Saturday, November 08, 2003

Please, Mr. Postman
Chinese has been an exceedingly difficult language for me to learn. There are five tones: high, rising, falling-rising, falling and neutral. For instance, the word "ma" has seven unrelated meanings depending on the tone, and in two cases, the context: mother, hemp/numb, horse, scold/swear, and it also is used to mark a sentence as a question.
And anyone who has ever heard me try to sing will attest that I am virtually tone-deaf. I am convinced this is part of the problem. Another I struggle with is that many basic names and phrases that I believe should only require a succinct, easily memorized verbal burst turn out sounding to my ears as if something like "Where is the bathroom?" is actually the entire text of the Gettysburgh Address as sung in Flemish.
Which is all by way of saying that I made a complete ass of myself recently while trying to mail some paperwork back to the states at the post office. I do have a very handy Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook, but am hampered with it in learning to speak because I have no one to regularly bounce the tones off of without severely embarrassing myself. But as happenstance would have it, I also caught a Chinese for Barbarians lesson via a Hong Kong TV broadcast with an episode entitled "At the Post Office."
It went something like this:
White hairy giant enters virtually empty, sparkling clean post office and goes to the window clearly marked both in Chinese and English: "Express Mail Service" where a smiling, polite clerk greets him.
Hairy Giant:(In Chinese): I would like to send this by express mail to Great Britain.
Smiling Clerk:OK! Please pay a very small fee and we will send it promptly!
HG:Thank you!
Well, that sounded simple, I thought. I scribbled my approximation of what the hairy giant said, checked what the phrasebook had for the post office entry and cobbled together a small script.
The next step was actually locating a post office. That took about two days of my patient colleagues standing at the south window of our 37th floor and pointing at the streets and buildings below and saying things like, "See green building?" Well, suffice to say I am red/green color blind ...
I finally figured out the approximate location and was happy to see it was an easy 10 minute walk from the Lucky Number Apartment. Armed with my script, the signed documents and - crucial mistake - not the phrasebook which I had forgotten, I ambled over to the post office on a Sunday morning.
One nice thing about China is that everything is open 7 days a week, including banks and post offices. I figured a Sunday morning PO would be a crowd-free cakewalk.
I was wrong, of course. It was jammed and let's just say that the concept of "lining up one at a time" is as alien here as paying extra for toilet paper or a tissue "napkin" in a public toilet or restaurant is to the average American. There were bilingual Chinese/English signs, but none read "Express Mail." Some said "Integrated Mail" and I decided to chance one of those. Elbowing my way through the masses, I stood, sweating profusely, at the counter and finally caught the attention of the postal clerk whose demeanor was remarkably akin to his American counterpart, as in "going postal."
Me (Haltingly, from the script)"I would like to send this by express mail to the United States"
What the clerk apparently heard me say:"Monkeys live in your sister's pants on Tuesday."
Clerk, frowning, calls over another clerk. Crowd begins to gather behind me.
Me:Frustrated, but gamely trying again"Express mail, United States!"
Clerk:"What the hell? I do not care that your mother's penis is a turtle. You are a mad man! Next, please!"
Finally, I spotted a batch of what appeared to be express mail envelopes on the counter behind him and pointed frantically at them. Slowly, using sign language, we came to an agreement. Incidentally, the fee was not ridiculously small like it was on TV. But nothing ever is.

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