Among Pandas: Mind My Language

Filed in Travels

It had started at Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport. I was at the information counter, asking about taxis to the hotel I had reservations for. I could see the woman’s mouth moving, I knew she was replying in English, but the sounds coming out of her mouth did not sound English at all. We finally managed to understand each other, and I was soon on my way to the hotel.

It soon became clear that neither the hotel’s reception staff nor the woman at the travel agency next door knew much English, or any English at all. It got me rather irritated. They were after all employed in an industry where many of the customers were foreigners and English would be a required means of communication.

How was I going to get through my holiday in China? How was I going to make all these different people understand me?

It eventually dawned on me to try my very rusty Mandarin and thus, I started to make myself understood, first by the hotel’s reception staff and then by everyone else I spoke with during my 10 days in China. Knowing that I could speak their language, many of them warmed to me, and even complimented me on my fluent Mandarin. I’ll be the first to admit my Mandarin is far from fluent, but apparently it was fluent enough for me to be asked to help bridge the language gap between some of the keepers and their volunteers while in Wolong!

Many of them also expressed surprise that I knew Mandarin; they knew I was from Malaysia, but didn’t know there were Chinese in Malaysia. I’ve lost count of the number of times I told my family’s history during my holiday – how my grandfather had gone from China to then Malaya for business and settled in the new country and had a family; how my father was born in Malaya; and how I, too, was born in Malaysia (post Merdeka 1957 baby).

I have my parents to thank for my knowledge of Mandarin. We are by no means a traditional Chinese family, but my parents did insist that we learned how to speak, read and write Chinese. Their firstborn, my sister, was sent to a Chinese school. The next two – my brother and I – were not; we were educated in English, but with Chinese tuition thrown in after regular school hours. This meant, if we were in the morning session, we would go for classes in the afternoon, and vice versa.

The tuition classes were held in the building of a Chinese association somewhere near Petaling Street in town, and featured five levels of Chinese studies – standards 1 to 5, with abacus training added in standard 4 and even a graduation ceremony when one completes standard 5. My brother did, but I didn’t. I started playing truant in standard 4, mainly because I was in the afternoon session and classes for the Chinese standards 4 and 5 were held at something like 7:30 a.m., due to lack of classrooms in the Chinese association building.

There was a reason why my brother and I, and also some of our cousins, attended Chinese tuition at this particular Chinese association building – mother’s godmother was a teacher there. She taught Standard 2, and her classes featured endless copying of Chinese sayings from the blackboard. After all these years, I can’t remember any of the sayings I copied, except that I copied pages and pages.

So I never graduated from Chinese tuition, but I did know enough to use the English-Chinese and Chinese-English dictionaries I brought along to England many years later. Since my parents knew very little English, it fell on me to write Chinese letters home. Every letter home was a double event – first, the draft, with lots of references to the English-Chinese dictionary, followed by a clean copy to send home. And each time a letter arrived from home, out would come the Chinese-English dictionary to decipher some of the more difficult characters in mother’s letters. Yes, she was the one who wrote the letters from home.

Sometimes, when I couldn’t find the right Chinese character to use, I would write the one that sounded the closest and enclose it in brackets. Soon, mother’s letters from home would include corrections of my bracketed “sounds like” Chinese characters. She said it was one way to improve my Chinese.

After moving to the States, my letters home became less. In the States, phone calls were cheap and eventually replaced my weekly letters home.

When I came home for holiday one Christmas, I saw that mother had filed all my letters in a plastic 2-ring binder. As for their letters, while I still had them, they were not neatly filed, but still in their original envelopes in a British Post Office box that I still have till this day, altho not the exact location in my apartment. Go figure.

As it turned out, many, many years later, my parents’ insistence that we knew how to speak, read and write Chinese came to my help in my recent travels to the mother country.