Appropriate language and behaviour

I remember we were very shocked when our eldest son, aged about 6, came home and told us a rhyme he had just learned in the playground of Bourneville Infants School:
Ooh ahh, I lost my bra, I left it in my boyfriend’s car!
Well, I have actually lost my bra – not, I hasten to add in anybody’s car, but over the edge of our balcony window, down on to the drying railings of the flat two storeys below. This is one of the hazards of living in a high(ish) rise apartment. We have all sorts of hanging mechanisms for drying the washing on the balcony, but with the better weather I tend to hand out smaller items on a twirly device with lots of pegs, and hook this to the concertina-like railings which come with every apartment. Unfortunately, one mistake and an item can be lost below. On other occasions, a falling small has reached the ground and I’ve rushed down in the lift to retrieve it. But not this time.
Now, as several of my kind readers have remarked, my Mandarin has advanced considerably. I can go to the bank to pay the electricity bill, I can buy vegetables, I can discuss the weather, I can place the supermarket south of the bookshop, I can talk about my family and my age. However, I haven’t yet learned to say, ‘Please could you give me back my bra, as it’s fallen on your clothes line.’
I put my little problem to my Mandarin teacher when she came here last week. She suggested a simple sentence would definitely do the trick. It translated roughly as: ‘My clothing has fallen on your family.’ The word for clothing is a lot easier to remember than bra, while the word for family is also the word for house. The character of the latter is interesting – it combines two basic shapes or radicals, for roof and pig. If you have both of these in Chinese you have a family or indeed a house.
My teacher even came downstairs with me to knock on the door of 203. No luck – no answer. And so it has been for the last few days. My blue, Marks and Spencer bra remains suspended on the drying rack of flat 203, although it has been, somewhat disparagingly I feel, pushed to the very end of the rail. So if I ever got them to open the door and talk to me, I don’t know how they would fish back my bra. But anyway, I’ve lost heart and no longer have the chutzpah to try out my new sentence.
But this week I have had other linguistic triumphs. During one of my lessons, my teacher shut herself in one of our spare rooms while I telephoned her and we practised some possible conversations – reserving a table in a restaurant, asking about a hotel reservation and ordering drinking water. I have a terror of using the phone here. I’m happy to prepare what to say, but the problem is that the person at the other end answers and what if I don’t understand them? With no other indicators – gestures, body language etc – I fear I would be left sweating and helpless. Anyway, my teacher’s strategy has been a good one and yesterday I rang our water shop and asked for a delivery of two barrels of water. No problem! Mrs Watershop recognised my voice instantly (probably showing how terrible my accent is) and knew exactly where to deliver the water. I was very pleased with myself, although when Mr Watershop arrived he wanted to engage in conversation, and I was disappointed that I didn’t understand him.
I realise I just have to acquire more vocabulary – and as quickly as possible. So, on Saturday I took action. We were out and about in downtown Ningbo getting a free service for our bikes before we go back to the UK. We spent a couple of hours in the centre of the city reflecting on how quickly our first year had passed and considering how long it had taken us to overcome our initial culture shock. Walking back to the bicycle shop we passed a bookstore with a window full of children’s books. I could read a few characters and it struck me this could be a way to learn more words, fairly painlessly. I am now the owner of ‘Kitten goes fishing’ (Grade 1) and ‘Three Little Pigs’ (Grade 2).
Sunday was spent on the first 6 pages of ‘Kitten goes fishing.’ Each page has two sentences of about 12 characters. By the end of the day I had indeed acquired some new words. These included: cat, river, dragonfly, butterfly, fish, fishing rod, chase and bring. Probably not all of these will be useful in my everyday life, nor will they help with conversations with shopkeepers, but I feel I’m continuing to make progress. I’ve also gained some insight into the moral messages that the PRC imparts to first graders. You don’t catch a big fish (symbol of prosperity, by the way) unless you sit down on the river bank, concentrate, ignore any distractions offered by your friends and do what your mother tells you…….

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One thought on “Appropriate language and behaviour

  1. What a hoot! Presumably your sons will be bringing a replacement bra over when they visit you. Furthermore I can imagine Ruairi in Marks and Spencer saying sheepishly (or confidently?) to the assistant, “You see I want a replacement bra for my mother who has unfortunately lost hers in China, where its hanging on the neighbour’s washing line in the flat below hers. Sadly she hasn’t got the necessary language or chutzpah to go and ask for it back!” Would he be believed? Had you thought about putting a note through your neighbour’s door? That way no-one loses ‘face’ or is embarrassed, because they could just post the bra through yours? Or are there no letter boxes in the doors of the flat?

    I understand about culture shock since when the Ugandan Asians came over here suddenly in the 1960s (Idi Amin’s expulsions I think) the 7 year old children I was teaching were expected to just come into school the next day off the plane (Sparkbrook in Brum) join the class and settle down to work. There was only one enlightened empathic (floating) teacher who insisted these bewildered children came to her out of our classes each day and played with toys and learned the language. She explained the concept of culture shock to us younger teachers who hadn’t a clue.

    Yes I agree about the usefulness of children’s story books – I am using them to learn Spanish and my friend is using them to learn French, and as you know the stories that really helps. If you read them aloud you can get the pronunciation corrected too.

    Well done! what achievements in ten months!

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