World / Reporter's Journal

Making my way in Mandarin with a little help from the newsroom

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-10-22 04:52

When China Daily Deputy Editor Mr Wang Hao — who was in New York in September to direct coverage of President Xi Jinping's US visit — asked my colleague Chris Davis and me to join the rotation of writers on this page, I thought why not. I'll be syndicated internationally.

Making my way in Mandarin with a little help from the newsroom
For my first offering, I decided to write about some of the challenges I'm facing in trying to learn just a little Mandarin. Aside from the memorization of the words in pinyin (the Chinese characters are another story), I'm struck how most of the words are no more than four letters, which may be easy for speaking but actually doesn't help with memorization.

The brevity makes a lot of words seem similar, even though they're not. And Chinese, which refreshingly sticks with a very direct word order, also can have some 20 different meanings for the same word (sort of like English), let alone the variations created by the four tones! I also find it endearing how the four tones even apply to people's names.

Another thing about pinyin is that, for the most part, an English speaker can pronounce most of the sounds the way he or she would in English. But not when it comes to he (huh) or zi (zuh) or qi (chur). Don't even try those words if you can't come close.

One of our colleagues in New York, reporter Hezi Jiang, goes by HEZ-ee, which is how an English speaker would likely pronounce her name. In Chinese, her name is pronounced Huht-ZU-UH!, and half the people in the newsroom call her that. Her name is not that hard to pronounce in Mandarin, but if she's OK with Hez-ee, then I suggest you English speakers go with that.

Many Chinese in America also choose to go with a Westernized name. That's their prerogative, but I like the authenticity of the Chinese name. In fact, Weihua Chen, our Washington bureau chief, recently gave me one: Heng Weili.

And why do Chinese in the West not pronounce Beijing the way they would pronounce the capital city when they're in China? Shouldn't it be bay-JING! And not bay-jing?

Around the newsroom, I try to pick up the Chinese that I hear frequently: tou ban (page 1), hao le (it's done), fa le ba (send it).

My goal is to not elicit howls of laughter (particularly from our page designer Kenny Zheng) when I attempt something in Chinese, but rather to receive a three-to-four-second delay before the Chinese listener finally figures out the tortured pronunciation.

Another thing I find intriguing is how (so I'm told) that people speaking Mandarin can't understand Cantonese, and vice-versa. Sure, people from New York, Boston, Chicago and Atlanta all have different accents, but we can understand each other for the most part.

But I was even more puzzled when I learned that people from Beijing can't understand Shanghaiese.


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