This piece was originally written when I was living in Beijing, sometime in 2011. It has been edited from the original version.
So, I’ve been living in Beijing for nearly a year now and, slowly but surely, I’ve managed to feel somewhat confident enough to speak in sudden outbursts of Mandarin with locals.
Here’s how the process works:
Step 1: Several weeks prior to engaging in said outbursts, I think long and hard about what I want to say in its exact format to the intended audience.
Step 2: I immediately regress into a pit of self-doubt and self-deprecation when I realize that the way you apply tones to what you’re saying in Mandarin is critical, and I have no idea if what I want produce is going to actually come out correctly.
Step 3: I practice it out loud with my boyfriend (namely because he’s so nice and positive and makes me feel special…even when I sound like a total moron).
Step 4: I put myself in situations where I can say the given phrase several times over, building my courage for the impending outburst. It usually takes several more weeks of being in the necessary social situation to use the actual phrase out loud.
Step 5: Courage finally sets in after weeks of silence and sitting awkwardly among talking people, looking as if I want to say something but remaining excruciatingly silent. I wait for the golden moment, seize it, immediately forget what I wanted to say but still go with it, speaking a close approximation of what I had intended to say when I practiced it 7 months before.
And the process repeats on and on, ad infinitum, but in any case, I’m getting something out of it, right? Does it count even when I’m the only person who understands what is being said? I think there’s some merit there…
Well, not too long ago, I decided that I was going to expand the range of conversation I had with taxi drivers in Beijing. They’re usually talkative enough, asking the same handful of questions:
- Where are you from?
- What’s your name?
- Where are you going?
- What do you do for a living?
- Etc., etc.
After several weeks of this same type of banter, I decided to shake things up a little by learning a polite and respectful way to address the taxi driver when saying good-bye and exiting the cab. I thought it was simple and considerate enough and that it would add a new dynamic to the conversation. And since I was feeling especially confident, I decided to throw out the previously mentioned process altogether and just go with my gut.
This time surely, I knew what I was doing. I had the confidence. I had the background conversational experience. It was only a two-word phrase for goodness sake! I could totally handle a two-word phrase without having to stick to the process.
So I took hold of every opportunity to give each taxi driver a nice, “Xièxie, shū fu!” when leaving the taxi.
After a few cab rides, I started to notice that I would get a strange, confused smile from each one, but I took this as confusion for my being overly nice. Locals in China can be like that from my experience: quite humble and unassuming. But I had heard other people referring to cab drivers as shū fu before, so I didn’t know what the problem was.
That is, until…
One day, when going out to meet friends for dinner, my boyfriend Ian, paid the taxi driver and said a nice, “Xièxie shī fu.” Naturally, I latched onto this obvious mistake and immediately pointed it out to him. Because I’m an amazing girlfriend.
“No, no, silly Ian,” I said as I patted his head. “It’s shū fu, not shī fu.”
He looked at me incredulously. The fighting and playful condescension went on for a while, and like most of our disagreements when discussing Mandarin, we went to our pocket dictionaries for the final answer.
Turns out, I was wrong. And not only wrong, but awkwardly so since, for about five months prior to Ian correcting me, I had actually been calling taxi drivers comfortable instead of referring to them in the respectful manner I had intended to. And to my dismay, each awkward, uncomfortable and confused stare I got from each taxi driver as I proudly said my awesome farewell phrase came flooding over me. And I wallowed in the empty pit of Step 2, realizing that I had foolishly skipped Step 3 and really, really shouldn’t have.
The step that would have saved me months of retroactive mortification.
I will never waver from the process again. But to get it out of my system forevermore, here it is one last time:
“Xièxie, shū fu!” (Thank you, comfortable!)