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Being a Mandaridiot

My Mandarin is awful. I just spent the whole subway ride, about thirty minutes, with my little book on Mandarin, trying to figure out what to say to order my buns this morning for breakfast. I hate that every day I point and I’m not showing people progress. Six freaking syllables. Two bean, one spiral. I was ready. I got up to the counter, said what I thought was right, and things fell apart immediately. I think the confusion was because I said two, then one. Perhaps I should have waited for her to do the two beans first, then ask for one spiral. Things got worse when they started asking me what I meant. Of course they had to ask the question in Mandarin, using lots of words and saying it quickly. Then the guy next to me got involved, trying to help by using even more words I didn’t know (and with a vocabulary of about ten words, this is not difficult). The girls behind the counter know me. I’ve been going there for weeks. One of them understands that I know nothing. They shoved a couple buns in a bag and sent me on my way. I never got the spiral one, which is plain but with a hint of some spice, and it turned out that one of the buns was something other than bean.

I’ve been here seven weeks and I still haven’t mastered a single word. I’m understanding a few words. Almost nothing. And with every attempt at speaking ending in complete failure, my will to keep trying is breaking down. I may just be an illiterate and mute resident. Perhaps I should make a card and hang it around my neck that says “I’m a stupid westerner. Don’t bother.”


In retrospect, I wonder if maybe they only had one bean and were trying to communicate that to me and ask me what I wanted instead. That explains what the people were trying to say. Maybe they were just telling me there was only one, not that they had misunderstood me. And that means the other girl must have said something like “just give him something else.” And the guy thought it was funny, and was probably trying to explain to me as well, but he was useless. Okay, maybe I’ll give it another shot tomorrow. But I need to do some serious learning. I’m constantly embarrassed by my lack of everything.

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  1. Scott Brauer

    Hang in there, Bob. Master the numbers first and use the generic measure word. Want one? Say “yi ge” (pronounced like the letter E and then guh (as in gully)). Want 5? Say “wu ge” which sounds like “woo guh.” That will get you a long way. Learn the number hand signals, too. http://www.realmagick.com/chinese-number-gestures/ They help a lot.

    Also, use “je ge” and “ne ge” (sounds like “jay guh” and “nay guh”) They mean “this one” and “that one.” That, combined with pointing and saying “bu shi” (“boo sure”) when they grab the wrong one, will get you a long way.

    If you want to get fancy, say “gei wo” (“gay woah”) before “yi ge ne ge” and point and you’ve said “Give me one of that.”

  2. Bob Baddeley

    Thanks, Scott! You actually just described my entire vocabulary so far (almost. I also know ‘thank you’ and ‘check’ ). This was an experiment in branching out past the pointing stage. Even though I failed miserably, it wasn’t ALL my fault. The situation was stacked against me.

    I tried again today, this time with what I thought was a fool proof plan. Forgot it had in me in it, though, but I was successful in getting what I asked for. I said “wu xiang san ge bau. nin xuanzi” which I believe to mean “I want three buns. You choose.” She had to repeat it back to me and I repeated the last part, and she waved a single finger and I waved three, but they got it, and I got three buns. I realized after she started that she was probably asking if I wanted three different buns or three of one kind, but whatever. It was someone understanding something that I said without any pointing. Yay!

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