Saturday, January 12, 2008

Call Me Zhim

Some people have been asking me how to pronounce some of the places that I've been, which made me think it might be fun to talk a little about the language here. Chinese has a bunch of letters pronounced differently than our own. X is "sh"; q is "ch." (You take in on the qin here, not on the chin.) z is "ds" and c is "ts" as in "pits", and zh is "j". When followed by another vowel i usually becomes "y" and u often takes on the sound of "w". Oh, and "e" is often "ur". And there's a lot of other changes, too. (One of my favorite: the letters is sh keep the sound "sh" but with the tongue rolled back in the mouth. So it takes on this sort of surfer dude quality. Yes in Chinese is shir. But it's like "shrrr." As in, Shrrr, dude, those waves are tigghtt! Suffice it to say, I love trying to say yes.)

Chinese's sentence structure is very much like our own -- subject verb object. And they don't have plural tenses, so no version of -s at the end of a word. They don't have changes in the verb tense, either -- so the same word is used to indicate the present, the past, the future, and for one person or many.

Given this, you'd think there'd be a lot less to memorize to be able to put a sentence together.

Yeah, you'd think. Except every time I go to a restaurant and try to order tea in Chinese, which takes just three syllables -- wo yao cha -- they either 1) begin giggling or 2) look at me with a total lack of comprehension. The girls generally giggle, while the boys do deer in the headlights. (I say boys/girls, by the way, because so far as I can tell, pretty much everyone waiting tables in the restaurants is just a kid, 15, 16, 17 years old.)

So, given these reactions -- and the fact that I get tea only about half the time -- I'm thinking the language is a bit more challenging than it seems at first glance.

The challenge -- at least the immediate one - is tones. In an English sentence, we might put an accent on certain words for emphasis. An example: Like, OH MY GOD, I am like TOTALLY going to the show tonight. A more realistic example (if you're not from the valley): WHERE is my WALLET?

Chinese does not work this way. Or, it works this way, but with every word. With few exceptions, every word has one of four different tones. There's a high flat tone, there's an ascending tone (like at the end of a question), there's a descending/ascending tone -- which I take to be sort of like we normally speak, but I'm probably wrong -- and there's a quick sharp downward tone. And the tone works with the word itself to determine the meeting. That is to say, the word "ma" has four different meanings; which one you mean depends on the tone you use. A high flat ma means mom (funny coincidence, isn't it, that their word for mother would be the same as ours? Maybe it's not a coincidence, I don't know.); the ascending 'ma' means hemp; the descending/ascending means horse; and the sharp downward means to scold.

So, it's almost as though to be a good Chinese speaker, you've got to be a good singer or musician. You have to hear things that we're not used to hearing. I am constantly reciting to myself those four basic tones, as I try to figure out how to say different words. Ma ma ma ma. Ma ma ma ma. I'm sure they think I'm crazy. I wouldn't really care, if I got my tea!

It's actually pretty challenging to go to restaurants now that I'm on my own and pretty lame at the language. I have to really take a leap every time I do it. But the end results are pretty much always good. Even when people get frustrated with me saying whatever it is I'm saying over and over again, they are patient and in good humor. And I get fed.

In some ways it's a lot like the pilgrimage they ask us to do when we first enter the Society. 30 days, $30, one way bus ticket to anywhere in the country, put yourself in God's hands. The results are very much the same -- a deep appreciation for the goodness of people and an awareness that God will take care of you.

So I just try to keep leaping.