177. Speaking Chinese

Earlier today, I went and got a haircut at a new saloon. The hairdresser assigned to me apparently knew very little English, and so I thought that it was as good an occasion as any to flex my Chinese language muscles.

You know those pale, skinny guys who look hilariously pathetic at muscle shows?

I stumbled, struggled, and mumbled through the ordeal, and at one point just gave up on trying to explain to the hairdresser what a major in management and finance meant. I told him, “It has something to do with money”, and he seemed to be happy with that.

He also pulled no punches in saying that my Cantonese was terrible.

I bring dishonor unto my family.

My Chinese-speaking days are definitely far behind me. I came to this painful realization one day when in college, in response to a friend who was surprised that I understood her when she spoke in Mandarin, I attempted to say a few lines of Mandarin myself, just to blow her mind a little further. It did, but then she added:

“You sound like a white man who learned Chinese.”

That hurt me deeply, but I suppose it’s true anyhow.

(I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Tan)

I had a friend who said that Westerners and Asians have different tones, and it apparently has more to do with nature than it does with nurture. The theory goes that no matter what language one grew up speaking, most Asians have a voice for lighter, gentler notes; while Westerners typically have a “thicker” tone to their voice, which is very useful when it comes to doing vocal runs.

(she has a degree in music, so I guess she knows what she’s talking about)

Though I am a very Asian man, I have been told for many years that I have a very “thick” voice, or “muddy”, as another friend had once called it. The result is a very distinctive tone of voice that sounds weird no matter what language I speak.

When I speak Mandarin, I sound like a white man who learned the language. When I speak English, I sound like a Chinese man who learned the language. I’m doomed to this purgatory of accents where my voice is neither here nor there. It’s somewhere in between.

(let’s call this place between here and there as “bwhere”, a portmanteau of “between where(s)”)

You see why I chose to write.

(on the internet, no one knows that you sound strange)

It’s an embarrassment, of course, for someone who spent 9 years studying the language, and a couple more of speaking it. When I hit Form 3 in secondary school and the syllabus began asking us to decipher ancient Chinese text (that’s like interpreting the untranslated Shakespearean text, for a Western equivalent), I decided that I’ve suffered and learned enough, and that my basic mastery of the language should be sufficient to bring me through life.

But language, like cheese, doesn’t react kindly to being left alone.

I suspect it’ll be a while before I dare to bring my moldy Chinese out for some proper polishing.

As I left the saloon earlier, I was so embarrassed by what the hairdresser had to go through, I bought some bottles of shampoo that he had recommended to me earlier on.

(because the only thing worse than my Cantonese was my dandruff)

It wasn’t as though I’d know how to politely say “no” in Chinese anyway.


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