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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Progress in PuTongHua    

By Garreth Humphris
2266 Views | 7 Comments | 3/12/2012 10:16:07 PM

How much? Image courtesy of Englishpod.com

It is funny how you can measure progress in something - most people would say that when learning a foreign language, progress should be measured against the number of words you know, or the number of lessons you have mastered or how well you write an exam. But my putonghua (Chinese common language) is mostly self-taught by flailing around in China using language badly, getting help from teachers and friends every now and then for a month or two (but not doing any homework) and listening to others.

I realise now, after learning the ’real’ words to Theresa Tang’s Song ”Sweetie Sweet”, that the version taught to me by an associate on a rather drunken karaoke adventure is not ”Sweetie Sweet, I’ll see you in my dreams” but something more akin to ”Big breasted woman, come sit down beside me”! For protection of the innocent, I won't give any other lyrics!

So, my new measure of putonghua prowess is my language dexterity to have everyday arguments with people and see if I can win - puerile I know, but Chinese love a good-natured stoush with others, especially if they think they can win!

Yesterday I was teaching in a part of the city where there are few foreigners. It is really a local area, closed off from the main streets by a catacomb of small laneways and pathways through old houses. I was there teaching a class of students that had developed their own English Corner Club in the garage/storeroom of one of the houses. The room doubles as a dance studio for all the young girls of the village area too.

The whole place is fairly self-contained with kindergarten, community medical centre, street vendors selling snacks, hardware and fruits, a small supermarket with live fish, eels and chickens for sale, the ubiquitous bicycle repairman, two old guys with angle grinders who make the bars that go over the windows on every house less than 4 storeys off the ground, an accumulated rabble of old men (holding babies) with ashen cigarettes perched on their lower lip looking in earnest at a chess game, groups of older women standing around talking and punching themselves in the arm, leg or shoulder to cure some mystery ailment aka Traditional Medicine Style, a middle-aged mother dragging scowling teenager daughter off to some adventure in the beauty salon, the lazy-looking security guard slouched in his little box alternatively moving his attention from the mobile phone showing the tv series set in the Qing Dynasty (streaming live over 3G) and the procession of cars, mianbaoche (literally ’bread cars’ small vans used to carry everything from building materials to blushing brides and stolen bicycles) and sanlingche (literally 3 wheel car, tricycles under pedal or electric engine power capable of carrying up to 500kg of sewer oil, recycled paper or old air conditioners and the odd grandmother too old to walk to the shop.) entering the complex. So you get the picture...enter 6ft4, 200kg foreigner!

The ripple of ”laowai” was heard cascading around the community...between the buildings and lane ways...

As I went deeper, heads popped out of windows and small faces of children appeared behind legs of gawping grandparents. Yes Toto, I was a long way from Kansas!

A boy of about 12 ran up to me and said ”hello, do you have any hobbies?”.

”I like reading and playing computer games”, I said.

”I take photos”, he said, snapping a shot of me from his mobile telephone camera at close range before scuttling back to 2 slinking friends at the corner of the building. They hunched over laughing at the brazen boy’s handiwork - probably a close up of my left nostril!

I found the classroom and helped with the lesson for a few hours - every few minutes a new face would peer around the doorframe and stare with a look of surprise...like a zoo, look a ”teacher” in it’s natural environment, not too close kiddies, they can be vicious!

After I finished my lesson, I decided to walk past the shops, to see what I could find...I love scouring the hardware markets in China because you find things that you never knew existed in the world! Weird tools and fasteners, loops of wire and ’precious things’ long gone from the hardware hypermarkets of the West! No convenience in a tub...spakfiller is a bag of white powder, screws come by the kilogram bag and everything metal has a patina of rust.

I stopped by the supermarket and looked over their selection - deciding on a few choice cuts of meat. I bought them, along with a bag of rice, a small bag of sugar, some coffee and some other products labelled ”Rich Family Ham” (which I had to have, just for the name alone!). The checkout lady scoured at me as she took my order - pointing to the cost on the register...”Bag?” she asked, not too committed to customer service.
”Yes please, if it's not to much trouble?”.

She was agog.”You speak Chinese?”, she quizzed

I was about to answer when an older woman bustled up to me and started going through the bag of shopping I had in front of me! Having seen this before, I wasn't too shocked!

”Meat and Sugar and Coffee, that's all these foreigners eat!”, She said loudly to the shop,”no wonder they are so fat!” and a cackle of laughter, echoed by a few others in the store.

”Excuse me, old friend”, I said,”I bought fruit and vegetables yesterday at the neighborhood market near my home, but they had sold out of meat, I am buying some today!”.

She went ashen-faced, I thought she was about to faint!

”But so much, just one meal!”, she croaked meekly.

By now, the crowded had gathered...encircling us as we spoke.

I played up to the crowd, ”I can tell you an amazing thing, foreigners have a magic machine called a refridgerator”, a twitter of laughter from the assembled mass, ”we put food inside and it can stay fresh for a few days, so we don't have to go shopping every day like Chinese people do!”

”But I like shopping every day”, she replied meekly.

”I don’t”, I replied, ”so I buy a little more each shopping trip and shop just 2 days a week”.

”Oh”, she said...the crowded laughed.

”But I’m still too fat, right?”, I asked.

”Yes, no, but I only meant it for your health”, she stumbled.

”Yes, I guess you are right, I could do some more exercise!” and I turned back to the cashier to get my change.

She was smiling now, suddenly alive after the twitter of excitement in the store. I took up my money, clutched my bag and headed to the door.

I walked outside and adjusted the shopping into my backpack...and an old man called out to me, ”Hey big brother, how long have you lived in Suzhou?”, he asked, his granddaughter peering around his legs with huge almond eyes, her pigtail flopping wildly.

”A few years, Master”, I said smiling.

”You speak local dialect?”, he asked.

I reeled off the few words I knew...he smiled.

”Thank you”, he said smiling, ”Nice to meet you!”, putting his hand out as a greeting.”Can I ask you a personal question?”, he sidled.

”Sure,” I said ”I am 350pounds, I’m Australian, I’m 42 years old, I like beer and chocolate and I’m not married”.

His eyes twinkled, ”I think you have been here a long time, you know all the questions!”

I smiled.

”Now I have some real information to tell my wife in there”, he motioned back into the supermarket.

”You drink too much beer”, he laughed, ”that is really why you are fat!”

”Probably, old friend", I replied, ”see you next time!”.

I turned and walked toward the bus-stop, to the gaggles and giggles and ”wa sa”s of the shoppers in the street.

The one thing you learn about China is you might win a battle here and there, but you’ll never win the war!

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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(Showing 1 to 7 of 7) 1
#2012-03-12 22:19:41 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Garreth, you must have to speak Chinese to win a battle in China, because I've been here about as long as you and I've never won one, not even in my own home, with both sides speaking entirely in English. I admire you immensely for learning Chinese, especially without any formal training. Happy battling!

#2012-03-13 12:21:45 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Haha....you can never win a battle (much less a war) with your spouse!

I have been practicing recently and these little excursions to 'no English areas' are a good way to become acquainted with language and the local environment and people...Many years ago (when I first came to China), on weekends, I used to buy a bus ticket to a nearby town, explore the area on foot and then try to get back home. It's an interesting experience - I'd forgotten how effective they are at increasing your language skills.

#2012-03-14 11:05:05 by Tuiger @Tuiger

I have read this over. Start to finish. At least 10 times today. Each time it makes me laugh. Congrats on your grace in the moment. You write very well.

#2012-03-14 21:25:02 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Thanks Tuiger - one thing you learn quickly in China is 'Grace under Duress'!

#2012-03-20 08:08:08 by Tuiger @Tuiger

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs... grace under pressure... you demonstrated it in spades by the sounds of it. I just re-read it and I'm still laughing a little... rich...

#2012-03-30 23:00:42 by Chicano @Chicano

Nice read

I lived in Zhanjiang for about four years. Picked-up some Guangdonghua and just enjoyed myself.
Got married with China woman with two kids. I did all immigration paperwork.
Brought them to USA. Divorced the ungrateful woman in less than a year in USA and rided myself from her arrogant, lazy son. I still help ex-stepdaughter with her school work. She is the only grateful person in the bunch. I love China and the Chinese, I just made the wrong choice. I'll be returning to China in June.

#2012-04-08 08:50:14 by Ingi @Ingi

So vivid descriptions about the local environment! I read it twice. There're so many things that I cannot express myself in English. You're really a language genius, taught by yourself (not only Mandarin but also some Suzhou dialect)! I'm impressed by your understanding of the different culture and your friendly attitude towards the local people. There are no wars, neither wins nor loses. Enjoy your stay in China!

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