By Peter P
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2006 Apr 18, 4:29am
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We are all proud Californians. Let's talk about things that we ought to be very proud of.
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Last week, I was talking to a Latin teacher who decided to pick up Chinese in mid life. He was very enthusiastic and I'm sure he has a natural affinity for languages (he also speaks Hebrew, Greek, French, and maybe something else), but it was very hard for me to follow his Chinese.
The very adept languist can probably pick up the nuances if they live in China for a little while (I've heard a few Americans speak nearly flawless tonal Mandarin), but it's probably just very hard.
I notice that a lot of Chinese here, especially those who arrived as kids, speak a flat sounding Chinese. For kids who were born here, their Chinese often seems no better (no more tonal) than the Caucasians, even though their parents start sending them to Chinese school at 5 or 6.
To some degree, my Mandarin has flattened too because I speak Shanghai dialect with my parents and English with everyone else, so my Mandarin gets rusty. But I can pick up the nuances if I spend a week in Beijing or two weeks in Shanghai.
Good grief! English food = curry + Chinese takeout! I wonder how they'd receive the infamous fried Mars bars.
My first professional job was in NYC's Chinatown. 99% of our clients were Chinese, and all of the office staff were Chinese too. More Chinese was spoken in our office than English. I made no effort to learn Chinese, I just overheard conversations held in Chinese day long.
One day when I was at an asylum hearing, the IJ asked my client a question. My client did not speak English, just Fujianese, so an interpreter was present to translate all of the questions and answers. When the IJ was doing the preliminary examination of my client (name, address, date of birth, etc.) I was sort of listening with one ear and thinking my the upcoming direct examination. The IJ asked a question, and the interpreter translated it, and I said, without thinking, "no, that's not right. The question was whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, not whether he had ever been arrested," or something like that. Somehow, I had picked up enough Chinese to understand what the interpreter and my client were saying to one another.
I was shocked because I had not realized that I understood Chinese until then. In the months that followed I started to pick up more and more. For example, one time our secertaries were discussing pop culture at lunch and I was able to follow the conversation. Toward the end I understood probably 70% of what was said.
I could not SPEAK the language to save my life, however. But I could understand it. It was like in those 50's westerns, where the cowboy points to native american colleague and "he doesn't speak English, but he understands it just fine," or something.
Sadly, I forgot all my Chinese almost instantly after moving away, I am sure I would have to start over from square one today. But I have no doubt that an adult could learn to understand Chinese. Maybe speaking it is another matter, I just don't know, but understanding it seems doable.
I grew up with Chinese, so I just know, rather than know how. So it's interesting to hear it from another perspective. Perhaps your Chinese immersed office is the best way to learn Chinese. Did you notice any tonal differences between the secretaries?
what you understood was Mandarin or Cantonese? Quite different from each other.
Yes. Most of our cleints (and office staff) were poor people from Fuchzou province who were not well educated.
Our paralegal/office manager was a college graudate, however, and her Chinese sounded different. The INS-certified translator we usually used was a graduate of a US college, and his Chinese was different too. Just before I left a secretary who was also a college graduate came back from materntiy leave, and her Chinese really stood out, I could tell that her diction was flawless even though I didn't speak the language. Ironically, I had a hard time understanding her.
I could sort of tell how intelligent a client was by listening to him speak. But it wasn't a question of being articulate, it was tonal. I hope that makes sense, I don't know, but the smart ones just sounded different.
99.999% of our clients were economic refugees, people who wanted to come to the US to build a better life. At first I thought their motivations were strictly economic, although I didn't care becuase if I grew up in Fuzhou City I'd want to move to the US too, but I later learned that they really did value our political freedoms, they just didn't talk about that.
All of the clients just made up their stories of persecution, I could never convince them to tell the truth no matter how hard I tried, and I tried hard becuase I thought a couple of them might have credible claims, but no one would ever listen to me. It was almost funny; they'd claim to be Catholic, and at the aslyum hearing the INS trial attorney would ask questions like "have you ever been to church," (they'd say no), or "who is Jesus Christ" (I don't know), etc. At the beginning of the process I would always encourage the "Christians" to go to church, etc., but no one ever did. The women would all claim they had been forcibly sterilized, but the doctor would do an ultrasound during the medical exam which would reveal that there had been no tubal ligation, etc.
However, we did have a few legitimate asylym claimants. I could always tell who they were just by listening to them for a minute or two. They sounded different somehow. And again, it wasn't their mannerisms or confident air -- they sounded different. For example, a lot of our male clients of a certain age claimed to have been at Tienamen square or one of the related protests in other cities, but one time we got a guy who really had been there -- and he had pictures! At the hearing the INS trial attorney realzied that this guy was legit after questioning him for about two minutes and actually made an oral motion for judgment in the asylee's favor!
One time we had this guy who had become sort of a conscientious objector while in the PLA; I was never able to prove that his story was legit, but I knew he was telling the truth. I won that case, thank God, becuase the judge made a really stupid ruling, and I won my appeal to the BIA and convinced the New York office to agree to a grant of asylum when it was was remanded. This client was just as afraid and inarticulate as all the others but somehow listening to him I knew he was telling the truth. That case was incrediby stressful, though, becuause I knew this guy was for real but had absolutely no evidence of it, and the client otherwise acted like, and was every bit as unhelpful as, the phonies. I coached him for days but the hearing was a disaster, he'd never look you in the eye while testifying, he was meek and hesitant, etc. Thank goodness I won the appeal and the INS dropped it in the end, I sort of had to call in a favor there but it worked out. It was scary as heck, though.
So yeah, there were huge tonal differneces between the secretaries and the clients. You could tell who was educated, who was intelligent, and who was truthful just by listening to people talk for a minute or two.
Well, it was a dialect called Fujianese, which I think is a variant of Mandarin, but I am not sure. Almost all of our clients were from the Fujian province, that is where most Chinese immigrants to NYC in the 90's came from. We did have a guy from northern China one time, and one the clients who actually was entitled to political asylum was a doctor from someplace else in China, a big city that I had never heard of, but everyone else was from Fujian province, usually the area around Fuzhou city.
I think Mandarin is the official language in the PRC, and when the INS sent a Mandarin interpreter to the hearings the clients could understand them but my impression from talking to people was that Fujianese is a pretty distinct dialect, they spoke about it as if it were another language entirely.
Standard Mandarin is the dialect of the area around Beijing. Once you move away from that area, there's variations in what is considered Mandarin and also regional dialects. You're right about Fujianese, I can't understand Fujianese at all, that's totally different from Mandarin. Same with Cantonese, I can't understand that at all.
Usually, the more educated you are, the more standard your Mandarin. The education system is now set up so that all the urban dwellers in the coastal provinces can speak pretty good Mandarin, but I've been to Hunan and Sichuan, and their Mandarin is not quite as standard. Your clients were probably Fujianese peasants so their "Mandarin" would be pretty poor. (BTW, NYC seems to have a huge Fujianese population that causes a lot of problems within the Chinese community. The established Cantonese residents really resent them.)
I was brought up in Shanghai, everyone was taught in Mandarin from first grade. However, if you listen carefully, you can still tell that my Mandarin has less tongue curling than someone from Beijing. Shanghainese is just as hard to learn (if not harder) than other dialects, my mother's mother came with the Red Army from Shandong when she was 18, she still can't speak Shanghainese. (Or think in Shanghainese, she named my mother and her siblings names that sound very similar in Shanghainese, which results in a lot of confusion in my family.)
Thanks. You said what I was thinking, I didn't want to say "peasants," but that's what they were in terms of background. One time a INS in-house translator I knew, who was not from Fujian, admitted that he could only understand about half of what my clients said while testifying! That didn't phase him in the least, though, he kept on going to the hearings. I asked him if he at least accurately translated the judge's questions, and he said no, he just sort of paraphrased.
The system was like that. Sometimes no INS translator would be avaiable and they'd let us bring our own! Our secretaries would not even bother translating the question or the client's response, instead they'd simply tell the INS whatever they wanted to hear.
I really hope to pick up Chinese again later in life. There are a lot of Chinese people in my neighborhood now but they are from Taiwan and HK and I do not understand them at all, not one bit. It was nice to be on the same wavelength with people and my limited knowledge of Chinese really helped with that when I was living in NYC.
"I didnâ€™t want to say â€œpeasants"
LOL! No need for PC here. The Chinese are some of the least PC people there are. There were (are?) a lot of Fujianese people trafficing rings and it created a terrible situation in the NYC community, with lots of gangs, violence, virtual slavery, and so on. They were probabably told to tell you about their "Catholicism" and whatever. 99% of it was phoney.
Taiwan "Mandarin" is pretty different from Mainland Mandarin. The difference would be at least as much as between a Southerner and a Yankee.
Chinese is a great language to pick up, if you can. Chinese people are always really impressed by white guys (and yeah, more often than not, it is a guy) who understands or can speak Chinese.
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