learning to say “ma ma”

On Friday night, after my return from the doctor, we had our first Chinese lesson finally. In an attempt to learn from previous experience, we’d been nagging HR here to get us started as soon as we arrived or even back before we left Eindhoven. No dice, mostly because we’re working with a whole new set of HR people. I guess you only get to learn from experience with people who have been along for it.

Since Ted was meeting me at home and we’d never been there before, we decided to take a taxi instead of driving. Now at least next time we’ll know what the place looks like and where to park. The facility is up in Tienmu, a neighborhood known for being home to lots of expats. (We chose not to live there because it owuld take much longer to get to rowing and to work.) It’s not nearly as nice as the one where we had our Dutch lessons; that one was cheerful and clean, with rooms about like small office conference rooms. This one was a rat warren of tiny rooms with a level of decor and dirt best described as Early Bus Station. Also, at least on of our two Dutch teachers had some training in linguistics; the woman we had Friday was definitely a competent teacher, but I don’t think she’s going to be able to answer some of my questions. She may not be our regular teacher though; that wasn’t entirely clear.

We didn’t really get to learn many new words Friday; instead we worked on some necessary basics, spending most of the time practicing repeating syllables with the different tones. There are four tones in Mandarin, and you probably already know that a different tone can change the meaning of a word. In one famous example, “Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma”, when pronounced with the correct tones, can mean “Does my mother yell at horses, or do horses yell at my mother?”. Could be worse; apparently Cantonese has eight tones. However, tones are not a completely foreign concept to English-speakers; just today I was reading an essay by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that contained the following joke (fortunately I was able to find the essay online so I didn’t have to retype the whole thing:

One fine day, or so the legend proclaims, Joseph Stalin received a telegram from his exiled archrival, Leon Trotsky. Overjoyed by the apparent content, Stalin rounded up the citizenry of Moscow for an impromptu rally in Red Square. He then addressed the crowd below: “I have received the following message of contrition from Comrade Trotsky, who has obviously been using his Mexican retreat for beneficial reflection: `Comrade Stalin: You are right! I was wrong! You are the leader of the Russian people!'”

But as waves of involuntary applause rolled through the square, a Jewish tailor in the front row–Trotsky’s old school chum from yeshiva days–bravely mounted the platform, tapped Stalin on the shoulder, and took the microphone to address the crowd. “Excuse me, Comrade Stalin,” he said. “The words, you got them right; but the meaning, I’m not so sure.” Then the tailor read the telegram again, this time with the intended intonation of disgust and the rising inflection of inquiry: `”Comrade Stalin: You are right?? I was wrong?? You are the leader of the Russian people??'”

We’ll clearly need more practice; we can both repeat tones correctly, but I don’t think either of us can recognize them in conversation yet. The whole repeating thing would have been easier if I could talk much at that point without going off into a coughing fit. (The medicines have definitely helped with that, though I think Ted will agree that they’re making me a bit groggy and irritable.) After a while I realized I was just singing tones back to the teacher – it’s not hard to learn a song in a language you don’t understand – so I tried to pay more attention to reading them off the page. We’re working with a system called pinyin that is used to write Chinese words in the Roman alphabet, but for some stupid reason it doesn’t use all the letters as they’d be used in English or in any other language I know of – ‘x’ is used for a ‘ch’ sound, for example. It seems like it would have been a lot easier to just use the International Phonetic Alphabet!

We highjacked the lesson for the last half hour and got her to help us with some basics: we had her write the characters for some basic menu items like beef, chicken, shrimp, soup, and spicy, and had her teach us some taxi terms like “turn left”, turn right” and “stop here”. (Using the numbers to indicate tones, those are zuo3 zhuan3, yo4 zhuan3, zhe4li3 ting2, respectively.)

Afterward, we had dinner at the upscale department store down the street. The food was restaurant-level, a bit better than the usual food courts, and we had Thai food. Since lessons run 7-9 PM and we’ll be going right after work, we’ll probably get to try out all of the options. There’s also a branch there of Jason’s Marketplace, the same international-foods supermarket that’s in Taipei 101, and this one seems to have an even better selectino, so we’ll definitely be making regular stops for foods we miss.

On the way home, we had a Burmese taxi driver who spoke English, though we haven’t decided if that was a good thing. He told us about all his brothers and sisters who are doctors and engineers in the US, about his religion (1/2 Catholic, 1/2 Christian, 1/2 Taoist – we didn’t ask about his math, let alone his theology), and about US politics. He had two large dogs in the front seat with him, which is more wildlife in a taxi than we’ve seen since the driver with the bird. Oh, and he told us several times about how handsome Ted is, how beautiful I am, but that Ted is too skinny and I need to feed him more. With chicken soup, because that’s the best medicine for everything. And he told us that there’s a local saying that a woman who hasn’t had children is like a new car. I will very carefully not be asking if that’s really a saying here.

At least his driving was less erratic than his conversation!

Next entry: Danshui: a visit to Tamsui fort and Lover’s Bridge

4 Responses to “learning to say “ma ma””

  1. marsha Says:

    Good luck with your lessons.

  2. Jane Says:

    Are tones counted from the top going down or the reverse? (1 highest or lowest?)

  3. paula Says:

    Jane, it’s not quite like that. As in singing, each word can have more
    than one note to it – the closest thing I’ve encountered before is
    Torah cantillation. Here’s a pretty good article explaining it, with
    audio links.

  4. Jane Says:

    Thanks for the link – most edifying!

Leave a Reply