Tip #1: Before your trip, learn Chinese.
Just kidding. Unless you’re a superb linguist with an affinity for exotic languages, you don’t stand a chance. You’ll be lucky if you master the pronunciation of a few basic phrases such as nee hao – hello; zow sha how – good morning, and pee jaw – beer. And even then, you probably won’t get the intonation right and the locals will either laugh out loud or stare at you blankly. The famous example has to do with the various meanings of the word ma, which can mean – according to the tone – mother, horse, insult, and possibly a few other meanings.
As we were strolling the paths of the Panda Sanctuary, Pete and I happened to muse aloud how long it would take a foreigner like us to learn basic Chinese; enough to get along on a daily basis. A young French chap nearby who overheard us smiled and said knowingly, based on his own personal experience, “Two years.”
|Panda Sanctuary, Chengdu. No connection with reading and writing Chinese.|
But even more than the spoken language, it’s the written language that mystifies me. As we drove by a Sheraton hotel in the center of Beijing, I looked at its name in Chinese characters:
How is it, I wondered, that three simple syllables in English – shé, rah, ton -- each in itself without any meaning -- get transformed into a row of nine complex drawings?
Or consider my own name, consisting of two super-simple syllables: ni – na. On our visit to the lovely park of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, we were given a fascinating talk and demonstration of the development of Chinese script by a charming artist and teacher, whose name I’m sorry to say I didn’t write down. He then kindly wrote our names for us, with brush and ink, on rice paper. My name, if you please, is:
Just imagine if I managed to adopt this as my signature! I think my checks would be safe from attempted forgery.
But seriously: With a good teacher, you can definitely learn to identify a few helpful words. Such as the signs for Gents and Ladies that appear on toilets. In the big cities the relevant doors have a standard drawing of a male and female figure, and/or carry the English words Male and Female. But out in the country they often only carry the Chinese characters. Hint: the Ladies toilets is on the right. Why? Because the woman is always right, quoth our guide :-)
|At the Big Wild Goose Pagoda visitors' center; the artist at work|
|At the Big Wild Goose Pagoda visitors' center; the sign for "woman"|