14 September 2011

I’ve experienced this a lot in Hong Kong and mainland China and from what I’ve heard from other people, I’m not alone. The problem is that when you finally get to try out that line you’ve been rehearsing all morning  (“Please go to the airport” which in Cantonese is “M’goi, heui gei cheung”) you speak to the driver, utter your sentence perfectly…. and then the driver looks at you like something that just dropped out of a dog’s bottom.

At this point you assume you’ve got it horribly wrong, said something offensive and suddenly you lose confidence and motivation in equal measures. You then repeat in English (which ironically might have even less chance of succeeding if you’re in Kowloon though most people understand “airport”) and go away a sadder person.

What did I do wrong?

The anwer is nothing. Everything you said was perfectly okay. The words were good, the sentence structure perfect, hell even the tones were a reasonable approximation. The problem wasn’t you, the problem was him. For a brief moment, he couldn’t understand Cantonese.

The reason for this is that he wasn’t expecting to hear it. If you don’t look Chinese, the driver will probably be doing two things. First he’ll be praying that you’re going to ask for somewhere that he knows in English (such as the airport) and secondly he’ll be stealing himself for an exchange in English, something a great deal of local Chinese try to avoid wherever possible. Mostly this is because they just aren’t very good at English although in fairness I’m willing to bet their English beats my Chinese hands down. Still, they don’t like using it and avoid it where possible.

So when a smiling foreigner hops in to the taxi and blurts out a sentence in Cantonese, their brain quite frankly craps itself. It was waiting for English and wasn’t convinced it would understand the first time. Needless to say, listening to Cantonese and trying to figure out what English was just said is a recipe for a hemorrhage. It’s not that the driver is stupid, it’s just that you caught him completely unawares.

It’s not just the taxi drivers - it caught me out too!

I was on my way back from work one evening and I live in a pretty local part of Hong Kong so English is a lot rarer here than say on Hong Kong Island. I decided that I really fancied some congee which if you don’t know is a kind of porridge made from rice. So I stopped outside the local shop and start flicking through my phone to try and remind me of the word for congee (which off the top of my head I think is “juhk”).

Whilst trying to find the word, one of the guys working in the shop came out to me and with a perfect London accent said “You alright mate, what can I get for yer?”. Now quite honestly this was the last thing I was expecting and my brain crashed. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand, it was just that finding someone who spoke English like a native working in a local congee shop was somewhat unexpected.

When I finally found my tongue and told him what I wanted he replied with “mei ah?” which roughly translates to “what?”. Turns out his English is pretty much limited to that one phrase and from there on in we communicated by pointing, waving arms and eventually came to the agreement that I would buy some congee for take out.

It also happened today when I was ordering a drink to go with my lunch. I asked for “dong ling cha” which is iced lemon tea. It’s probably one of the first things I ever learned to say and it’s never been a problem for me.

I said my canned phrase to the waitress who looked at me blankly and then turned to my wife - who repeated exactly what I had said with the only difference being the girl understood her.

The solution

All you have to do is repeat yourself. Just assume that you spoke perfectly and that you just crashed their brain. Give them a second to reboot and try it again. Maybe slow down a little or speak a bit clearer. Chances are it will go through the second time round. Remember, sometimes we have trouble understanding a native speaker ourselves, even when we are also natives - so cut them a little slack ;)

Of course, it could just be that you asked the driver to marry your pet chicken, which would understandably cause some confusion. Still, you can’t win them all but I’d be willing to bet that if you just wait a few seconds and repeat yourself you will mostly be okay :)



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