Learning the finer points of Chinese with a nephew
I got a crash course in Chinese this month when I spent time with my nephew, David, who spent half his vacation in the emergency room.
The little boy was miserable. He had a raging fever, was lethargic and wouldn’t speak.
I felt it was my job to cheer him up. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as patting him on the head and making faces, although that helps. We have a language barrier, he and I. He speaks Chinese and I don’t.
I speak enough Spanish to keep myself out of a jail cell, and I can sign enough American Sign Language to keep my friends amused. Chinese? If my brother-in-law could pick up on it in four years, certainly I could cobble a few sentences together and carry on a conversation.
I know about five words in Chinese, most of them culled from menus. I can properly pronounce moo goo gai pan with the best of the natives. I can say kung pao chicken. I can say tai chi, but I’m not sure if that’s Chinese.
Ends up that there are seven different dialects in the Chinese language. And of course, my family speaks the toughest one. Not only is the language based on tones, subtleties and whether or not the moon is in Taurus on Wednesdays, but like the Eskimos, the Chinese have numerous words for, say, “good,” depending how you mean to say it.
The good in “Have a good day” is not the same as the good in “good evening.” Nor is it the same word as the good in “It was a good meal,” “You’re a good kid,” or “For goodness sakes!”
Brushing up on my Chinese ended up being a great way to cheer David up. As they say, laughter is the best medicine.
I started by trying to distract him when it was time to take his medicine.
“Moy,” he’d say repeatedly, pushing the spoon away. “Moy!” The whole family had the word “no” down pretty well within an hour.
“Fi tee ho,” I told him, telling him to get well quickly.
His eyes darted to me. His pudgy little finger slowly rose in the air and he pointed and laughed: “Ehhhhhh!” (Translation: “Crazy lady!”)
What!? What?! I looked at his mother, Lisa.
“You said, “Get tough, cricket.'”
“What? I said what you said! Fi tee ho!”
“Now you said, “My rat fork orange.'”
What?! How could something I was saying so obviously perfect be misconstrued to “My rat fork orange’?
“Soy-ee,” he said.
“He wants water,” Lisa said.
“Soy-eee,” I said.
His eyes darted to me. He pointed and laughed. “Ehhhhh!”
“Soy-ee,” he said again, correcting me.
“Soy-eee!” I stated.
Point and laugh. “Ehhhh!”
“What am I saying?” I asked.
“You just drank your pajamas,” Lisa said, smiling.
I tried to cheer David up with a little wooden airplane.
“Look, David!” I shouted, flying the plane in front of his face. “Fay-gay!”
He took one look at me, pointed and laughed. “Ehhhh!”
“What? What’d I say?”
“Something to do with grapefruit,” Lisa said. “I think you put a rock in your grapefruit. Or you might have melted it in a fire.”
Picky, picky, picky.
Great. I decided to imitate David instead.
“Mao kortch i-way,” he said. (Or something like that.)
“Mow kort i-way,” I repeated.
“You gave your thumb a green bath.”
“Gaichi moi sha ga,” David said. (Or something like that.)
“Gay-chee, mwa sha ga,” I repeated.
I looked at Lisa.
“Bite the wax tadpole,” she said.
No way. I know that’s “Coca Cola.”
“Washee oka yow ho fahn,” David said.
“He wants you to repeat him,” Lisa said.
“Moy,” I said. “Moy, moy, moy.”
“Ehhhhh! Crazy lady,” David said. “Ho sieu.”
I looked at Lisa. “Funny,” she said.
“Moy,” I said. “Moy.”
I’m sticking to English.
Jane Stebbins can be reached at
(970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or email@example.com.
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