A Perfectly Useless Amount of Chinese

Like many other Asian Americans, I went to see Crazy Rich Asians. And like many others, I had some typical takeaways like wanting to make dumplings with my family and . However, I also had one realization that I think is somewhat unusual.

In Crazy Rich Asians, they speak several different Chinese dialects. Specifically, I remember Michelle Yeoh speaking Cantonese while many others spoke Mandarin. I know many moviegoers were fluent Mandarin speakers who could understand most of it. And there were probably some fluent Cantonese speakers who could understand Michelle Yeoh. And then the truly impressive could understand both.

Then there’s less talented set of moviegoers who probably got a bit of it. Maybe they had Cantonese-speaking families and got passing familiarity there. Or maybe they took some Mandarin in college because China is the next big thing.

Or maybe they are like me and got both: I can barely speak, comprehend, read, or write either dialect, but I do know something. In fact, I knew exactly enough of both dialects that in Crazy Rich Asians, I could read the English subtitles, listen to the spoken words, and verify that the subtitles were correct.

That has got to be the most perfectly useless amount of a language possible. And I can do it in two: Mandarin and Cantonese.

When I was growing up in Toronto, I got a little exposure to Chinese. At home, my parents always spoke English to us. My grandparents on my mom’s side spoke another Chinese dialect called Toisan. Wikipedia says that there’s “little mutual intelligibility” between Toisan and Cantonese, but I have to admit that I couldn’t tell you what the difference was. Other than a few slightly different sounds, I was never taught to distinguish the dialects, so they blur together in my mind.

That, of course, isn’t hard because I don’t know that much Toisan. My maternal grandparents were fluent English speakers, so they usually spoke English to us. I think I mainly heard their Chinese when they were speaking to each other or to their other friends.

My dad’s side came from Hong Kong, so they speak what I assume is relatively standard Cantonese. As I mentioned last time, my paternal grandparents didn’t speak English, so I got plenty of Chinese from them. I know I never spoke much, but on a pragmatic level, I think I understood enough for a little kid to get by.

I took about three years of after-school Cantonese classes, and I learned basically nothing from it. I’m not sure what the curriculum was like, but I mostly remember tracing characters over and over again. I could recite the dialogs and understood what they meant, but it never came together into anything useful. An hour or two twice a week just doesn’t count for much.

When my family moved to Texas, we stopped going to Chinese school. I’m guessing that it was just hard to find Cantonese classes, but regardless of my, I was very happy because I hated Chinese school. It was boring, and I wasn’t making progress. From there, my Chinese atrophied quickly, though I don’t think it was because I stopped taking classes. I just wasn’t in the same environment as Toronto, where I got constant exposure from family and going to dim sum.

During high school, I took three years of French (since I had a small amount of French already from Canadian primary school), and that counted for nothing, so I had to fulfill my foreign language requirement in college. Since it was supposed to be the most useful, I took Mandarin. We had class for an hour five days a week, and in those small classes of maybe ten people, the curriculum worked. We spoke a lot during class and drilled plenty, and I felt pretty good about my progress.

And then I promptly dropped that class at the end of my freshmen year.

I figured I had more important things to study during college, and as effective as it was, it wasn’t easy. I especially disliked learning characters, and I had other things to do with my time. However, I did come back to it during my junior year when I took another two quarters of conversational Mandarin. In that class, we just had to learn to speak, and I enjoyed doing it.

I enjoyed it so much that I dropped that class at the end of my junior year.

Since college, my Chinese education has been haphazard. I want to be fluent in a second language because it seems like a good thing to do but don’t have any specific motivation for it. I picked up Mandarin for a time since it remains far more practical than Cantonese. Then I switched to learning Cantonese because I thought it would be easier, and I was right: even now, Cantonese just feels more effortless to me. When I am trying to learn Mandarin vocabulary, it feels like studying because everything is new. When I am trying to learn Cantonese vocabulary, it feels like I’m just discovering the formal version of what I always knew.

At the beginning of 2018, I said that I was avoiding Chinese as a goal, but since I threw out two of the goals almost immediately, I found myself with more time for it. Around that time, I asked my dad whether he thought I should focus on Cantonese or Mandarin. Cantonese would be more useful for speaking to my family, whereas Mandarin is far more prevalent in the world. He didn’t have a strong inclination in it, and since we had our China vacation several months later, I decided to focus on Mandarin.

The trip went okay. I found a handy phone app to help translate characters and sounds, and I managed to teeter at my perfectly useless amount of Mandarin. We mainly relied on my dad to translate for us, but at one point, we were in a taxi without him and uncertain if the driver knew where we were going since we had multiple stops. My family debated this for a minute or two before I finally busted out my Chinese and asked the driver where he was going first.

He promptly answered my question in English, and we made it to our destination safely.

I have tried a few methods to keep my Mandarin study going, but I discovered my current favorite in China. I was flipping through channels on the hotel TV when I stumbled across a kids’ show. I was amused by the animation so I stayed on for more than a moment, and I was hooked. It turns out that kid’s TV is a pretty good way to learn a language.

They speak very clearly and use simple words. It doesn’t require much effort, and there are lots of visuals to connect with the vocabulary. It’s like kids’ shows were designed to help someone learn a language.

So if you’re in the same situation I am, I recommend this Korean-produced show called Super Wings that has Mandarin audio on Netflix.

I can’t say that it’s going very quickly because I spend so little time on it, but I am proud to say that I can maintain my perfectly useless understanding of Mandarin.

2 thoughts on “A Perfectly Useless Amount of Chinese”

  1. At best, it’s difficult to learn any language. It seems to be easier to get the gist of the conversation rather than stammering out a reply. I didn’t realize my Cantonese was that good until I could joke with some of the Chinese elders and they understood what I was saying!

  2. Chinese has always been one of those great non-goals for me too. Always been something I wanted to do but there are so many other things that are always before it. That said, even a pitiful amount of Chinese can be incredibly useful in China as I realized when I was in HK last week.

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