My First Mandarin Experience

So, as you guys may or may not know, I have been *trying* to learn Mandarin this summer to prepare for Beijing which is happening in two weeks from now (WAIT WAAAAAAT). I’ve improved from my last post about Mandarin . I now know the four different tones and can somewhat recognize a tiny amount of characters. Also, I have a new tactic for learning the language, thanks to my Chinese friend; rather than trying to conquer writing and reading, I’m going straight to the pinyin and learning phrases because holy cow guys SO MANY CHARACTERS SO LITTLE TIME. I also bought a handy dandy phrase book as well and I’ve been putting phrases on flashcards to practice.

A couple of days ago, my mom told me she was going to Chinatown to get a haircut (cause the guy there cuts hair really well) and invited me to tag along to eat dim sum and pick up my Chinese visa. This was my chance to finally put my Mandarin skills to use! And so I brought along my Mandarin phrase book and went in feeling all confident.

IMG_7705_2    IMG_7708_2 (my Mandarin book among the food ahahaha)

The dim sum restaurant we visited is run the traditional way; rather than having a menu, waitresses run around with carts yelling the items on their trolley. We visited the restaurant several times before and each time we were flustered because the waitresses always assumed that we were Chinese and spoke to us in rapid fire Mandarin. When we told them we didn’t understand Mandarin, they either a. tried to use broken frenglish or b. flagged down a bus boy who could communicate with us.

My hope was that now with the minimal Mandarin I had, I could maybe communicate with the waitresses more directly.

We arrived to the restaurant right as it opened. It wasn’t loud and noisy (yet) and the pathways between the tables weren’t clogged with carts (yet). There was the one Chinese grandma waitress with the loud voice who unfortunately spoke mostly Mandarin and smidgens of French and barely any English. She always stressed out my mom, who wasn’t used to how loud the waitress spoke (screamed?).

As the carts started to make their rounds, as usual the waitresses spoke to us in Mandarin. But rather than being all suave like I planned and saying like ‘wo shi hanguren’ (I’m korean), I spoke in English or French. (Srsly Ashley?! You coward!) After my third time instinctively switching to my more comfortable languages, I forced myself to use Mandarin for the fourth cart that came around. And just my luck, it was the loud Chinese grandma.

After her rapid fire barrage of Mandarin, I stammered out a weak ‘wo bu mingbai’ (I don’t understand) then repeated it a bit louder for her. She stopped and then said “Bu mingbai? BU MINGBAI! BU MINGBAI!” as she scurried off somewhere. I looked at my mom, unsure if I was successful it communicating with her, when she came back holding a menu. “Bu mingbai!” she said triumphantly as she pointed at the pictures. Then she went off in some combination of Mandarin and French as she explained the food. When we finished ordering, she turned to me and said “Bu mingbai?” and went off in most likely an encouraging speech or some mini lecture. I looked at her completely dumbfounded and when she finished her speech, she looked at me expectantly.

“Um, I don’t speak Mandarin?-” She cackled and then left to fetch another cart.

I got a tiny boost from after that experience. For the rest of the meal, I tried to look up words in my phrase book, like vegetables and meat. I didn’t say it out loud, but even so, I felt a bit better. I was understandable. That was a good start, right?

One thing I did learn from this experience that kind of surprised me was my sudden bashfulness. I thought that after hyping myself to speaking Mandarin that I would immediately use the language when I was in the circumstance, but instead I went back to the usual English. Really, now? That disappointed me, but at least now I know and I’m going to put more effort into my languages. I mean, yes, it is scary stepping out in a new language and quite vulnerable, but that’s the only way to grow. And geez, when I’m in Beijing, it’ll be like this but hundredfold. I need to memorize a good number of phrases and get myself ready or I’ll be lost and not get the most from my trip.

Hopefully my next Mandarin experience will be better! Next time I want to go with my Chinese friend so I won’t be completely lost, ha X)

Until then!

~ajc

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