I think it’s just about time for me to be taking another Chinese class; my Chinese has started to deteriorate noticeably but I think it’s nothing that a little concentrated study can’t stop and even reverse. The first thing to go was definitely my handwriting. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the characters I’ve retained and the ones for which I couldn’t even put a single stroke down on paper.
The next thing to go was the tones. They were always the thing I had the most tenuous grip on. They are also not important in singing, which – let’s be real here – is 75% of the Chinese I emit these days. And, bad tones lead to the best stories.
For instance, in one of the classes where we were discussing reasons for homelessness, the teaching listed one reason as “dubo”, and I did a double take. It sounded like she was saying 读博, which means to study for a Ph.D.! I know it’s not exactly lucrative, but I’m far from homeless, guys! After I asked, she wrote the characters on the board – 赌博, ‘to gamble’. Turns out there’s a huge difference between dúbó and dǔbó. If I haven’t been paying attention to my tones (hint: I haven’t), I may or may not have been telling people that I’m a gambler when they ask what I do. (Worse, when I was in college and they asked what I wanted to do after, I told them I wanted to be a gambler!) Interestingly, though, everyone was always impressed . . .
The next class period, the teacher asked what classes I was taking. At the time I was only in one other class, an introduction to MPI for parallel computing, offered through the computer science department. I used a new word she had taught me the week before (程式, ‘code’) and told her my only class was 程式设计. She looked extremely confused. “What does that have to do with your major?” she asked. I started to explain about how I do my simluations on computers and eventually her eyes widened. “I thought you were taking an urban planning class!” Understandable. The sounds “chengshi”, especially with the tones “chéngshì”, usually mean “city”. I figured she would remember teaching me this word a few days ago, but they’re the EXACT SAME TONES.
When people ask me about tones, I usually tell them they’re not a big deal. Yes, I’ve had difficulties, but only with people who refuse to understand me on principle. The more interesting cases are those times when your tones are perfect and the meaning still gets messed up. My classic example before this was the time I almost ended up eating a cigarette lighter for Thanksgiving dinner, but now I have some new stories to tell!