Chalkface: Tang-tied in China

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“I’m not a ploduckachee!”

“Plo-ducka-chee”  No, it’s pronounced “product.”

“Ploduckachee” Let’s try again shall we?

Pro “Plo” du “dah” ct “kachee”

I think that’s probably enough for the moment, don’t you Uncle Tommy?

(Actual conversation, March 2018)

There are a lot of really good English speakers in China. They’re often the ones who have started learning English at a young age, and despite the rote-style learning of school English lessons and dry-as-dust textbooks. They’ve beaten the odds of achieving fluency by overcoming such challenges. At some point, a good number of students would have enrolled in extra-curricular English classes, gone on to study English at university and retained much of the extensive vocabulary delivered to them during this time. There are also those that, despite limited academic opportunities, managed to gain fluency by chatting with any foreigner they could get their hands on.

Some youngsters from poor families became fluent English speakers while working in Western restaurants.

There are also a lot of people who can’t or aren’t willing to speak English in China. Reasons of shyness and patriotism are two examples. That’s okay. We don’t need to import cultural hegemonism here and demand that everyone speak English. That said, it can be fascinating to hear the English words emitted from their mouths:

“Bah-nah-xia”  What was that?  Oh – banana!  Great.

“Bu-la-la”

yellow banana fruit

This writer has butchered many a Chinese word over the past 18 years. People have generally been polite and smiled in a confused sort of a way. They nodded despite not having a clue about what had just been said.  Many of my students rolled about laughing whenever I translated my own classroom instructions. How about that for pronunciational motivation? Ask them to raise their hands and (mistakenly) say “pig feet, pig feet!”  Mispronounce traffic jam and get foot ache, ask them to wait but instead mumble something about murder – goodness! Talk about loss of face.

A few of the older folk can speak Russian, or bits of it. That was their foreign language of choice during 1950s China. They’re the hardest students to teach. You really can’t teach old (do we have to use the word dogs here?) “codgers” new linguistic tricks. My mother in law (64 at the time of this blog) can count to ten. So can her husband:

“wan-ah, too-ah, fee-ah, fo-ah, figh-ah, sick, say when, eh-ah, line-ah, tin!”

It starts slow and speeds up at number six and reaches an epic speed by ten. It’s as if by slowing down they’ll stop and forget everything. Like riding a bicycle, they’re going to fall over if they peddle too slowly. The in-laws speak Cantonese well and can use mobile phones with impressive ability. They’re handy with the wok and very efficient in their tasks. Both are punctual and never late. Most of their generation are the same. But as English students…..

The younger students have trouble with certain English sounds including the th digraph (a fancy way of saying consonant cluster – the t and h phonemes). You can repeat both the voiceless- (this, that, those) and the voiced- (three, throw) fricatives (more linguistic jargon) and end up with:

this = dis

that = dat

those = doze

And:

three = fee

throw = srow

Show them how to place their tongue between their teeth and watch the spittle fly! Encouraged by this, I created a nasty little tongue twister:

These three fleas have free fees

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Courtesy of Cambridge Connect 1 (textbook)

As the 2018 Soccer World Cup progresses, it’s a good time to learn the names of some  of the participating countries (“China is terrible at soccer” they all say – I don’t know, my country is currently ranked 120th, 40 places below China). Portugal, Peru, and Argentina are particularly tricky for many to pronounce. Australia is another difficult one.

They inadvertently swear:

“My father is a bastard” (actually – “My father is a bus driver”)

“I’m wearing a brown shit” (shirt)

These are easy mistakes to make though the prevalence of Western computer games and the assorted potty mouth language of the accompanying soundtrack has introduced a world of colourful slang to the vocabularies of many students. This is concerning when you’re trying to teach “We Will Rock You” by Queen. The word rock lends itself to naughty substitution.

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Some words and phrases are correctable. These include:

Hamburger politics (Happy Birthday), sanka yew (Thank you), of (for), for (of), mudder (mother), sheesh-atar (sister), older body bra (older brother – I kid you not).

Others are not so easy:

Prisonality (personality), present (parrot), pirates (parents), peasants (parents), parents (presents).

Yes I’ve poked a bit of fun at the locals today. Especially Uncle Tommy. My two year old has just overheard me enunciating “ploduckachee” and has begun excitedly running around the apartment yelling “PLODUCKACHEE!” My mother-in-law (her grandmother and uncle Tommy’s older sister) has no idea what she’s trying to say, thinks it’s impeccable English and time for a nappy (diaper) change.

On a conclusory note, it’s worth noting that I’ve heard and read better English from people here in China than I have from many of the populace back in New Zealand. There is something to admire about the determination and hard-work it must have taken to achieve this sort of fluency.

Thanks for the likes and the feedback. It’s much appreciated.

KJ.

Out and About: Golden Oldies Youth Park

They were once young.

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Tai chi warriors

Guangzhou’s Youth Park is a bit of a contradiction in terms. It was designed by the city’s leaders in honour of the youth. Why then is everyone in this park over 65?

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It’s a nice place to go for a stroll before the day gets too hot. Lush tropical vegetation lines the circular path that leads from the busy South Coast Road around about five acres of flat riverside city land. A bored-looking guard keeps an eye on park activity from the comfort of a battered office chair. He must observe a lot. He recognises everyone but acknowledges no-one.

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A step back to a time of innocence when armchair translators hadn’t quite mastered English

Palm trees line the route that snakes past tai chi warriors, hacky sackers (using the Chinese equivalent of a feather attached to a rubber base), the Old Ladies Book Club (15 white-haired women all reading the same book), middle-aged but very fit men shooting hoop (basketball), a Soviet-era gymnasium – complete with rusty equipment, and a modern outdoor exercise area for people to loosen muscles, joints, and other connective tissue.

I’m starting to recognise a few of the regulars. They’d almost certainly recognise the only caucasian male to regularly visit the park. Uncle Jimmy Liang (my wife’s relative) does shirtless laps of the park at least twice a week and spends the rest of his time sipping tea with his workout buddies inside of the gym. The tea provides fortification for all the sets of ultra heavy bench presses and squats he does with perfect form (I kid you not – and this guy is at least 65).

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Fantastic!

No-one outside of this part of the old Liwan District seems to know about the Youth Park. This secluded spot is deep and mystic, undisclosed and unknown. I might be exaggerating its finer points here. Truth is, it’s a nice little spot to escape from the chaos that is Guangzhou – a city of over 14 million urban dwellers. There are plenty of bigger (and better) parks here but they all have Wikipedia entries. Apparently this place doesn’t.

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Please visit our friendly visitor centre for more information

You certainly wouldn’t want to arrange a family or work-related team building session here. Thirty minutes is quite enough thank you very much. It’s an oasis of unobtrusiveness, a place to enjoy a moment of mindfulness before being whacked about the head (figuratively speaking) by the chaotic nature of Cantonese life.

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The area outside Youth Park

As a 41 year old man I’m at least 20 years younger than everybody else here. In this sense, looking around at all the oldies, the Youth Park lives up to its name – and makes this visitor feel young again!

 

 

 

 

 

Yikes! Creepy Cameras and Nosy Parkers.

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It was late at night. Danger was in the air…

No, not really. Just an average evening in Block Six’s lobby. No-one was around – just me. I’d endured an hour on Guangzhou’s busiest roads with highly-skilled and considerate (ho ho ho) drivers. Class had ended late and parents had wanted to talk. By the time I’d eventually reached the apartment lobby, home seemed within reach. The lift arrived.

It’s hard to spell what static might sound like. I’d like to attempt it here:

Kcccccrrccccssscccch!

Most of us have had the pleasure of hearing static at some point or another. It’s a popular form of torture. I heard static in Lift B. It was coming from the emergency contact speaker located above the elevator buttons. If ever in trouble, people can press the emergency contact button and converse with somebody at the other end. I swiped my card and the elevator doors closed.

Kccccrrrrsscchhh

There it was again.

(Voices in Chinese) There he goes, ramble ramble, foreigner, ramble (indecipherable rapid-speed Mandarin)

I could hear people, young women to be precise, speaking. I guess they were the operators who “man” the phones for the elevator company. Maybe they work for the building management department. They come from a distant, unknown land.

Operators: Ramble, ramble, look at that big nose of his, so sharp, ramble ramble

Hold on, I have a big sharp nose…

Operators: Ramble, he’s very tall, ramble, I think he’s from New Zealand, ramble, laughter

I’m relatively tall, from New Zeal….  the blighters are talking about me!  They don’t realise that they’ve left the microphone on – they’re live, on-air!

Operators: He’s got two cute daughters, kcccccrrrrccccsssssccchh, big eyes, very white skin, the older one is shy…

I turn around and face the elevator camera, located in the top left corner.

Operators: Ramble, ramble, can he hear us?  Yes, I think he can, no, surely not…

Pointing my teacherly index finger in the camera’s direction, I produce my sternest frown.

Operators: Oh my goodness he CAN hear us, heaven’s…

The doors open at my floor and I begin to exit. There’s a panicked clunk, the sound that’s made when someone switches off a mic attached to a PA system.

And THAT was the last time anything was ever heard from these voluminously nosy young women – girls really, who enjoyed chatting so very publicly about their beloved lift passengers!

The End

 

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this post!

 

 

Chinese FAQs for the Foreigner

Eye contact and small talk. In a lift.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Not something that happens much in China. Here, strangers don’t usually make eye contact unless they get caught out having a sneaky glance. I’ve seen this, though less frequently, in Western settings too. Perhaps being in the company of a smiling foreigner has emboldened the local to make small talk without the fear of losing face. People from all walks of life will chat to me if there are is no-one else around. Add another couple of locals to the mix and they become frigid, looking ahead glacially or at a crack in the floor.

Here is a collection of the most commonly asked questions from the local Chinese, to me – a foreigner. Some of these questions are asked surprisingly often. Bold italicised texts represents the questioner, my answers are written in standard font.

What do you have for breakfast?  Cereal, you?   Oh we have congee. Sometimes buns and yoghurt. 

Do you like Chinese food?   Yes, it’s very nice. Do you like Western food?  No. It has no flavour. (spoken mainly by adults – kids here seem to love pizza and fries)

Have you eaten?  Not yet.  What?  How come you haven’t eaten yet?  You must be famished. Oh no, it’s okay – I had a sandwich before.  A sandwich?  You poor thing!

Are you going to drink anything with that sandwich? It looks so dry.  Actually there’s margarine and relish inside my sandwich so it’s not too dry. (unconvinced) Hmmm.  

Are you used to China?  I’ve been here a while but there are some days things can get a bit tough. (nervous laugh) Ha ha.

China is pretty great isn’t it?  It certainly is a big place. I guess you could say some things are great.

How much do you make a month?  Polite smile and noncommittal reply given here but thinking “more than you buddy.”  Actually there are a lot of rich people here now, but they wouldn’t ask such a rude question.

She’s very quiet (older woman referring to my younger daughter). Can she speak?   Yes she’s over 2 now – she can speak three languages.  Three languages, good Lord – she’s a genius!

 

Questions asked outside of the elevator:

 

What sort of car do you drive?  A Toyota Crown. You?  A BMW 7 Series. My wife drives a Tesla. Ouch.

How much do you make a month?  Here we go again. (This question is answered several times a day in the rural areas and perhaps once or twice a month in the city)

Do you like Japan?  Yes, I like Japan. Why?  We hate Japan.  I drive a Toyota and eat sushi. Japanese people seem very polite and friendly. The cities are clean. By the way, what car does your father drive?  A Honda.

How long to drive from China to New Zealand?  You can’t actually drive to New Zealand.  Why?   Because there’s a bloody big ocean in the way.  Oh. (Admittedly a gardener asked this question)

Don’t you need something to drink with that sandwich? No thanks.  Here let me get you some ketchup.  No, it’s okay. (fetching ketchup)  Oh, don’t be so polite!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You’re only wearing one layer of clothing?  Yes that’s right. How come?  It’s 28 degrees outside.  Yes but there’s some wind.  Oh I’d call that a warm and gentle breeze.

Are Western meals difficult to prepare?  No, not really. Chinese food can be very difficult to prepare, especially when compared to Western food. You guys have hamburgers every night, right?  

Thud.

And so ends another episode of Lift Digest, where some questions were deliciously  innocent and some were…..  rather hard to swallow.

 

 

The Chinese Kangaroo

They arrived a few short years ago. Now they’re an epidemic.

I’m referring to the legion of couriers in skin-tight fluorescent-yellow tops emblazoned with a Kangaroo logo. They zoom around the city on mopeds and scooters delivering meals to office workers and those people who don’t want to battle peak-hour crowds. It’s a great success by all accounts.

The service is called Meituan Waimai (Meituan Takeaways – a translation of sorts).

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Bloomberg estimated that the parent company Meituan Dianping was worth $30 billion (US) in October last year. The numbers are astounding. 256 million people used the service in 2016 with forecasts of over 400 million users this year according to Bloomberg. Over 1300 Chinese cities are in on the act with citizens near and far taking advantage of lightning-fast service from a man (almost always a man) on a bike delivering a hot meal. They also deliver groceries, massages, haircuts, and offer car washes while you’re working. Afterwards they’ll even park your car and take a photo (sent to your phone) as proof of a job well done.

It all sounds so impressive. And I guess it is. Whoever formed the company (someone called Wang Xing I’ve just discovered) will be richer than their wildest dreams. They’ve done very well in an ultra-competitive market.

But….

Some of us have to live with the Chinese kangaroo. You see, there are two sides to this fluorescent-yellow coin. You can get food delivered quickly when you don’t feel like walking the 200 metres to the actual restaurant. You don’t need to elbow your way to the counter or defend your space from queue jumpers. The meal is still warm and (usually) intact.

However the courier drivers might benefit from a bit of extra training. Road rules might be one place to start.

The Guangzhou Grade Two English Textbook offers a catchy chant in its section on transportation. Couriers (and drivers here in general) would be sage to take note:

Red at the top, you must stop,

Yellow in-between, get ready for green,

Green below, you can go!

The kangaroo drivers ignore red lights and often drive right in front of my moving car. There’s a swerve and they miss me. Everything is okay – till it’s not. Drivers also speed along footpaths and inside gated-compound paths putting everyone from toddlers to centenarians at risk. Not a day would pass without witnessing an act of  risk-taking kangaroo idiocy.

I walked past one driver yesterday who looked at me as though I was an alien from a distant planet. His eyes were big and round as he studied me intently. Not a smile to be seen. He had parked his bike near Block Six and was presumably returning from a delivery. Minutes later another kanga-courier Jack-in-the-boxed an old lady as he got out of a lift.

A good friend, Mr. Halifax, put it in perspective – who would want a job racing around the streets of a Chinese city in 40 degree heat? Buffoon drivers added to the mix and it would make for a devil of a job, an unpleasant one for sure. Maybe he was right. Perhaps I should cut these marsupial daredevils some slack.

With this newly-acquired perspective, I stood next to a Meituan courier in Lift A this morning. He stood erect, helmet glowing flourescently. “You have a tough life” I thought. “You’re merely trying to earn an honest living. I can’t begrudge you for that.”

Whereupon suddenly he turned in my direction and sneezed all over my left arm.

Back to square one.

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Odds and Sods: The Peculiarities of a Chinese Elevator

Ernest

Ah, Ernest (Neighbours….). A bespectacled high school kid of about 17 who lives on the third floor. I’m not sure his name actually is Ernest but it suits him. It takes him longer to wait for the elevator than to climb the three flights of stairs back home. His spoken English is very good though he’s rather serious – like a 1960s news anchor. He tends to over-stress words like I and am. This is a shame as it gives him (an unintentional) air of self-importance. Contrary to many of the youth here, he has very good manners and holds the door open for little old ladies (and me).

His listening needs some work.

“Are you looking for your keys Ernest?”

“Oh hi hello, I am looking for my keys”

“Ok, we’ll go first then – we’re sort of in a rush… sorry”

(5 seconds later) “You don’t need wait for me, you go first”

Or:

“Where are you going Ernest?”

“Ha, yes that’s right”

Mad Tappers

These are fidgety young men from rural areas who can’t seem to stand still for the short time it takes to reach the ground floor. They shift restlessly between feet, a little dance in motion. A cell phone will be consulted, stashed away and again removed from pocket – all within 15 seconds. A mad tapper will often move right up to the lift doors and check out hair, eyes, mouth, teeth, pimples…. You wonder why they’re so antsy. Their conduct is akin to the nine year old boy who has just been informed of a trip to Disneyland –  next summer.

Roving DJs

Old men in white vests who haven’t yet learned the wonders of modern technology. A 20 year old transistor radio. hung from a belt, can broadcast a mixture of Cantonese opera, revolutionary anthems, or traditional folk. Like any good DJ, they’re loud and largely ignorant to those in their immediate environment. Some roving DJs turn off the wireless before taking a lift, some don’t. Do you think that you’d like to be held captive in an elevator with piercing operatic sounds? Yes? Well then, consider first the words of an experienced Lonely Planet writer who once wrote that Cantonese opera is excruciating to Western ears.

The Jack in the Box

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A real waker-upper. Young men, or pushy middle-aged women, who alight the lift on the wrong floor therefore startling those about to enter. The Jack-in-the-box effect is caused by a combination of a mobile phone and positioning oneself right by the door. I was Jack-in-the-boxed last week by a twenty-something year old male who thought the 35th floor was the first floor.

The Surge

Those who enter the lift like a rebel army before you’ve had the chance to get out. Equal parts infuriating and panic-inducing. Happens surprisingly often.

Pick and Flicks

Once again, the elderly and toddlers. Involves: a nostril, an index finger (though little fingers with bayonet-length nail will suffice), and a twist.

 

Chalkface: From the mouths of Chinese babes

This is a breakout blog.

I’ll do this from time to time, get outside of the Block 6 Lifts and write about something wider in scope. Chalkface is one such project. It is intended to share some of the observations from the Chinese language learning environment. We’ll get back to Caffeine Man, the Mad Tapper, and Sir Pick-n-Flick in the next Life In Lifts blog.

Chinese kids are busy on the weekends with loads of extra-curricular classes. It seems that the Chinese middle-class want their kids to be calligraphers, scientists, mathematicians, structural engineers, TV hosts, pianists, polyglots, and NBA All-Star team members – all before lunch time Saturday.

I taught ten lessons this past weekend. Ten different locations, with varying degrees of ambience, air-quality, size, materials, and linguistic skills. And ten traffic jams to negotiate. It’s a good thing that the job is a blast.

In April, I gave the students three weeks to complete a task: design a travel poster for the summer holiday. It had to be an overseas destination, limited to 10 days travel, with a clear itinerary of fun things to see and do. A route map was also part of the requirement (e.g. Day 1 – Pyongyang, Day 2 – Kim Il-Sung shrine etc.). Sixty percent of the mark was to be allocated to the poster (size, colour, visual effect) and 40 percent was for the oral component (pronunciation, grammar, vocab, length, and delivery).

Well, the posters were great. Some real passion went into the production of these posters with colour photos, drawings, computer-aided design, clearly-written paragraphs and neat layout. It made my school homework look embarrassingly inept. Most teams scored full marks.

 

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Where’s Bossy Town?

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Then came the spoken part.

There was one girl who spoke beautifully about a tour of New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Bossy Town. She lost half a mark for that. Bossy Town is home to both M.I.T. and Harvard universities and the Red Sox baseball team (have you guessed it yet?).

Here are some of the other things I heard:

“After Black Forest (breakfast) we will make a trip to the female agitation (what?)”   Tommy, 10

People like beer very much. Then it’s time for lunch” – Davy, 10, about a trip to a Swiss zoo

American food is very unhealthy so we will stop at a Chinese restaurant for lunch” – Jessica, 11

“New Zealand is made up of the North Iceland and the South Iceland. You will be arraigned in Christchurch.” – Connie, 10

“Sweetland (Switzerland) is in the middle of Earache. It is home to chocolate watch cheese.” – Lisa, 11

Quebec is the best city to cultivate children. It has many interesting topographical features (how do you know such complicated English – you’re 10 for goodness sake?!). The Canadian frog is red and white with a maple leaf….” – Ada, 10

After arriving at the sandwich hotel, we will get our passports (followed by  indecipherable words) from the Internet and visit  the old naughty (Nordic?) museum, then on to a ski Russell to try skiting” – Leo, 12

There were many examples of this but also lots of really good English too. The most touching thing was their attitude towards this assignment. They didn’t really have to do it. I would be powerless to contact their school teachers and have them fail English. They were incredibly self-motivated. Many parents were kind and said that I had been their child’s motivation but I disagree. Their collective effort made me yearn to take this  freshly-acquired inspiration and repeat my childhood all over again!

Do you ever wish you could go back and do things differently?  Feel free to leave a comment.

 

Old Man’s River

Keep it together man, just another floor or two to go, no-one is going to get in on our way up. The journey will be short. By all means decorate your door, wet your welcome mat, or throw up all over the threshold but open the floodgates once you get out. Don’t do it here.

These were my thoughts last night.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen in an elevator?

We’ve seen pretty much everything in Chinese lifts except X-rated activity. Thank goodness. People here are still pretty conservative.

I got into the lift on the minus one carpark level and proceeded to the 35th floor. It stopped at one (the ground floor in British Commonwealth countries). In stepped a youngish woman and her father. She smiled and said hello. He slurred something to me and tried to keep his balance. They were going to the 20th floor.

He smelt like a distillery.

There was a little burp, a bubbling sound emanating from deep below. Being vomited on by a sick toddler is one thing, how about by a 70 year old man?  This was becoming a very real possibility.

The lift wall was his pillar, his bastion of support. He head slumped forward. We’re not going to make it. Or are we?

“Have you been out tonight?”  I winced at my own question. It was blindingly obvious they’d been out. They probably thought it was none of my business. It would quickly become my business if I wore his technicoloured treacle.

Yeessssh” came his reply, sounding like a certain New Zealand prime minister of yesteryear.

Time slowed as it does when you’re exceedingly uncomfortable. His daughter looked worried. She seemed to have taken on a maternal role. I wondered if she had experienced this many times before. Certain parts of China seem to produce some of the hardiest drinkers in the world, up there with the Russians and Germans. I’ve also seen people turn pink after a glass or two of beer. Which category did he fall into?  Ironman or jellyfish?  Hooch hound or schlemiel?

He cocked his head, one-eyed, and looked in my direction. This is what a deer must feel like when he realises he’s in the hunter’s sights. The moment before impact, the calm before the storm etc. etc.

The lift stopped and dutiful daughter took him by the arm and led him out of the lift. There was a real urgency to her movement as she fiddled with the door keys. That was a narrow escape. As the lift doors began to close, I heard a sound…

SPLAAAAAAAAT!

A narrow escape indeed.