飞机 (fēi jī) and 肥鸡 (féi jī) are two completely different words. One means airplane and one means fat chicken. In grade five, I told my Chinese teacher that I was going to fly to Beijing (我去北京在肥鸡) either on a fat chicken or in chicken fat. Seemingly enough, I failed my speaking test and did not fly to Beijing on a fat chicken. This embarrassing tale touches the surface on the difficulties I face everyday – when trying to speak to cab drivers, when trying to order water at a table or when trying to tell the cashier that I want ten servings of Yang’s (see picture below). Another bad example, an example that I’m sure will occur to somebody one day, but we all need to experience it is the difference between boiled dumplings (shuǐ jiǎo 水饺) and go to sleep (shuì jiào 睡觉). Somebody yelling at a waiter “I want to go to sleep!” as opposed to “I want dumplings!” may cause severe confusion.
This language barrier appears in every situation almost everyday. I accidentally said ni hao (你好) to a Korean student the other day, to which I got back a reply “um, I’m Korean”, and I always get the “Ni hao! Oh wait, you don’t speak Chinese.” I can understand ni hao, thank you very much. And this is only the language barrier between Chinese and English. NYU Shanghai students come from over 50 countries, and can speak pretty much the spectrum of languages, including dialects, internet slang – the works. So combine this with the students (unfortunately like myself, with the exception of being able to understand Chinese) who can only speak English. It gets kind of hard. So what do I do, when I’m standing in a group where two of the people are saying words in Spanish and then there’s a Chinese student who doesn’t know what “bibliography” means so they have to say it in Chinese.
NYU Shanghai is an American school in China. This is where things get complicated. The Chinese students want to learn English and the international students want to learn Chinese and then there becomes a clash. When do we have to stop speaking our own language to learn a new one and when do we have to start speaking it to help others?
I’ll finish this with another little story – the other night, I had a taxi driver who was so keen on speaking English to us he said hello at least seven times, said “party, party, good night” like three, and proceeded to blast Chinese electronic music whilst changing the lyrics to Zhong Shan Dong Yi Lu (a street name – 中山东一路). I clearly didn’t need complete proficiency to understand him, so maybe as long as we can say party, good night and hello in both languages, we’re fine.
Oh and as promised, here’s the dumplings. Literally died and went to heaven.