Monday, July 19, 2010

From Seat 16E

Yesterday, I found myself wedged between a Chinese couple, in the middle seat of Row 16 en route from San Francisco to Washington DC. I offered (and hoped!) one of them would want to switch with me. But they declined; the wife preferred the aisle seat, “because I like to get up often to use the bathroom” and the husband, likes the window “so he can sleep”.

They turned out to be great seatmates. He worked on his Sudoku puzzles before falling asleep, and she was eager to chat with me about Cantonese and Mandarin when she had to close up her busy iPad. We were a good match for this topic: she had fresh impressions of her native Cantonese, and I always love to talk about Mandarin, after my recent struggle learning it during 3-years of living in mainland China.

She had grown up in Hong Kong, but was schooled in English during British rule by convent nuns, then spent some time in Taiwan, cramming in Mandarin from relatives who lived there.

“Mandarin sounds melodic to me,” she said, calling out especially the clear and classic Beijing accent. I had never thought of Mandarin as melodic, like Italian, but I agreed with her that it indeed was, compared with Cantonese, with its clipped word endings and guttural sounds. (Cantonese has lots of words that end in guttural sounds like “k” sounds like kok and jik hak, while Mandarin words always end in in softer, languid vowels, for liquidy “n” or “r” sounds.)

“People sound angry when they’re speaking Cantonese!” she continued, “they speak so loud and so fast!” I agreed completely with that description of Cantonese, and I often did a double take to witness “fights” on the street, only to realize they were everyday conversations.

Her comments reminded me of another sensibility I often felt when I was speaking Mandarin (and wrote about in my book, Dreaming in Chinese, chapter 2!) : that I was being abrupt or even rude when speaking Mandarin. This feeling too, I learned, has a basis in grammar of the language. For example, when you’re with close friends and family, you omit the niceties of the language -- the pleases and thank you’s -- and when you’re saying “no”, you simply say “bu yao” (Don’t want!) instead of softening the language with lots of qualifiers like “Oh, no thanks, I don’t think I would like anything right now.”

I learned from my grammar books that inserting terms we consider polite actually has the opposite effect in Mandarin, like inserting a buffer or margin between you and the person you’re speaking to—which strips away the closeness and suggests a distance between you— making not for a measure of politesse, but rather of being offensive!

(image from


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