Sunday, June 1, 2008

Meiyou Pretzels

Chinese class has started up again in the past few weeks. It's harder than last time, mostly because I bring Ainsley with me and hold her throughout. The other students are all moms, so sometimes they hold her while I scribble notes.

I know lots of words and phrases now, but my pronunciation is apparently terrible. The other day, for example, I told Aidan's teacher I was going to Chinese class (hanyu ke). She looked at me, puzzled, and I repeated myself. Then I said it in English: "ummm.... Chinese class? Hanyu ke?" Her eyes lit up. "Oh, hanyu KE," she repeated. Apparently my tones were just enough off that she thought I was saying something entirely different. Kind of depressing, to attend class for months, only to realize you can't even be understood when you say "Chinese class."

When my mom was visiting, I got to practice my speaking more than usual. I believe she was blown away by my skills. We’d be at a restaurant together, and I’d order in Chinese. So then she’d say something like “ask them if they can roast the vegetables, not fry them. And what kind of dressing do they serve? Also, do you think they could tell you how they prepare this dish?” I’d stare at her, dumbfounded, and reply “you do realize I used every single Chinese word I know just to order, don’t you?”

It is, however, kind of cool to hear my kids speaking Chinese. Shay has Chinese class every day at school, and until recently, he’s been unwilling or unable to share what he knows. But lately, he’s started showing off the phrases he’s been learning and I’m actually impressed with his vocabulary. Aidan seems to understand quite a bit, but his trick is to use made up words in Chinese. He’ll say something to me, and I don’t know, it SOUNDS totally Chinese-y, but when I ask him what he said, he just laughs and shrugs his shoulders.

Kyra is the real expert in the family. She mixes Chinese and English, and knows quite a bit of both, considering she’s not quite two years old. She has multi-word sentences down in English (“Daddy, give me piece of gummy now,” or “I want more apple juice”). In Chinese, she says things like “mommy hui lai le” (mommy came home). My favorite phrase: “I love YOU!!!,” spoken emphatically while she’s pointing at whomever she happens to love. This morning she was eating pretzels (and no, this wasn’t for breakfast – I haven’t stooped that low yet). She ran out of pretzels, looked into the bowl and sadly said “Meiyou pretzels.” Meiyou is Chinese for “I don’t have any.” For some reason, that cracked us all up.

I imagine by the time we leave here, her Chinese will be the best of everyone’s. I’ll still be struggling to be understood, as the tones are just absolute craziness. (a few small examples: “shu” spoken one way means “book,” while another way it means “plant.” “Tang” can mean sugar, soup, hot, lying down… and those are just the meanings I know. “Ke” means “class,” so Chinese class is “hanyu ke.” But ke also means “grams.” See what I mean? How can I possibly be understood?)

Still, every so often, I have an exchange that makes me think I’m getting somewhere. Then I get cocky and try to take the conversation just one step further. I never get far. But I’m still trying.

Okay, well, I hear Ainsley crying, so I guess you could say that I “meiyou” any more time.

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