Fluency is not a list of words that slide off the tongue in the proper order. It is not simply a matter of dictionaries and definitions. Words are like a signal propagated through a carrier be it radio, wire or light; in life we call that carrier culture. It at times renders words utterly unintelligible.
Anyone who has spend even a just a few days in China knows that when it comes to buying and selling there is no standard of conduct other than make the sale. The seller’s job is to charm as much money as possible from the buyer’s pocket; the buyer’s job is to not let that happen. To me it is a curiosity that I get treated with the same blatant lies and sleazy bullshit that a fresh off the plane westerner would get. My Chinese is not great, but it is passable. Passable Chinese means you probably have been lied to, ripped off, and cheated enough times to learn a lesson or two about buying and selling in the middle kingdom.
That is what I would think; what I think happens to be completely wrong.
Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, every business transaction is the repeat of a conversation that has long long ago lost its freshness. I know the dance by heart, but that does not excuse me from having to tippity-tap my way through every buying transaction as if it was my very first day in Beijing. One would think I’d have surrendered long ago to the inevitable. I’m like Charlie Brown thinking that at last I am going to kick that football; optimism can be a sad, sad disease.
The trick is to translate meaning, not words.
Vegetarians have a terrible time in China, and we had some in our group these past two weeks. No one here really understands that a human being could possibly voluntarily not eat meat. Perhaps some odd Buddhist monk or nun, but they are strange ghosts in a country purged of any kind of spiritual impulse. So the words ” want a vegetarian dish” gets translated as “I want a dish with vegetables.” The phrase “we have people here at our table who don’t eat meat” apparently evaporates before it can whisper up against the eardrum of the waitstaff. The phrase “we want this dish to be ENTIRELY without meat” does not include the little shrimp or bits of pork that are “spices,” of course they must be added or the dish would not be delicious.
There is a phrase in Chinese 沒辦法 “mei ban fa.” There is nothing you can do about it.
There is nothing you can do about being lied to about the quality, or lack there of, in the purchase you are about to make. There is nothing you can do about being quoted prices 4 to 5 times higher than you should pay. There is nothing you can do about, being butted in front of as the concept of lines does not exist in mainland Chinese thought. There is nothing that can be done to avoid questions of “how do you like China?” Innocent questions that remind me that while I have experience in the middle kingdom, the middle kingdom still does not have that much experience with outsiders.
Deng Xiaoping may have thrown open the doors to the dragon empire 30 years ago, but there there are still invisible barriers of culture and habit that protect China against the foreign invasion.
I may have some grasp of Mandarin, but my “Chinese” still needs some work.