Pretty soon after moving here I started Chinese lessons. You kind of have to, it’s next to impossible to get by with just English here – but quite honestly I welcomed the challenge of learning such a difficult language. My teacher is awesome: she comes to my flat twice a week and gives me 1-to-1 Mandarin tuition. It’s crazy how much progress I’ve made over the last 5 or so months; going from completely useless to only slightly useless. I can now order food and drinks, ask for directions, tell people about my day, and other stuff like that. I’m not exactly conversational yet, but Chinese is a frigging tough language to learn and just being able to say the different tones correctly is a pretty worthy achievement for most people.
My Chinese teacher is a lovely girl by the name of Yáng Méi (羊莓, sounds like the Chinese word for ‘strawberry’), and she chose Carrie as her English name. She’s been teaching for about 7 years now and besides being a great teacher, she loves telling stories during the lessons – usually about the funny things that happen to her students as a result of them not being too great at Chinese. Recently I’ve got to the point where she can tell me the stories in Chinese, so they are both educational and entertaining.
I’m not sure how funny the stories will be for somebody not learning Chinese, but hey. They make me laugh, and she has hundreds of them. I keep telling her she needs to start writing them down, but she won’t since she’s too busy teaching. So I guess I’m doing it for her.
The first Tale of Yáng Méi stars an American student of hers. He’s a big, tall black guy with a big beard, which is something of a rarity in Shanghai (and China in general). Black people get stared at a lot here because there simply aren’t that many of them around. Hell, I get stared at plenty and I’m just another regular wide eye, there’s plenty of my kind to go around. Chinese people are, in general, pretty homogenous. Not to say they all look the same (they don’t), just that a lot of Chinese people tend to stare in wonder at things that are different, or totally foreign to them. Black people seem to be one of these things.
Anyway, one night this guy decided to pop into a nearby takeaway restaurant on the way home and order a very common dish, fried aubergine (eggplant). The Chinese for the dish is chǎo qiézi (炒茄子 – chǎo means fried, qiézi means aubergine). This would be pronounced something like “cha-oh chee-etz-a” (ignoring the tones, of course).
However, as is extremely easy to do in Mandarin given that there are so many similar sounding words – many differentiated only in the way they’re said – he confidently ordered chǎo háizi (“cha-oh haitz-a”). After being greeted by a horrified expression from the manager of the restaurant, he asked again. This time the manager told him that they were closing, they didn’t have any food, and pretty much chased the guy out of the restaurant.
A little freaked out by the fact that he’d been thrown out of the restaurant just for ordering fried aubergine (but probably fairly accustomed to being treated strangely by Chinese people due to his looks), he left without making a fuss, and didn’t think much more about it.
That is, until some time later, during a lesson with Carrie. They were talking about what they did at the weekend. Carrie was telling him (in Chinese) about how over the weekend she had played with her friend’s child. At this point the guy stopped her, and asked her why on earth she would ‘play with an eggplant’. Carrie corrected him, telling him that an eggplant is qiézi, a child is háizi… and then it hit home.
No wonder he had been chased out of the restaurant: from the point of view of the restaurant manager, a bearded black guy a clear foot taller than everybody else in the place had walked in and nonchalantly asked to be served a fried child. Suffice to say, he was probably not doing much for the general perception of black people in that particular restaurant.
The problem is that even though to English speakers the two words are similar in both sound and how they’re spelled in pinyin, in Chinese they would be considered worlds apart, completely different words. They wouldn’t make the link between qiézi and háizi – they’d most likely assume that he did actually want to eat a fried child.
Thus ends the first tale of Yáng Méi.