Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 13--Mandarin in Action

"He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever."
--Chinese proverb

Although my company is an English school, they also offer Mandarin classes. As an employee, I get a cool fringe benefit: free Chinese classes!

As a foreigner, I constantly get offers of "language exchanges" from Chinese people, i.e. "I can teach you Chinese for free!" I've tried it, and it's always been a waste of time. The deal is supposed to be 1 hour of Chinese, 1 hour of English. But it usually works out to 1 hour and 59 minutes of free English practice for the Chinese person. As a result, it's usually a bad deal for a foreigner. The going rate for private English tutoring is 150-200RMB an hour ($18-$25). In contrast, private Chinese lessons can be had for 50 RMB ($6) an hour or less. The other problem is that the language partner is usually not a trained teacher, so they lack the patience and the ability to explain things clearly.

To be fair, some of my friends have been able to make language exchanges work. The key things are that the Chinese person should share time fairly and the foreigner needs to know what they want out of the exchange. I think they work better for an intermediate-level student who wants conversation practice. For a beginner, I think it's better to shell out the money and get lessons from a real teacher.

There are ulterior reasons for language exchanges, though. Some foreign men use them to meet Chinese women, and vice versa.

I've been studying Mandarin one-on-one with Miss Zhang for about 6 months. I realized right away that it's hard to study spoken Chinese and written Chinese the same way. Miss Zhang teaches them separately. With spoken Chinese, it's best to stick to pinyin, the system of writing Chinese with English letters. This allows a student to speak Chinese very quickly. When writing Chinese, start with the easiest characters to write, then increase the difficulty.

My Mandarin skills were put to the test when I went out for a job interview. An American company needed native English speakers as voice talents for their English-learning software. Part-time work. I sent in a resume and a woman named Lily e-mailed to invite me to interview. But she couldn't understand my request for directions to their office. I had the address, but they didn't tell me the cross-street. I needed both to tell the taxi driver where to go.

I got out my Shanghai Tourist Map and found the closest subway station to the address: Dongchang Road station. The road was pretty close to the station, I was hoping I could just walk to the office.

After a 15-minute walk from the station, I found the street I was looking for. The nearest building said it was 500. I checked my address: 1515 Zhangyang Road. 1515! I was miles away from the interview site!

I hailed a taxi and got in.

"Ni qu shenme difan? [You go to what place?]" the driver asked.

"Yao wu yao wu Zhangyang Lu [one five one five Zhangyang Road]," I said.

"Ah?" She scrunched her face.

Damn! Have to say it another away. "Yi qian wu bai shi wu Zhangyang Lu [one thousand five hundred fifteen Zhangyang Road]."

"Ah!" She started the taxi.

She dropped me outside a complex of apartment buildings. This was residential, not commercial property! Was I at the wrong place?

My pronunciation must have been off! There's 4 tones in Chinese. The same word said with the wrong tone changes the meaning. Say "strawberry milkshake" with the wrong tones and you say "fuck-your-sister milkshake."

The office was in building 7. I found buildings 8 and 9 easily enough. The next building was . . . 15. What?! I backtracked and found a yuppie-type reading a newspaper outside building 9.

I started to ask where building 7 was, then realized I didn't know the word for building. Need to improvise.

"Bu hao yi si [Excuse me]," I said.

The yuppie looked at me.

I pointed to the sign that said 9. "Jiu [Nine]."

"Dui [correct]." He looked at me like I was an idiot. Why would I state the obvious?

"Chi na lia? [Where is seven?]" I asked.

"Chi?" He drew a seven in the air.

I nodded.

He pointed behind me. I turned around. Building 7 was across a big-ass pond.

"Xie xie [Thanks]."

He shrugged. "Bu ker chi [You're welcome]." He went back to his newspaper.

I raced across the pond to building 7. The seconds ticked by the elevator swept me up to the 16th floor. I stepped into the office at the stroke of 10:30AM. Just in time, thanks to my brand-new Mandarin skills!

How to say an address in Chinese:

Like everything else in China, it's backwards. Say the street name first, the number (each digit), and the word that indicates a number (hao).

1515 Zhangyang Road = Zhangyang Road one five one five

Zhangyang Lu yao wu yao wu hao

"Yi" is usually the word for one, except in addresses and phone numbers, where it becomes "yao."