“Get a translator, it’s what everyone else does” okay great thanks for the advice but I’d like to send a shipment regularly. “Well then hire a translator every time you go”. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. China is all about face-to-face contact, making connections and building relationships. If I am going to be doing business in China, I think it should be me doing the talking and not standing around while someone negotiates for me. I better start putting a bit of effort in.
“Immerse yourself in the language, talk all the time as much as you know. you’ll start to pick it up” Easier said than done. Chinese, (well Mandarin, there are 55 other languages in China with thousand of dialects) is a language that has evolved totally separately from Europe. It’s tonal, which means Ji for instance, can be machine, few, post, to name a few, in fact I lost count in my dictionary at about 50 words. The word ‘shi’ is famous for having so many meaning, poets have written whole pages on just using it alone.
So after language tapes and lessons in the Uk and China it was time for my first business trip. Across the other side of Shanghai we walked into the shop to buy some stock. Now most Chinese in Shanghai will know westerners are notoriously rubbish at Chinese and need a bit of help. Speaking slowly and using simple words is the name of the game, although it is hard to notice as that is still difficult to understand. Not this lady, she was going full speed, guns a blazing. Wow, this is hard, and as soon as you think that you brain has stopped listening to what they’re are saying. Crash. “Zai shou yisi” (can you say it again please) okay breath, concentrate and go.
Shanghai is tricky in terms of language as only about half the population (15 million) speak Shanghainese, a variation of the Wu dialect, nothing like standard Mandarin. Their mandarin has a thick Shanghai accent, so a lot of words are pronounced differently. Similar, I guess, to Irish or Scottish English. The rest of the Chinese population (another 15 million ish) will speak their own language from they’re original province and Mandarin with their own regional accent. What this means for a foreigner like me is that you hardly ever hear standard Mandarin or TV Mandarin. Some people you can understand pretty well, especially if they are being helpful, other people not a single word. Oh, and you have to take into account if they have a rough, soft, fast way of speaking. There is a chap in the local shop, who mumbles so much even the locals can’t understand a word he says and have to get him to write it down or use hand signals.
Anyway, back to the shop. So there I am, trying to buy shoes, understanding one in ten words negotiating cost, shipping, packaging, sizes and eventually having a good hour or so chat in Chinese. Success. “Next time it’ll be easier” I think. So as I wander in last Tuesday, full of confidence I am shocked about how little I can understand of this fast speaking Chinese lady. She takes no prisoners and won’t slow down for anyone. The best way to learn.