Practice, Liànxí, Renshuu
So, next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, what kind of things can you ask?
你们放味精吗？[Do you use MSG?]
你有没有饺子？[Do you have dumplings?]
The teacher laughingly criticizes that last one: “Of course all the food is 好吃.” We laugh with her and don’t mention the fact that out of the twenty-odd students in the class, probably none of us will actually speak Mandarin in a restaurant to someone who works there. Someone who actually knows how to speak Mandarin — or worse, in my opinion, anyway, someone who doesn’t.
I’m the kind of person who likes to speak a language I’m learning whenever I can, just to make it stick. That desire conflicts with the general awkwardness of speaking a language I’m not that familiar with, and the specific awkwardness of the other person simply not expecting or even preferring not to speak in that language. (Especially when I probably wouldn’t even be able to understand if they said “We only put in MSG when our customers ask us”, despite knowing how to say such a sentence myself.)
My #1 issue is that by speaking in Mandarin (or Japanese) to someone, I’m making an assumption about them. In effect I’m stereotyping them. The person I’m speaking to may not even be of that nationality (I’m notoriously bad at this)…or they may be second- or later generation…or they may not speak the language for some other reason. On the other hand they may be one of these and still be able to speak the language, at least at my very basic level. It all comes down to the fact that, especially with a bad accent, there’s a very significant chance that if I say “请来一个四十号” (please bring me one #40), I’m just going to get a stare. Especially since I’m not even sure if that’s the proper way to say that.
One of my favorite southside places to eat is Viet Nam Village, which is, of course, run by Cantonese people. I would not be surprised if they understood Mandarin, or even Vietnamese, yet I would not feel comfortable speaking to them in Mandarin. The #2 issue, by the way, is just the very high chance that I’ll screw up and look like an idiot. At least a native Mandarin speaker would be able to withdraw (“Oh, no Mandarin? Sorry…”) with minimal embarassment. Probably.
The title of this post is “Practice, Practice, Practice”, but so often the chance to practice outside of class is precluded by cultural boundaries — boundaries which I think are respectful because they proscribe making assumptions about people. Even so, it’s a good thing to take the chance to use a language outside of the classroom, with friends or whoever else. I’m just not sure it’s appropriate to use it with people you’ve never met as a way to practice…unless of course they don’t speak English. In this part of California, at least, “speaking English” is a reasonable assumption to make about someone who takes orders in a restaurant.
Thanks to my desire to practice outside of class, however, my interjections and some of my out-loud musings are now in Japanese and Mandarin. (If you ever see a Caucasian guy on campus mutter “kuso” under his breath, it’s probably me.) And I like it that way…eventually, you get to the point where you do understand why some concepts are basically untranslatable.
I’m going to close with another anecdote. Over winter break I was at a friend’s house, and his mom asked if we wanted to try some of the food she was making. I accepted the bowl, took a bite, and with eager pride, declared “很好看!”
She looked at me, puzzled for a second, then said “Ah! 很好吃!” Embarassed, I nodded and started laughing. After all, what else can you do when instead of saying “tasty”, you just said the food looks good?