Trying to learn Mandarin from poetry written with a wet mop in a public square in Jinan, China. ©KettiWilhelm2014

Learning Mandarin in China: “No Really, I Don’t Understand”

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One of my best and favorite phrases I’ve learned in Mandarin – and definitely the only one I use in every single conversation, even though it takes my pride down a notch – is this: “Tīng bù dǒng.”

It means, “I don’t understand.”

Before I expat-ed myself to China, learning such a phrase seemed like a waste of brain space. Not because I had already learned so many other phrases in Mandarin that I expected to understand what people were saying. Oh no. I had just assumed people would realize that I didn’t understand what they were saying. You know, from my silence and my blank stare. So instead, before I moved to China, instead of learning how to say “I don’t understand” in Mandarin, I just learned how to say hello (nǐ hǎo!) and order a beer (yī píng píjiǔ).

As I suspected, ordering a beer in Chinese is a skill I am extremely happy to have. But oh, how wrong I was about the other part.

My first ‘welcome to China’ sign in the Shanghai airport. I took it as a sign of much more confusion to come.

What I’ve since learned is that people here in Jinan, a highly polluted but cozy-feeling city of roughly 6 or 8 million Jinan-ers, are really not used to foreigners who don’t speak (or understand) the language. Even now that I can say that I don’t understand Mandarin, I haven’t quite figured out the trick to making people believe that I can’t.

A lot of conversations go like this:

I smile, say hello and point at a food item I want. Or show a cab driver an address on my phone that a friend has texted me in Chinese. And I nod encouragingly, trying to imply something like, “Yep, you got it. Just go ahead and cook/drive, please. No need to ask for details.”

The person says a bunch of stuff in Mandarin. They want details.

I listen for any word I’ve picked up, anything I recognize, but usually get nothing. So I say, “Wǒ tīng bù dǒng…”

“I do not understand.”

The person says a bunch more stuff, as if they think maybe I’m lying and I really do understand Mandarin, or maybe I will understand if they just keep repeating it.

I listen closely, making my best effort to understand, then shake my head slowly and earnestly repeat my line.

The person looks at me incredulously, like I’m a lost baby and they don’t understand how I’ve survived this long. They say more stuff.

I switch tactics, just to drive my point home, and say something in English, such as, “No, seriously. I don’t understand. I don’t speak Chinese.”

They say, ”Yadda yadda yadda … tīng bù dǒng ma?” (Translation: “Yadda yadda yadda … you really don’t understand?”)

I say, “Purple elephant, pumpkin pie. Happy birthday.” Or something.

They nod slowly, knowingly. Yep, she really isn’t from around here.

At least that’s what I think is happening.

Again, people are NOT used to foreigners in this city. And I’m trying to learn Mandarin, but I’m already in the thick of it and I’m starting from zero. Like a baby learning a language, except that people don’t expect me to interact like a baby.

"I don't understand" what is written in Mandarin on the sidewalk with a wet mop in a public square in Jinan, China. ©KettiWilhelm2014
Poetry written in Mandarin on the sidewalk with a wet mop in Quancheng Square, in Jinan, China. (And I don’t understand it.)

And yet…

And yet, despite all of that, I’m not entirely lost anymore. Since my first week, I’ve learned how to get to lots of places – at least the important places where I go regularly.

And I’ve learned a few Mandarin characters! There are several that I recognize from signs on the street all the time, and I get inordinately excited about it. This is my current written vocabulary: person, big, sky/heaven, mouth, fire, one, two, three, ten, field/factory, man, woman, king, China, middle, above, below, tree… that might be all of it right now.

This is a bizarre way to learn a language (and I’ve studied French, Spanish and Arabic before moving here, so I have a lot to compare it with). Despite doing my best to attend Mandarin classes when I’m not teaching, I’m picking up written characters separately from learning how to say words. So, I don’t know how to pronounce most of those characters that I recognize, and there are Mandarin phrases that I understand but have no idea how to read or write.

I still don’t know what the written characters look like for most of the things I know how to say – namely, “One bottle of cold beer,” “I don’t understand,” “Two bottles of cold beer,” “Thank you,” “Chicken,” and “Open the gate.” (I got really excited when I used that last one for the first time getting home the other night.)

Another phrase in my Mandarin arsenal is, “University of Jinan, west campus.” That’s for cab drivers, and when I say it, what’s going through my mind is, “Please take me home and don’t murder me or rip me off, cabbie.” So far it’s worked really well. They always understand.

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