [jumping up and down] Fo! Reign! Tea! Cher!”
“i have to pee.”
But I think my best teachers in Harbin were the taxi drivers. I’ve found that our cab-driving homeboys* use really lively, really colloquial vocabulary:
“Rat-bastard motherfucker! Cut me off again! Cut me off again if you’ve got the fucking balls for it; just you fucking try!”
Anyway, to go back to what I was saying, in Harbin, I studied with the people around me. So this summer, before I went back to America for the holidays, I was really worried that as soon as I stopped using my Chinese, it’d all run out like water in a sieve. I tried and tried to think of some way to keep practising, but before I left, nothing came to mind.
After I arrived in America, I found that some TV stations – mostly the International Channel – occasionally broadcast Chinese TV shows.
These programs – “soap operas,” they call them – were both entertaining and informative, and completely fulfilled my educational requirements. They presented a lot of situational dialogues which allowed the viewer to pick up plenty of vocabulary that can’t be found in our textbooks, and to learn the fine points of practical usage.
For example: if your significant other has a fling with someone else, is it correct to say “affair” or “extramarital liason?” If you’re a broke cop and some young punk in the employ of the triads is trying to bribe you, what’s the right thing to say? Chinese television programs can answer these questions and more.
Our lives are complex and difficult. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid unpleasant, unfortunate situations, situations where thinking of an original response is really too hard, or where thinking will just make you more upset. Ladies, if you were to discover that your husband had had an affair with your younger sisters, you wouldn’t just sit down with him and talk about it calmly, would you? Of course not! You might be so upset that no words come, or that the words that do come aren’t realy suitable!
But if you’ve studied Soap Opera Chinese, you can just think of the appropriate episode, pose like the actress, imitate her expression, start sniffling, and say:
“You’ve changed! You’re not the man I fell in love with! He was true, and kind — you’re–”
–and then run away sobbing. Now that’s a suitable response!
So, OK, I haven’t had the opportunity to use any of my new vocabulary yet. Still, just knowing that I’m prepared, that I can react appropriately to any situation, no matter how unexpected, sets my mind at ease. And I’m going to go on studying, go on preparing, so that if one day my dad gets murdered by Qing-dynasty bandits, I’ll know to say
“Father! Father! I will avenge you!”
I’m sure it’s been empirically proven that students of a second language will find even really lame humour made in that language by a classmate riotously funny – anyway, according to Kun, I got the most laughs and applause, though I think she’s just saying that. I also got second place – a certificate, a CD of 300 Tang-dynasty poems, and what appears to be a Beida barometer.
Anyway, in a clumsy segue, although I would like to take the high road and say that I’m above blogs and blog awards and things like that, speaking of awards: Phil of flyingchair.net is hosting the first Asia Blog Awards, and I’d like to suggest how your votes might be cast:
Best Mainland China Blog: This is a toughie. Voting for me here is pretty pointless, and anyway I don’t think it’d be deserved. I support Sinosplice and Brainysmurf just about equally. Leylop and Danwei are also excellent blogs, but your votes for them might be better cast in other categories.
Best Essayist: Me. I mean, you know, vote your conscience, as long as it’s telling you to vote for me.
Best Blog in English as a Second Language: It’d be pretty cool if you voted for good good study, since she’s my girlfriend and all. Leylop would also be an acceptable vote, as she’s been blogging a lot longer and has better written English.
Best Blog in an Asian Language as a Second Language: Alaric’s blog, Xi’ai Xue Zhongwen de Meiguo Laowai, is the best and most prolific of the Chinese as a Second Language blogs. John’s Sinosplice Chinese is also formidable. You will note that my own Chinese blog is not in that list, perhaps because it’s sadly neglected. I’ll have to remedy that for next year.