Every Joke Has a Victim

“Chinese isn’t hard” said the eleven-year old girl who is not one of my students yet somehow always remembers my name (I had to look up “nan” in the dictionary to figure out that it meant “hard/difficult”). I have a hard time believing that statement.

About a year ago I met with someone in Cambridge, having met her over a language-exchange website. I had thought I might start learning Chinese, just in case they take over the world in my lifetime (as the West seems to have done here in Taiwan). I haven’t forgotten the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Aurum Postestas Est: Gold is power. But aurum meum non es aurum vulgi! My gold is not the gold of the common man.

The language barrier between West and East is of course huge. One of my sophomore-year professors told us that if we ever wanted to learn an ancient language, instead of pursuing Latin we should learn Chinese. He drew some characters on the board, and explained how they changed over time so that they are no longer pictures of the things they describe.

The language-exchange girl in Cambridge showed me how the sounds of Chinese words are taught using something called Pinyin. Pinyin uses a version of the Roman alphabet to represent sounds for the characters. For example “Wǒ” is the Pinyin for “我” which means “I” or “me.” Over many of the vowels in Pinyin are tones which tell the learner which tone is used for the word. There are four tones: flat, rising, falling/rising, and falling. Additionally, many words have no tone.

So children in China actually learn our alphabet before they start reading and writing their own words! This is what I started learning when I knew I’d either go to Taiwan and China. But now that I’ve gotten used to using Pinyin, I’ve discovered that people in Taiwan don’t usually use it! The Taiwanese use something called Bopomofo when learning their words. When trying to look up words on the Chinese Dictionary on my phone, the eleven year-old was able to type the word I was looking for by typing the symbols representing the sounds in Bopomofo. Bopomofo looks just like Chinese characters, but a bit simpler. When looking at a Chinese children’s book to see if I could understand any of the words, I noticed the symbols to the right of each of the words, and now I know what they are.

The most crucial difference between the Chinese used on mainland China and that of Taiwan is the use of Simplified vs. Traditional characters. Traditional characters are more difficult to learn because they are comprised of more strokes. The Chinese government believed that the continued use of the more complicated characters would adversely affect literacy rates…well they were right because they continue to adversely affect my own right now! I have filled several notebook pages with 5-10 Chinese characters each in order to try and drill them into my head. Teaching little kids how to write and remember the letter A and B in a 90-minute time period and watching them subsequently forget gave me the idea that I ought to write down all the Chinese characters I’ve learned (but might forget) every day until I know I won’t forget them.

Music often helps in this regard. Even the kids who hate learning English remember the lyrics to the catchy songs I have to play for them. But what Chinese music can inspire me? I know that East Asia has its own rich musical tradition, though I don’t really know anything about it yet. Taiwan and other East Asian countries are appreciative of Western classical music (one of which is used for the garbage trucks for instance, and another plays whenever someone calls the school I work at). Traditional Chinese music doesn’t exactly have words, so I don’t know if that’s going to be a big help. Most of the Chinese music I’ve heard so far has consisted of vapid imitations of Western pop music, which is itself a vapid expression of the materialist Dark Age…and even worse if that can be believed. But I guess right now I’ll stick to writing my lines and flashcards…the equivalent of writing “How much does this one cost?” over and over and over and over and…

I’ve been here more than five weeks now and I can’t successfully order food without miming, pointing, or using my phone to translate. But as I’ve said before, the only problem that this causes for me is logistic; people usually try to communicate however they can. Another foreigner told me that he’s been in Taiwan for 15 years, and that he decided to give up trying to learn Chinese when he was in a restaurant that sold dumplings, and tried to order some. But he used the wrong tone apparently, because the person to whom he was speaking pointed outside to a nearby hotel. The difference in tone changed the meaning from “dumpling” to “sleep,” and somehow the meaning was not clear from the context. The President of Taiwan is named Ma Ying-jeou. Ma has multiple meanings depending on the tone, such as “mother,” “horse,” and is the word added at the end of a sentence to indicate a question. I know a teacher who calls the president “President horse” to the kids, which apparently they get a kick out of.

So it’s a long arduous road ahead on the path to linguistic mastery, both for me and my students! And on the ladder of learning, many who try to climb will fail…

Today the lesson for my kindergartners was “What time is it? It’s one o’clock!” The object of the lessons and of the courses themselves are functional; English brings social and professional opportunities. But what about me? Children learn when they play games because they know that teacher won’t let them play if they don’t practice drilling. I’m playing a game myself; it’s just longer and more drawn out, and I know I’m going to lose when it’s over. The Chinese built enormous ships and sailed to Africa long before the Europeans. They met and traded with East Africans before deciding to leave it alone, deciding it had nothing to offer them. The Europeans colonized and enslaved, and their instinct for war brought them into conflict with the Chinese who called them “barbarians.” Thugs who decided it was a good idea to land on the moon and send a robot to Mars. Mars, the god of war. 火星. Fire Star.

Teaching three and four year-olds how to say “It’s three o’clock” has involved drawing on a whiteboard, throwing a ball, running, singing, and more. Children learn by play, says Socrates, and so do I. If one’s mind can reward itself for finding something interesting in a small discovery, he can bypass the discpline most learners require in order to achieve that discovery for material ends.

Most people like to tell jokes and laugh at them. But sometimes I can make the joke last so that all sorts of idiosyncratic elements of an experience can turn my will to achieve something, especially something small, into the punchline.


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