I can read a smattering of Chinese characters, so when we attended church, I tried to follow along in the Chinese hymnal that the congregation lent us. To my great consternation, I encountered these characters together: 主面, or zhu mian. In English, that's, "God noodles". The Lord's Supper like you've never had it before!
"Christina!" I whispered in horror to our team's assistant leader, "What are we singing about?!"
"Oh, don't worry," she said. "Mian can mean things besides just noodles."
Google Translate says 主面 means "main surface". Chinese is so confusing.
Rob and Cathy were representatives from our organization who came part way through the program to check up on us. We were with them in a pizza restaurant. Rob had recently noticed the poster plastered above our booth, which declared that this restaurant had successfully earned the lowest passable grade possible in food safety, a C. The C grade was accompanied by a red smiley face that actually wasn't smiley at all. This poster was proving to make both Rob and Cathy rather nervous, especially since someone had just died of bubonic plague the next province over.
By this point in the program, we had been eating regularly in C grade restaurants for several weeks. There wasn't any option, really. Hardly anywhere earned above a C grade, but we'd had no major gastrointestinal (or plague-related) problems to speak of, so the rest of us weren't particularly concerned.
Rather unfortunately, it came to pass that while we were in the process of trying to convince Rob and Cathy that everything would be fine, I saw a mouse skitter across the floor. It was the only mouse I saw during the entire trip.
"Oh," I interrupted the conversation, "I'm pretty sure that was a mouse that just ran by."
No sooner did I finish speaking than it darted under our table and ran over Cathy's feet. She shrieked. I shrieked. Everybody shrieked. The mouse turned a frantic 180 and darted into a back corner. By the time the shrieking subsided, a Chinese server had arrived to see what catastrophe had befallen our table. He found us all sitting with our feet tucked up under us, eyes wide in shock.
Cathy used to live in China and speaks some Chinese. "Fuyuan," she declared, which is the word for 'server', "There's a laohu running around!"
The fuyuan wisely figured it was not at all probable that a tiger was running freely about the restaurant, and surmised it was much more likely a mouse, or laoshu, causing our terror. He expressed embarrassment on behalf of management and then the restaurant offered us free drinks.
"Well," said Rob, "I guess that explains the C rating." He ate the pizza and fries, regardless. We encountered no more tigers and all escaped unmauled.
I told my class that we were going to have a debate: Which city in Ningxia is better, Yinchuan or Qingtongxia? "It's such a long name," I mused out loud, "Qingtongxia."
My class burst out in ill-concealed snickers.
"I beg your pardon," I said. "I meant, Qingtongxia."
They all applauded me.
For the record, Qingtongxia is pronounced with one first tone and two second tones, not two first tones and a very pronounced fourth tone. Now you know.
My station in a cooperative multi-class activity involved coaching groups of Chinese students to say "Willy's real rear wheel". The idea was that once they said it correctly, I would give them some information they needed to complete a puzzle. Unfortunately, the more they focused on getting the L and the R sounds correct, the more they altered the vowels. We just couldn't have both. Sometimes we had neither.
Me: You must say, "Willy's real rear wheel."
Any Chinese student, pick a student: Veely's reer reer reer.
Me: Willy's real rear wheel.
Students: Veely's rahr rahr rahr.
Me: Real. Not Rahr. Real.
Students: Zheel! Zhee-ar! Uhzhar!
Me: Uh, real?
Me: Rear, rear.
Students: Zhahr, zhahr.
Me: Oh, good heavens, just take the information and go.
I got flashbacks to the most recent Pink Panther movie, where Inspector Clouseau wants to buy a dabaga.
This same L/R issue also surfaced with regards to my name. A particularly skilled student or so would call me Cah-la, or even on occasion, Carla, but the vast majority called me Colour. For a while, I halfheartedly tried to correct it, but eventually gave in and allowed Colour to become part of my identity.
A Chinese official at the closing ceremonies took it upon himself to read aloud all our transcribed names. He spoke no English and knew he wasn't going to get our names anywhere near correct, but still he was willing to embarrass himself because he wanted to show us all respect by acknowledging us. In Canada, we might not consider it especially respectful to mangle someone's name, but in China, in this situation, it meant a lot. So I can sit happily with the name Colour. It's all I've got, since despite all his intentions, the official couldn't quite bring himself to even try my last name.
Speaking of linguistic issues:
“You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.” - from C.S. Lewis's Perelandra