I had a mildly embarrassing moment earlier this week when a native Chinese speaker told me (although gently) to differentiate between Mandarin and Cantonese. I tend to forget about Cantonese when I speak about Chinese. Narrow-minded of me, I know… This little incident made me think of other embarrassing moments I’ve had in my Mandarin adventures…
Back in 2006 when I started studying Mandarin I was really eager to use what little Mandarin I could speak with well – anybody that would care to lend me their ears. Receivers at the other end were mostly Chinese waiters and shop owners who would need to listen to my Mandarin attempts as I stumbled my way through some basic and awkward blurbs.
My most embarrassing moment though didn’t involve a waiter no. Instead, it involved a new acquaintance who met up with us while we spent some time holidaying in Durban, South Africa. A colleague of mine had arranged a native Mandarin speaker friend of hers to entertain us for dinner so that I could practice my Mandarin. I was super excited. We’ll call the lucky listener of this most embarassing day ‘Adam’.
During dinner with our new acquaintance Adam, I was using a silly example sentence – “I see you” / “wo kan ni” as I was talking about sentence structure in Mandarin.
Except that I perhaps said it rather loudly in a crowded, noisy restaurant and interpreted the look on Adam’s face as him not quite getting what I was saying. This was pretty basic stuff, but my immediate thoughts were to think that my Mandarin was either terribly poor or that he could not hear me above the noise, so I repeated what I said at least two times. By this time our new acquaintance was looking rather wildly around the room, and then lowered his voice and said to me “you’re swearing – please keep it down”. It took me a second or two to realize what he had heard – he had heard ‘gan’ in the fourth tone. If you substitute ‘kan’ in the fourth tone with ‘gan’ in the fourth tone and look up the meaning of that word – you can get a sense of the kind of embarrassment I felt when this had happened.
I tried to explain afterwards to Adam that I was really trying to say ‘kan’ and not ‘gan’ but it was just an awkward situation and to be honest I think I tried mentally blocking out the rest of the evening as a result. Needless to say we didn’t speak much Mandarin after that and the follow-up appointment we were supposed to have the next day, never happened – no cancellation text – no nothing. Yes, this was indeed the most embarrassing Mandarin moment for me.
You could probably make me feel better by sharing your embarrassing stories with me…