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Following the Tao: a rough guide - Mag 127

© Shers Gallagher 2012

My first teaching term in Beijing I thought I could master at least what I nicknamed 'Yellow Cab Chinese', meaning basic words and phrases I'd need to know to get around the city in a taxi, on a bus or riding the metro. These would be words like 'turn right', 'turn left', 'go straight' and 'stop here'. Rudimentary communication, in other words, is necessary for one not wanting to end up on the other side of town when going shopping at the mall. Yet after only a few weeks of class I was knocking my head against a wall because of hearing myself mixing up my newly spoken Dutch with the Mandarin I was trying to speak. I had immigrated to Holland four years before accepting another international teaching assignment, and one of the requirements of immigration was to pass a language state exam before being allowed citizenship. Having successfully done so had freed me to again accept assignments to teach abroad. Yet the mix up I was now suffering with Chinese is one, I've since been told, often happens when learning a new language after recently acquiring another. Needless to say, I had to drop the course out of my own frustration and rely on guides and/or words written down on paper next to Chinese characters that I could just point to. "Here! Here!" I'd say to my perplexed looking driver. "I want to go here!" And I would rudely point to the characters of my destination in my Chinese phrasebook. Admittedly, it was embarrassing but necessary to be this way. Otherwise, the drivers would only yell at me to get out of their cab and I'd be left stranded to my own devices, which weren't always clever in unfamiliar territory.

For the Westerners' convenience, what is called 'pinyin' is a phonetic breakdown and Anglicised spelling of Chinese words and their characters. But properly pronouncing even basic Chinese is another 'kettle of fish'. 

Only when I returned to China for another teaching term did I re-enlist in a course and attempt to at least learn how to count and get my tones right. Learning to count is not just a simple 'one, two, three'. No, you must also know the proper hand signing, which is different than what one does in the West. Local vendors use a lot of body language too, some of which I'll never need to know :). Counting, however, is a must when dealing with the locals. And this too can prove initially difficult. The number 8, for example, is pronounced: bā, which is a flat tone. And its hand-signing looks to me like I'm shooting a loaded gun at whomever I'm communicating with - totally inappropriate in my land. And if this isn't unnerving enough, try going into the higher digits with your hand-signing. Or, for that matter, make some change!

Chinese is a lovely language regardless of all the painful attempts to master it. The art of learning its basics to me is a lesson in contemplation and patience. It is the understanding of a cultural perspective that, each year I am there, I learn so much from and become enriched by. Chinese is also full of many syllables, its consonant/vowel rules are so very different from any Western language - Germanic or Latin based. Its alphabet is not one we tend to recognise either, its characters deriving from age old pictograms, having merged to form meanings from hundreds of combinations. Standard Chinese only embraces a small portion of them. Mind-boggling, yes, but quite intriguing for a linguist is the very way in which one pens a character. Certain rules must be adhered to when, say, making a top/down, left/right, lift and stroke. And don't even think about stopping in midstream and lifting your pen off the page. This is simply NOT done. 

It isn't an easy 'dash', 'dot', 'cross your line' and there you go. Not at all. And when attempting Chinese one has no choice but to delve into the cultural perspective of Tao. Only in this way can one only begin to understand such a colourful form of communication. 


  1. Fascinating info about the Chinese language. Much appreciated. I had my own tussles with Turkish, but that's a different story.

  2. I'll bet, and equally fascinating with such script, I'm sure, Berowne!

  3. Counting on one's fingers gets a new lease of life. Lovely informative story.

  4. there is some irony in that the number 8 looks like a would be rather fascinating to me to try and learn one of the asian languages...

    1. I can help you with Bahasa Melayu, Brian!

  5. I find Kanji so fascinating...interesting post...

  6. Makes me wonder about the belief that the peoples of the earth are shaped vy the spirit of the particualr area they evolved on, influenced heavily by the " spirit of place " , of course flobalism is attempting to deny this , its logic assumes the entire world would become the same, homogenous rather than indigenous , what a shame that would be were it ever to happen, so much would be lost , i prefer the greens vision of the world as a patchwork quilt of diversity . Thanks Shers.

  7. I've always been intrigued by Chinese brush painting, and wish I had learned mastery of a brush in the same way in my art college days...

  8. Shers - that was a fascinating and enriching Magpie! I'll go over the finger count with my little niece. I know she'll enjoy learning this!

  9. Wonderful informative post. Thank you.

    Anna :o]

  10. Dear Shers,
    How lovely! I attempted the Malaysian version of "Yellow Cab Chinese" in Cantonese. And it has helped me over the years. In fact, I have enjoyed many Cantonese classes while in the cab, improving my accent along the way.

  11. I think What frustration yet at the same time very rewarding when gets it right


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