Maria Holland

Odds of Me Ever Understanding Tones = 100,000,000:1

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2010 at 1:24 am

Another major milestone in the study abroad experience finally happened today.  That’s right, after nearly 8 months in country, I am officially sick of all my clothing.  As I stood there this morning, staring at my closet (not to give you the impression that this task takes a lot of time; it doesn’t), I briefly considered going naked.  At least it sounded more exciting than wearing any of my tired shirts again!  On the bright side, when explaining my feelings to XuLei I said 我的衣服都穿腻了 (“I’m sick of wearing all my clothes”), successfully using a grammar structure that I had previously only heard referring to food.  On another bright side, I’m going to the tailor tomorrow and a night market next week :)

Today, the 7th day after 青海玉树地震 (the earthquake in YuShu, QingHai), was a 全国哀悼日 (national day of mourning).  The Chinese seem to take this very seriously – in addition to a moment of silence and all flags 降半旗 (at half-staff), there was basically no public entertainment in the entire country – no music downloads, no QQ games, no karaoke, no dancing.  Some Chinese websites went gray; others shut down.  I kind of like how they do this, making it nearly impossible to go through the day without pausing a few times to think of the victims, survivors, and rescue workers. 

After an explanation about the day of mourning (in which I learned a lot of new words, as seen above), our teacher told us that they recently held a benefit for the victims and raised “er shi yi kuai qian”.  I immediately translated those sounds into the characters 二十块钱, did the calculations in my head (21 kuai = $3), and immediately wondered how on earth a country of 1.3 billion people could raise less money than the price of a good cup of coffee over here.  Seconds pass . . . and I realize that she had probably said 二十亿块钱.  Since this 亿 equals 100 million instead of 1 like the other 一, it kind of makes a difference – specifically, by seven orders of magnitude – which means that they raised $30 million.

Maybe I should be embarrassed about this failure of my listening ability, but I’m going to blame it on the ridiculous Chinese language instead.  Seriously?!?  I’ve accepted the fact that 4 (sì) and 10 (shí) sound identical – except for the tone – when said by a southerner, and have even stopped getting really excited when they tell me things that I know should be 10 kuai are only 4 kuai.  But this ridiculous business about the numbers ONE (yī) and ONE HUNDRED MILLION (yì) sounding basically the same is just a little bit too much for me.  Retelling this story later to XuLei, I explained how we English speakers, when verbally relaying important numbers, sometimes use “niner” to distinguish it unequivocally from the number “five”, even though they have only a vowel sound in common.  She understood, but continued to maintain that the tone difference is so clear to Chinese speakers that further clarification is unnecessary.  Fair enough – in normal situations at least, but I still imagine disasters of great magnitude when the communication takes place over a static-y phone line or shouting in a crowd. 

You know, for all the times I’ve complained about tones (and there have been many), most of it has been comments on theoretical misunderstandings that could take place if someone willfully misconstrued your meaning and gave you the dysentery (lìji) you ordered instead of the tenderloin (lǐji) that common sense dictates you most likely meant to order.  Are these miscommunications possible?  Yes.  Are they likely?  No – thank God!  There are only two cases where I’ve experienced chronic difficulty with near homonyms.  One of them is the aforementioned yī/yì crisis with the numbers, and the other concerns the languages of Chinese (hànyǔ) and Korean (hányǔ).  Speaking about or comparing the two languages is about as close to hell as I’ve come in my language studies, a comedy of errors requiring constant clarification (韩国的韩语还是中国的汉语?  Korean hanyu or Chinese hanyu?). 

I’m getting a headache just writing about it, so now let’s move on to another interesting (and much less frustrating) aspect of numbers in Chinese.  Arabic numerals are used in many instances, but Chinese also has a few numeral sets of its own.  There’s the simple one that normal people can actually learn (一二三四五六七八九十), but there’s also a tamper-resistant set for important financial documents (壹贰叁肆伍陆柒捌玖拾), a ‘Suzhou style’ for bookkeeping (〡〢〣〤〥〦〧〨〩十) and a few other random numerals thrown in to make language-learners cry. 

There were two other things that I found out today in class:

  1. No one (including the teacher) is actually sure when finals are.  The schedule we were given at registration says the third week of July, but the teacher thinks it ‘might’ be the first week of July.  I guess I’m not going to be buying my ticket home any time soon . . . might be back sooner than originally thought!  While it would be kind of exciting to go home sooner, I literally cannot comprehend how this university functions.  It’s midterms, and we still don’t know when the semester is ending?!? 
  2. The characters 王 and 壬 are different.  I did not previously know this . . . It does explain why 往 is pronounced ‘wang’ and 任 is pronounced ‘ren’, though.  When am I going to stop having these thoroughly unpleasant surprises??

We had lunch out by the lake after class, enjoying takeout from the cafeteria and the scenery of the most beautiful spot on campus. 


It looks like a photo shoot for XiaDa publicity materials, doesn’t it?

My afternoon class was canceled, so I allowed myself a little more time than I should have to watch Big Bang Theory.  In my defense, I watched it with Chinese subtitles (a luxury I will sorely miss when/if I return to buying DVDs in the States).  I felt totally vindicated for indulging myself because I learned several words/phrases from reading along in Chinese while I listened in English:

  • 漫画 (mànhuà) – Manga!  It actually means comics or caricatures; the word ‘manga’ comes from Japanese, which uses the same characters but pronounces them slightly differently.
  • 你有一手 (nǐ yǒu yìshǒu) – Their translation for “Well played”, it literally means “You have skill/moves”. 
  • 能力越大,责任越大 (nénglì yuè dà, zérèn yuè dà) – “With great power comes great responsibility”, a phrase that happens to use one of my favorite grammatical structures.  (Yes, I have favorite grammatical structures.  What of it?)

In the evening, I enjoyed a second picnic by the lake.  I had delicious fried noodles with chicken, a pure mango smoothie, and tang yuan (which apparently you can get to-go!).  We sat on the small island, giving us a perfect vantage point from with to watch the sun go down and the stars (!!!!!) come out.


Across the lake, I could see the flag in front of the tall building at half-staff in observance of the national day of mourning.


Looking the other way, back towards the part of campus where I live, the lights of the buildings beautifully reflected off the still water.


We tried to go dancing but, as I mentioned before, there’s no dancing today.  But between a few hours of lounging by the lake and a leisurely walk back to the dorm, chatting all the while, it was a great evening anyway.

  1. Yes, your lunch picnic picture would make a great recruiting tool. Beautiful! Good thing you’re getting tired of your clothes. It’ll be easy to leave them behind and stuff your suitcases with new goodies!

  2. love your grammatical structures AND the beautiful photos!!

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