At the beginning of February I spent a few days in Singapore and then moved on to South Africa. As I spent almost the entire month of February abroad, visiting family and friends, I didn’t really study much at all. I couldn’t exactly prioritise my Mandarin over spending time with family and friends I hadn’t seen for ages. (I progressed only with about a 100 characters in Heisig but maintained my Anki revision habit nearly every day during that month.)
At the end of the holiday I reflected that I felt like Julia Roberts’ character in Eat, Pray, Love but with the emphasis on Eat.
I had one or two expectations about my time in Singapore: I knew I was going to enjoy eating in Singapore. In my opinion – there is one place in the world where can you answer with “I’m going to eat!” if people ask you what you’re going to do. If Singapore is the place in question, you DO NOT have to feel like a glutton when you respond with an answer like that!
I knew I’d get limited opportunities too for speaking Mandarin in Singapore – most people have excellent English in 新加坡 (Xin1jia1po1). So to be honest, I spoke very little Mandarin during my trip. Then again – Singapore is very dear to me – so dear that I really just wanted to enjoy the place rather than get frustrated with the fact that I didn’t get enough opportunity to speak Mandarin. Could it be that I love Singapore more than I love Mandarin?
If you’re interested – please keep reading – I’m sharing with you some of my (few) Mandarin highlights:
One occasion required me to ask ask a couple for directions to get the 118 bus from Ang Mo Kio MRT to the zoo. They told me they couldn’t speak English and I proceeded to ask them for directions in Mandarin. It really was a very short conversation but believe me – I felt very happy that I was able to ask that in another language – in Mandarin.
Inpromptu dinner conversation:
I was having dinner at Food Republic and had a pretty decent but short Mandarin conversation with two other diners. (One of these diners were actually from mainland China’s Fujian province.)
Sourcing Mandarin materials:
No speaking for this one but I visited a huge Japanese book shop Kinokuniya at the Takashimaya shopping centre in Orchard Road (they’ve got a huge Mandarin selection).
I only bought one book – ‘Making out in Chinese’ by Ray Daniels and I have to say that this has got to be one of the coolest books I’ve ever bought. I’m referring to the content not the cover. When I read the book on the plane or took it out at coffee shops, I imagine I got a few funny looks – but oh well anything in the name of Mandarin fluency right? At least now I know how to say:
- I’m mad as hell! (我火大了/ wo3 huo3 da4 le) and
- You’ve gone too far (太过分了 / tai4 guo4 fen1 le!
There’s a lot more packed into this little book but out of politeness I’ve left out some of those learnings and leave it to you to discover if you’re keen. Very useful little book in my opinion and should be a quick read as it’s just 96 pages in total.
I had a discussion in the MRT with a Singaporean about learning Chinese and she also stopped me from getting off at the wrong MRT station. (I was on my way to Raffles Mall at City Hall but nearly got off at Raffles Place instead. I did get off at Raffles Place the next day when I had to go to Lau Pa Sat for another eating adventure.) The conversation with her was about 40% in Mandarin and 60% in English. She told me that Chinese students found Mandarin really hard and that it was one of the most difficult subjects they had to study in school. My answer was ‘Great – then there is hope for us laowai!’. (The way I see it you can either you can feel intimidated by conversations like that or look at it optimistically and tell yourself you can do it too.)
Conversations with hotel staff
I had a discussion with one Chinese lady at the hotel – it turned out that I was able to read more Mandarin than her – and I don’t read much at all! I guess this means – whichever way I want to look at it – the bits I do get to study helps and it does pay off.
Like I said I knew I could have done more – I could have seeked out conversations by listening to people, checking their name badges or used riskier tactics like guessing etc. but as I’ve hinted before – this time around, Mandarin was just one of the things on my agenda – Not at all my soul purpose for visiting Singapore.
Have you ever visited Singapore or any other Asian country or city where they speak great English? Any place where Mandarin takes the back seat? If so where and were you seeking out Mandarin conversations at all? Or like me – were you there because of your love for that place and what it has to offer and did it supersede seeking out speaking opportunities in Mandarin?