Mandarin for Dummies

I was checking the newsfeed on Facebook when I came across a shared post that made me giggle like a fool in the train earlier today. It is humour that is localised, similar to a slang, or an accent that one understands or acquires after spending some time at said location.

Some background: Most who emerge from the Singapore education system would be able to speak, read and write two languages – English and Mandarin/Malay/Tamil, the choice of the latter depends on which ethnic group you belong to. Those with a flair for languages can elect to do a third one – French, German, and Japanese are popular choices. But a lot of us don’t, and stick to just two.

However, the ability to speak, read and write both your languages well is another matter. I struggled for years with Mandarin, and relied heavily on Han Yu Pin Yin to bluff my way through reading portions of the classes I had. This is a system of putting together alphabets to sound out a Chinese character, and attach a mark on it to indicate which of the standard 4 tones to use when the word emerges from one’s mouth; Similar to Phonics.  

I detested being asked to read passages out loud. But Pin Yin always came to my rescue; I was essentially reading the words in English that I had scribbled under each Chinese character, and varied the pitch along the 4-tone scale as I went along. I tended to sound like a tone-deaf person singing.  A wrong tone is a wrong word and hence wrong meaning. My classmates’ laughing fits didn’t help either.

My young self tried so hard, even when the teacher always gave me the evil eye for reading funny. I got better with practice, but I never got good.

People like us got made fun of and given nicknames like Banana or Potato because these were white on the inside and yellow on the outside – a Chinese who knew only how to speak English well. It was sad. But oddly funny at the same time. This perceived inability spawned many jokes, one of which was what I read on the train.

So, what I read on the train: There are a handful of Chinese who have the misfortune of bearing English names, that if you spoke them fast enough with a bit of disregard for tone, they would mean something else in Mandarin, or Cantonese or Hokkien.

They are most of the time rude, and translations very literal, but always evokes laughter.  Reminded me of the British sitcom, Mind Your Language.

And so, if you needed to remember a phrase in Chinese, all you now need is to remember a name – I hope it wouldn’t link to someone you know because it is unlikely that you’d look at him/her the same way again.



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