The teacher

  • I remember one lesson where she explained that repeating certain words in Mandarin is a way of being sweet, kind and engaging in a conversation. Later, talking about eating snails, she said in English “only think about taste taste, not snail snail”. I loved recognizing Mandarin elements in her English. It made me feel like I’d learned and understood something new, and with it, a new way of looking at language and communication.
  • She was funny without trying to be, which made the class so much fun. Responding to a student who thought a grammar rule was confusing, she said firmly but sweetly: “It’s not confusing, it’s convenient.” Loved that. It made me realize that we just had to look at the issue from a different perspective. It made the confusion disappear and helped us understand why it was convenient. She also had delightful nicknames for us, such as ‘sir’, ‘itali-xiaojie’, ‘tianjin-pengyou’ or, for the youngest in the group, ‘cute boy’. And she made sweeping declarations like “all the things is a wù” (物)! She taught us and made us smile – a gift, if you ask me.
  • We had class between 6pm and 9pm, give or take. On my way to school I would stop at the food court and pick up fresh baozi – lotus and red bean paste were my favorite – from the lady with the broken toe. One day, our teacher pointed out that bao aren’t particularly healthy and that I shouldn’t be eating so many of them. I was a little bummed because I love lotus paste, but I was also so grateful that she cared enough to speak up.

    Botanic Gardens - Singapore

    Botanic Gardens – Singapore

Body language and culture

  • We learned about cultural differences in body language. Talking to an American student, our teacher pointed at her nose and he thought she was calling him a liar. She explained that pointing at your nose means “me” and is not a reference to Pinocchio.
  • We learned about cultural differences in behavior. Apparently, in Chinese culture, when you’re invited into a home, you are given a drink your hosts like. It suggests friendship, closeness and politeness. If they’re invited and asked what they want to drink they say “anything”. It’s a way to be polite, positive, easy. In the West this may come across as indecisive or difficult. Apparently, it’s also considered polite and nice to ask lots of personal questions.

    Vivocity - Singapore

    Vivocity – Singapore

Trying to communicate – baby steps

  • One day, I went shoe shopping and mustered up all my courage to talk to the shop attendant in Mandarin. Apparently I managed to make myself understood because the shop assistant replied in Mandarin and kept talking. She turned to me and saw my eyes widening and I said in Mandarin: “I don’t understand, I don’t understand.” We both laughed and she gave me a discount on the shoes. For me, a phenomenal moment, not because of the discount but because I managed to communicate something in Mandarin, however basic it might have been. After that I seized every cab ride as an opportunity to practice!
  • It helped me understand Singlish a little better.
  • Mandarin is unlike any other language I know which opened up a whole new approach to and way of thinking about language and communication.