How to Really Make an Impression When Speaking Chinese

I just got back from a business trip to China, where I visited Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. I listened to and spoke a lot of Chinese, and while I can't yet get by in a business negotiation without occasional-to-frequent interpretation, I think my interpreter wouldn't have survived if I hadn't been able to get most of what people were saying on my own. Plus, I made a very good impression whenever I dropped some Mandarin. I can be proud of how much I can still converse in Chinese now, almost ten years after I stopped taking Chinese classes. (Thanks Skritter for maintaining my vocabulary all this time!)

But the real demonstration of my language skills was when a guy came up to me to hand me a flyer for a Chinese kung fu club that was just opening up. "Chinese gongfu! Very interesting!", he said.

“对不起,我没有时间。” Sorry, I don't have time.

After this basic response with good pronunciation, the guy was excited by my apparent comprehension, and redoubled his efforts. After a bit of conversation, I decided to tell him I was flying out tonight and so couldn't possibly come see the fight:

“我住在美国,在旧金山。我没有时间,我今天晚上要打飞机。“ I live in America, in San Francisco. I don't have time, tonight I'm going to get on a plane.

The guy seemed very confused at this point, so I just left. My colleague Lisa then burst out laughing, "You just made a BIG mistake!" Apparently even though you can 打车 ("hit car", or "take a cab"), you are supposed to 坐飞机 ("sit plane", or "take a plane"). If you try to 打飞机 ("hit plane"), that's something else entirely. So what I ended up saying was, I don't have time, tonight I'm going to masturbate.

Lisa laughed at me for at least five minutes.

This reminds me of the time as a second-year Chinese student I was trying to tell a joke during the department's Mid-Autumn Moon Festival about the policeman who was trying to catch a blonde, brunette, and redhead who had escaped from jail. "Catch, I know that word, like to catch a plane!" (I should really learn from my pattern of misusing plane-catching-related verbs.) Of course instead of 赶 (gǎn, "catch (a bus, plane, etc.)"), I used the wrong tone and said that the policeman wanted to 干 (gàn, "fuck") the blonde, brunette, and redhead. It fit just well enough for everyone in the Chinese department to assume I meant it, and the next day Ma Laoshi chewed me out for swearing!

Anyway, now I need to get a Chinese tutor, since if I try to do a business conversation in Chinese by myself, sooner or later I will confidently declare that our future partnership will be harmonious and erotic, or something equally hilarious. Or else I'll use language more appropriate for my toddler Max, with whom I currently speak most of my Chinese. I need to get all my egregious mistakes out of the way. Let me know if you know someone really good. I’m thinking something like one hour per week. Cost is no object. Mainland Mandarin focus, Beijing style (not southern). Remote okay, or in person in San Francisco.

Nick

Hacking on CodeCombat, a multiplayer programming game for learning to code. Mastermind behind Skritter, the most powerful Chinese character learning app.

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