I’d seen the slender paperbacks: “Chinese at a Glance,” “Instant Chinese” and “Mandarin for Halfwits.” Going by these titles, you might assume that learning Chinese isn’t all that different from learning, say, Spanish.
But I knew better, even before my recent trip to Taiwan. That’s because my husband is from Hong Kong, and I’d gathered from stumbling around the edges of his family’s conversations that tonal subtleties make spoken Chinese impenetrable. Not to native speakers, of course. They can distinguish between yu meaning “feather” and yu meaning “fish.”
To my ear, the difference is at most a quarter-tone—though undoubtedly more on the pentatonic scale. I figure that everybody in China evolved perfect pitch through centuries of natural selection. After all, not hearing the difference between a sheet of lumber and a shrimp dumpling would diminish a man’s odds of passing his genes on to the next generation.
It turns out, though, that a Hong Kong native isn’t as comfortable in Taiwan as you might think. My husband speaks Cantonese, which looks just like Mandarin but sounds as distinct as French from Italian. So incomprehensible is Mandarin to Cantonese speakers that when Chinese soap operas air in San Francisco or Seattle they come with Chinese subtitles. I personally wish British films came with subtitles, too—English ones—but strictly speaking I don’t need them.
My husband does read the language. And I got it into my head that maybe I could learn to read it, too. I quickly picked up a half-dozen words whose characters are based on how objects look: Person (an armless, walking stick figure). One (a single horizontal stroke). And mouth (a square representing a pair of lips in the midst of a tense yawn).
In my first of couple days in Taipei I saw enough such simple characters to believe I could unravel the mysteries of the written language. During a particularly deluded moment, I pictured myself taking up brush calligraphy, producing bold, poster-size renderings of beautiful words like Tree, Woman, perhaps even Bus Stop. I spotted easy-to-recognize characters everywhere and started piecing together meaningful phrases:
“Oh, look!” I said on Day 4, pointing to a sign above a store window. “It says, ‘Big Person Something Something’!”
“Not exactly,” my husband corrected me. “That says, ‘Adult Toys.’ ”
The sad truth revealed itself: The simple logic of written Chinese was illusory. True, Chinese writing started as a pictographic system but it seems a time came when people wished to express concepts more complicated than “person” and “mouth.” So the writing system grew ever more complex to convey increasingly sophisticated ideas, such as “tofu.” Luck, wealth and longevity were too abstract to express in a few brushstrokes. The character for electricity, which looks like a circuit diagram with an elephant trunk sticking out of it, consists of a wrist-numbing 13 strokes.
Unfortunately, I have neither the wealth nor the longevity to spend 10 years acquiring the literacy of a second-grader. So I fell back on the tourist’s standby—charades. Each time I wanted a glass of water in a restaurant, for example, I’d pantomime knocking back three shots of vodka. I still couldn’t decipher a Chinese menu, but my gesture was understood by almost everyone. Except, alas, the room-service operator.
COPYRIGHT 2006 © Marina Krakovsky. All Rights Reserved.
This article written by Marina Krakovsky appeared in the July 3, 2006 issue of the Washington Post.