November 20, 2012 | Mandarin

Chinese Pimsleur and Spa Services

In which I pimsle and get an Asian massage.

I admit it, “pimsle” is now a full-fledged verb for me. I use it regularly in speech. Probably daily.

Today, as on many other days, I carted my Pimsleur lessons everywhere around town with me. I walked across Central Park with them, I walked down Fifth Avenue with them, I ended up in Chelsea with them.

I did Pimsleur through traffic, traffic lights, in a store, at a haircut, on the subway, and at home.

Don't Smoke!

Don’t Smoke! 

The Pond, Southeastern Corner of Central Park

The Pond, Southeastern Corner of Central Park

I could read the above Central Park sign, which said “no smoking in the park” in Chinese—but only because I can read English and Spanish. I can’t read any Chinese yet; I’ve still been focusing only on speaking skills.

I am, however, learning to do arithmetic in Chinese. What is ten plus two? Shi-ar. What is four plus five? Chee-oh. These are my imperfect transliterations; I don’t know pinyin, the official method for transcribing Chinese into the Latin alphabet.

Wow. I just looked up the pinyin spellings of those numbers, and they look nothing like mine. Oops.

Tonight I got a massage at an Asian massage place. It turned out that my masseuse was Chinese. I learned this when I asked her if she spoke Chinese.

Yes, she said. Potong-hwah? I asked. (Mandarin?)

Yes, it turned out! What luck! She told me she was from Beijing.

With my face smushed into that circular headrest thingie, I demoed some of my skills, reciting various inappropriate Pimsleur sentences. Nyi shiang kunwa-eechee chi iteear tomshee ma? (Would you like to have something to eat with me?)

She laughed. “Dinner? After work? I will have to think about it.”

Later she said, “Chinese must be very hard for you,” alluding to the four tones, which she then demonstrated. Shiang, shiang, shiang, shiang.

I gathered she was saying the same syllable with the four different tones, but they were almost indistinguishable to me. 

I find it surprising that although tones change the meaning of things in Chinese, in my few Chinese interactions to date no one has seemed to have trouble understanding me. I am being quite careful, but still, I can’t always hear the tonal movements across a sentence, because I am too busy concentrating on the consonants and vowels, and I know I’m not replicating the tones correctly.

I guess context offers a lot of meaning to override the tonal affronts.

Later my masseusse asked me something in Chinese that I couldn’t understand. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“Does it hurt,” she said.

“Yes,” I said, “but the good kind.” She laughed again. She was unexpectedly strong.

When I was paying, my nice masseusse asked me if I had a Chinese name. I said no. She said, “Next time you come here, you have to have a Chinese name.” 

I said okay, but I’m not sure where I’m going to find one.

Comments (2)

Charles • Posted on Mon, December 17, 2012 - 6:32 pm EST

I learned my Chinese numbers by doing sit-ups and pull-ups and counting them off.  It seemed particularly effective and was a good way to get me to exercise.

With non-native speakers, Chinese I imagine rely on context more; because, once you get to an advanced level and you make a mistake in your tones its as if you’re speaking gibberish.  When I first started, I couldn’t remember the tones for shui3 jiao1 (boiled dumplings) and shui4 jiao4 (to go to bed, to sleep), so I probably tried to order sleep countless times at restaurants but they figured out what I meant.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, January 09, 2013 - 8:19 pm EST

Charles, I would be very pleased if I could order sleep. First, I need more of it, and second, it would mean my vocabulary had expanded.

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