“Excuse me, do you speak Mandarin?” I’m sitting at a restaurant table booth with my sister and her husband, eagerly addressing the middle-aged Chinese waitress tending to our orders.
“Uh, yes, I do,” she replies, seeming perturbed by my question. My brother-in-law, having suffered through my constant Mandarin babble during the last two weeks, is laughing. My sister is smiling, slightly annoyed with me but polite enough not to shut me up.
“Wo de Zhongwen hai hao!” I blurt, a simple sentence which means, my Chinese is just okay, and which I’ve both written and spoken about a thousand times by now.
The waitress manages a forced smile, then replies, “Ni de Zhongwen hai hao (your Chinese is good),” then, dismissively, “Are you ready to order?”
Jeez, I thought she’d at least be a little more excited than that.
Y’know, for a language that’s only second to English in terms of most-useful-business-dialects-in-the-world, it hasn’t come in handy at all.
I don’t really know why I decided to pick it up. I guess I someday imagine myself working internationally, or filling out some kind of survey that asks me how many languages I speak and being able to check off at least three (oh right, I speak Spanish too). I have no motive, really, other than sheer self-satisfaction.
My only problem is I don’t have anyone to practice with! This sucks, obviously, because my head is now stuffed with Chinese and pinyin, and I’m excited to put it to use.
The Internet, bless its overcrowded soul, is full of people who enjoy speaking Mandarin, but I want to try an actual conversation in person with someone where we can’t mutually cheat by looking things up online. I want to actually test myself in the field! Where are all my Chinese neighbors in San Francisco when I need them?! And can they hear me through my walls, pacing my room and talking to myself in Mandarin like a crazy person?
“Ni hao (hello)! Ni hao ma (how are you)? Wo hen hao (I’m very well). Wo jiao Sherilynn (my name is Sherilynn). Ni jiao shenme mingzi he ni duo da (what’s your name and how old are you)? Wo ershi liu sui he wo cong California lai (I’m 26 years old and I’m from California). Ni cong nali lai (where are you from)?”
I’m sad to say that my extracurricular activities currently, in no way, add value to what I do for a living as a social media consultant and writer. I’m paid for my skills with English, not Mandarin.
But here’s to hoping I can conveniently bust out my new language skills on the improbable occasion I am approached by someone who only speaks Chinese, therein impressing all those around me who can’t understand a lick of what we’re saying.
Bask in my Chinese-speaking glory! Bwahahahaha!
Nimen hen ben he bu dong (you’re all so stupid and don’t understand)! Hohohohoho!
… Too much?
Besides, the reality of that situation ever happening is far from likely, but I can dream, can’t I?
Other instances where Mandarin might prove useful:
- Chinese tourists might arrive in San Francisco and approach me because I look like I might speak Chinese, then ask me for directions! … In which case, I’ll be unable to guide them, because although I know how to say words like “left”, “right”, “toward”, “north”, “south”, etc — I still have no idea how to use them in a sentence (yet). But I can try! Uh, “Ni qu xiang tushuguan, he zuo,” — I’m pretty sure that means “Head towards the library, and left,” but I can’t be too sure.
- I might run into my upstairs neighbors who speak nothing but Mandarin and finally be able to have a conversation with them! Though I’m not sure they’ll react too well to basic questions like “Ni duo da (how old are you)?” And, “Ni de shengri shi ji yue ji hao (when is your birthday)?” Those people have got to be at least 70 years old. Is asking for someone’s age in Mandarin rude? I guess we’ll find out. Maybe I can ask them what they like to eat? “Nimen xihuan chi shiwu?” That’s sure to go over well. Hopefully they say something simple like chicken, beef, pork, or seafood, because that’s currently all I’ve managed to learn.
- Like a court jester, perhaps I’ll manage to amuse good-humored waitresses and waiters in legitimate Chinese restaurants unlike the previously mentioned instance where the waitress totally shot me down? I’ve been to enough authentic Chinese dining places in San Francisco to know my Mandarin might come in handy then! “Qing, wo yao chi kaorou zhu cai he shala!” That means something like, “I want to eat the roast meat entree and salad, please!”
- I’ll finally be able to go back and watch all of my favorite Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies and understand what’s being said without having to read the subtitles! Drunken Master and Chinese Connection, here we come!
Seriously, though. It’s been pretty useless so far.
After I master Mandarin (I still have to go back and learn the Chinese characters for all of the words and pinyin I’ve absorbed), I’m moving onto French, then Portuguese, Japanese, German, and Italian. That’ll be eight languages total — on par with Nikola Tesla, one of the most badass geniuses in history.
I have nothing better to do.
And at the rate I’ve been learning Mandarin (no joke, I’ve kind of shocked myself with how quickly I’ve picked this stuff up), the rest of these languages should be a cake walk!
Or that’s what I hope, anyway.
Polyglot-ness, here I come.