Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let's Fluent!

I'm still at Bouchercon in St. Louis with all but one of my MIE compatriots (boy, have we talked about you, Dan!), and that means I haven't had much chance to come up with something new.  So this is a baldfaced swipe off my other blog, written a few years back from China.

One of the nice things about wandering off the beaten path in China is that most people still don't speak English, and they don't particularly aspire to.  This spares you the "Is this a pen?" conversation you're likely to have  repeatedly in some areas of Japan, or chats in Cambodia with people who have made friends with only one English verb, "Have."  An example, from my own experience.  It's raining and slippery on the sidewalks, and the young lady in front of me takes a tumble.  I help her up and say, slowly and clearly, "Are you all right?" and she smiles and says, "Have."

In many parts of China, nobody even tries, which is probably as it should be.  I mean, do I try to speak Chinese to visitors in America?  Under these circumstances, you get creative and resort to sign language and mime, but even that will take you only so far.  An example:

Last night, I went into a restaurant, put my book on the table next to the place mat, and waited for anyone to notice I'd arrived. Ten minutes later a cheerful young lady wandered up and started chatting in Mandarin.  I put both hands in front of me, palms together, and opened them like a paperback, to indicate that I'd like a menu. She leaned across me, still chatting, picked up my book, opened it at random, put it into my hands, and wandered off again. I could practically hear her thinking, “He couldn't do that himself?”

So I went out and bought a book that purports to make me fluent in Mandarin. It's called Let's Fluent!, which should have sent up some sort of flare. But I bought it, took it home, cleared a space on my desk, and let it fall open. This was the phrase it opened to:

He prefers the cheese that comes from his father's farm.

Now, I don't know about you, but for me, no social situation springs immediately to mind in which this would be an essential phrase. Even ignoring the fact that the Chinese don't like cheese, when exactly would this come in handy?  And is there any conversation, however lively, that this phrase wouldn't stop dead?

So I kept flipping through, and came upon yet another stone-cold conversation-stopper:

The trouble with stamp collecting is that it's too time-consuming.

It is? Is that really the trouble with stamp collecting?  How about that it's more boring than growing worms?  Or that – after years of effort and expense – what you've got is a bunch of stamps?  Or that you're going to find yourself hanging around with stamp collectors?  And as with the other example, to whom would you ever say this?

My spirits were flagging – this was not the kind of witty, light-hearted banter I'd envisioned myself delivering, fluently, of course.  But then I struck gold. The next piece of repartee I opened to wasn't exactly at the level of wit that made Oscar Wilde famous, but at least I could figure out what kind of people one might say it to. Here it is (and this is a word-for-word quotation):

The topic of my paper is the structure of the crust and upper mantle in Northern China and their relation to Cenozoic tectonism. 

Fortunately I did bring some slides with me, which I hope will make things clearer.

Okay? Not really "me," I'll admit, but if I am ever called upon to address a gathering of Chinese geologists, I'll have a hell of an opening. I can hear them now, sitting up straight and grabbing pencils all over the hall. Once I'm really fluent, I'll throw in a couple of jokes about the rock cycle or maybe a pun or two on the word “mantle” that'll have them wiping tears of mirth from their thick glasses. And the slides! What possibilities the slides offer! They want rocks? I'll give them rocks. Rocks that would make other rocks roll uphill.

And when I'm finished, I'll bring us all together into a dusty group hug with the following nugget:

It's interesting that people may have different customs and traditions, but you can always find something in common among them.

Damn! To think I'd have missed all that if I'd put the book back. Come on, everybody – Let's Fluent!


  1. Another post that ensured I started the day with a long laugh.

    Wouldn't it be interesting to be a fly on the wall when these books are being created. These have to be done by a committee who laugh themselves breathless when they think of people trying to use the book in a real world situation. Maybe it is a summer job for Ph.D candidates at MIT who need a mental health break. Measuring the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston in Smoots has already been done.

    From Wikipedia: The smoot (play /ˈsmuːt/) is a nonstandard unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity prank. It is named after Oliver R. Smoot, a fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha, who in October 1958 lay on the Harvard Bridge (between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts), and was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the bridge.

    One smoot is equal to Oliver Smoot's height at the time of the prank (five feet and seven inches ~1.70 m).[1] The bridge's length was measured to be 364.4 smoots (620.1 m) plus or minus one ear, with the "plus or minus" intended to express uncertainty of measurement.[2] Over the years the "or minus" portion has gone astray in many citations, including the markings at the site itself, but has now been enshrined in stone by Smoot's college class.[3]"

    It is not known if the fraternity brothers and Oliver were drunk at the time of this endeavor but, drunk or sober, Harvard has not been able to top it.

  2. Lovely, Tim. For a moment, I thought it was going to be one of my all-time favorite of your blogs, the "You like butt?" waitress. My gut STILL twinges now and then from the torn muscles I got while reading about that waitress, asking you louder and louder each time, "YOU LIKE BUTT???" :-)

  3. Thank you for a good laugh this morning. Is there something in the language that avoids some intuition? It seems so literal compared to some of the philosophy I've read. (Just a little). Enjoy each other-sounds fun.

  4. Have: fun. (Don´t) want: fluent ;D

  5. Bouchercon update MIE dined ensemble last night for tapas only missing Yrsaa and Dan but we raised a toast to all courtesy of Stan and Michael's lovely wine and to our peeps!

  6. Tim, I guess talked about is better than, er, not being talked about.

    Lovely post.

  7. Hi, All, I'm back and got my head back on straight. What a rush Bouchercon was.

    Beth, I agree about the people who write these books. I'm sure they laugh themselves silly. As, I'm sure, do the Japanese candy-makers who create Kit-Kat bars in such flavors as Vinegar, Red Bean, Green Tea, Autumn Leaf (don't ask) and, for all I know, Cat Litter. I may blog about that soon.

    Hi, Everett -- I thought about using that one, but it seemed dated by the change at the top, if such a term can be used for the White House, considering -- no, no, I'm not going to rant.

    Dorte, you've got the spirit of it.

    Cara, I wish you and I could have spent a little more time together, but it didn't happen. Next convention.

    Ahh, Dan. If you only knew the things that were said. But maybe it's better this way.

  8. Heh! I have a photo collection of some of my favorites Chinglish signs. One of the all-time best:

    "To Take Notice of Safe. The Slippery Are Very Crafty."

  9. Ahh, Lisa, you're much more of a Chinese expert than I am. For all of you here, Lisa Brackmann wrote a sensational mystery, ROCK PAPER TIGER, set in China, where she lived for quite a while. GET THIS BOOK!!!