My personal phrasebook, which is not large, begins and ends with “Ting bu dong,” “Don’t understand.” Literally it means, “hear, not understand,” which is my state of being in this polyphonic, cacophonous, single-languaged land. Ting bu dong can also be part of a sentence, “Wo ting bu dong,” “I don’t understand,” although it is usually obvious who is ting, bu dong. In conversation, ting bu dong clarifies my blank confusion, but for some reason greatly amuses Chinese speakers. Whenever I say it, everyone within hearing laughs and nudges their neighbors, pointing at me and repeating “Ting bu dong, ting bu dong.” So I was pleased to find a T-shirt with ting bu dong on it in bold Chinese characters, 聽不懂. I wore it for our one manic day at the Shanghai expo. All day I got smiles and possibly approached the photo record set by Rianna and Morgan, who must appear in hundreds of Chinese photo albums and Facebook pages. (The Chinese FB is called QQ. Western FB is, um, not available. QQ (I read) has one billion users.) Among the Expo crowds “Ting bu dong” echoed everywhere around me. I thought, Wow, can all these people really not understand?
At lunch with a bunch of philosophers the other day I finally got to ask why ting bu dong was funny. I thought maybe I was mispronouncing it, saying “Beer, not underwear” or something — this is easy to do in Chinese. (For example, “thank you” and “diarrhea” are identical syllables but different in just one tone.) But no, my colleagues decided it was funny because it is correct Chinese: a foreigner communicates effectively in the local language that he is clueless. As Socrates says, there’s a kind of wisdom in knowing you don’t know, compared to simple blank ignorance.
The wisdom of Ting bu dong is of little use in shops, restaurants, taxis — anywhere at all. I can often state my main goal, “Can I see a menu?”, etc., but my minimal vocabulary is never enough to cope with the dreaded follow-up question. And life is all about follow-up questions. China especially is the land of questions because every conceivable job niche in the service sector is simultaneously occupied by two to seven people. I think our record is a gauntlet of twelve greeters welcoming us to the restaurant in our building. I went to Home Depot (with its global motto in English, “You can do it. We can help.”) for an uncanny hour in the Tianjin manifestation of the universal archetype of homedeponess. The Chinese characters along the aisles were in Depot-font on an orange background. It was just like West Hartford — except that the folks in orange aprons were everywhere, in every aisle in groups of twos and threes, chatting away. Boy, can we help! I didn’t need my ting bu dong there as I am Home-po literate. I felt a comforting surge of that rare feeling of competence (“You can do it”) as I gathered picture-hangers, double-sided tape, and a Halloween costume for Rianna (a hard hat and reflective vest).
Global clones like Home Depot are the exception. Every other logistic needs language. Getting around town is not so hard for aphasics. You just have to locate your destination, find the address in Chinese, and print or write it to show the cab driver. In the early days we had to be sure to have the same prop for getting home, but now we can say “Nankai DaShue, Weijin Lu,” with the confidence of a native. Planning a tourist trip requires strategic thinking at the computer before we set out.
Restaurants are another story. In a Chinese restaurant, as soon as you sit a server presents you with a two pound menu — just one for the whole table — and waits to take your immediate full order. I don’t think there’s any intent to pressure the client, since there are ranks of servers standing around, often several right at the table, and standing around is evidently part of most job descriptions, except in the factories. The menu is usually about thirty laminated slabs with pictures of each dish, sometimes near the item’s name. This is less helpful than you might think, as the universal reach of Chinese cuisine leads to many ambiguities. Is it calamari? Or duck webs or chicken feet? Mushrooms? Or jellyfish or pig esophagus? The size of the dish is also unknown. We’ve had a beef roast consisting of five wafers the size of a quarter, up to heaps as big as your head, one of which would feed us for a week — and we’ve ordered four. The system leads to discoveries: for example, pig fat in gravy is delicious and demonstrably good for you, since Chairman Mao had it every night for decades and he reached a ripe old age. We have also acquired another very useful term, Dabao, “Take out.”
I think the complexity of daily interactions may be a side effect of job duplication. Essentially, every task in Chinese society is handled by a committee. Think about it. You and five others assigned to the mission of delivering the menu to the customer. There are probably many ways to improve this process, to which you and your colleagues can contribute for the greater good of all. Most of these elaborations require follow-up questions.
We are pursuing the obvious remedy. The kids study Chinese in school and make quick progress. for Cheryl and me, the learning process requires responsible self-reliant disciplined diligence. Um… ah… ting bu dong. For complicated arrangements, like cell phones (very intricate, passports and more needed at every turn), we rely on the kindness of interpreters, particularly a student of Cheryl’s who has cheerfully herded us through every gate of the electronic age. Our student friend has also offered something which I’ve found at least as comforting as a trip to Home Depot: my Chinese name. Not the translation of my name into Chinese (though it is also that), but the name which henceforth = me, in the Middle Kingdom. This is not only satisfying but only fair, as many younger Chinese people have English names. Student interactions begin, “Hello, my name is Li LuQu, but you can call me Jennifer.” To my embarassment, I do have trouble pronouncing and remembering Chinese names, so I go with Jennifer, Sophia, Andy, Alice, etc. Now I can reply, “Hello, my name is Dan, but you can call me 罗毅丹.” That is, Luo Yi Dan (say it fast). Luo is apparantly a common family name, and YiDan, my first name, means “Steadfast red,” where red has connotations of good luck (in addition to patriotism). Chinese acquaintances seem pleased for me. In a poster for an upcoming talk, only 罗毅丹 will appear. Thus, I make linguistic strides, from Ting bu dong to Luo YiDan ting bu dong.
As you can gather, aphasia and illiteracy are stressing. A bit of alternative relief popped up at dinner a few night ago, over sushi (a treat here same as home). Cheryl, Rianna, and Morgan were chatting away and suddenly I realized that I didn’t understand a single word, although it was definitely not Chinese. It was alarming — had my language-cramped brain failed all the way? After a few minutes, I tentatively said, “Krefalunk brugitt,” to which Rianna replied, matter of fact, “Kre. Borador sif.” We were speaking Gibberish. In fact, we were totally fluent! We argued, reminisced, joked, and deliberated in Gibberish for an hour, all the way home, eventually falling into laughing fits in the cab and back on campus. I assume that Tianjin rarely sees visitors for Gibberland. We hope that we may be ambassadors of understanding and good will between the Middle Kingdom and the citizens of Gib. Zàijiàn and bludord che che zsk from 罗毅丹!