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Horse, Horse, Tiger, Tiger

by Ferida Wolff

One summer, my family went to China. No one spoke Mandarin, the official Chinese language. At our request, our Shanghai guide taught us how to say Hello, Goodbye, and Thank you. The Chinese people like to bargain, she said, so she also taught us to say, How much is that? and That's too expensive. We learned the Chinese equivalent of so-so, which would make it seem as if we were not too eager to buy and we would not be cheated. What she didn't teach us, and perhaps couldn't, was how to listen with Chinese ears.

In America, we accept many different pronunciations and still understand what is meant; it is the word itself that conveys its meaning. In China, it is the tone of the character that makes the word and, depending upon which is used, the meaning changes. The character ma, for instance, can mean you are calling your mother, asking a question, naming a horse, or saying something offensive.

So, armed with our new linguistic knowledge, we headed off on our own into the shops that lined Nanjing Road, a major shopping area in Shanghai. In one shop, we pointed to a fan. The clerk took it from its case to show to us. We looked it over and carefully said in our best Mandarin, "Mao, mao, hoo, hoo." The clerk's eyes widened. She backed away into the protection of the other clerks who were standing around stone-faced trying to decipher our intentions. Afraid that we were creating an international incident, we quickly bought the fan and forgot the bargaining. We tried our language skills in another store. This time the clerk burst into laughter and repeated our statement loud enough for everyone around the counter to hear. They all laughed. We still didn't get it.

We were laughed out of a few more stores in a few more cities before we stopped trying to bargain. We couldn't figure out what was wrong. We said what our guide had taught us, hadn't we?

We finally asked another guide in the resort city of Hanghzou why we were getting such reactions. When he heard what we said, he laughed, too.

"What you are saying is, 'Horse, horse, tiger, tiger'."

He pronounced the words slowly for us to hear the right way to say them. We listened very carefully this time and said the phrase exactly as he taught us.

"No, no. That is not right," he said.

We tried again with equally disastrous results. We couldn't hear the difference. A dip in intonation, if we heard it at all was, for us, just another way of speaking — for our guide it was a whole new word. He shook his head and gave up.

We stopped verbally bargaining for the rest of the trip but found that through gesture and intension, we were able to purchase what we wanted without feeling we were being taken advantage of too badly. And we were rewarded with smiles instead of laughs.

Somewhere along the way, we were told that the few words we knew were spoken with a Shanghai accent. We didn't try to figure out the regional variations; we were still stuck on horses and tigers.

©2009 Ferida Wolff for SeniorWomen.com
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