Sunday, January 14, 2007

Sticking my neck out

Following my own excellent principle (ahem) that you can never learn a language unless you are prepared to make a complete arse out of yourself, and also taking on board Chris's excellent advice about going to Chinese medicine shops to try out speaking Mandarin, I found myself in front of Dr. China in Mahon Point, Cork.

Well actually I just found myself there by chance. But also by chance I have a persistent arthritic pain in the knuckle of my right hand. But the direct approach is not for me. Oh no. Instead of marching in there, rapping (arthritically) on the counter top and announcing my Mandarin intentions, I perused the leaflets on arthritis (and other ailments) that were strategically placed around the outside of Dr. China. And there I lay in wait, counting on the same entrepreneurial zeal that so cleverly placed the leaflets, to react to someone nibbling at the bait. In under 10 seconds a member of staff appeared from what seemed like a very busy shop to ask if she could help me with anything.

So far so good. Well we chatted about the availability of the doctor and the shops opening hours while I plucked up the courage to speak some Chinese, for all the world like a 16-year-old boy asking for throat lozenges in a pharmacy when he really wants condoms.

"One last question" I said, "ni3 shou1 zhong1wen2 ma?". She replied automatically in the affirmative, and in Chinese. It was only when I offered "wo3 zai4 xue2 zhong1wen2" that she seemed to realize that I was actually attempting communication. Now that, as far as the Chinese content of the conversation is concerned, is that. I switched to English to explain that I was learning here in Cork and that I was just trying it out (if not indeed trying it on). That's the problem about learning how to swim in pools - there's always a nearby edge to grab hold of.

Despite the embarrassingly basic level, it felt really good to have stuck my neck out and not get it chopped off. I fared much better than the time, for example, that I was watching a film in Italian with my Italian girlfriend (now wife) and my parents-in-law to be. On hearing the word "sega" over and over again, I asked aloud what "sega" meant.

"Wank" apparently.

Anyone else out there got any similar confessions?

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