An incident which happened last...
An incident which happened last week kept coming back to invade my thoughts. It was a rather simple and unimportant thing, if I can say so myself – thus, I do not understand why the need for it to keep bugging me.
I was leaning against a railing near the students’ public meeting room in the university’s administrative building while waiting to conduct interviews for interested applicants of the Student Publication Board, all the while savouring the cool evening breeze and marvelling at the brilliant colours of the sunset. Not long after, a tall Chinese girl stepped out of the elevator holding a few heavy looking packages. She put them down on the floor, then proceeded to stride to and fro near me, all the while mumbling to herself. She sneaked a few glances at me, while I pretended not to notice, preferring to concentrate on my rather uh, dirty shoes.
Finally, she stopped right in front of me and asked if I had seen a group of girls walking past me earlier. Somehow, I had to struggle to find the words to reply to her. All that came out from my mouth was: “Uhhh.. aahh.. uhmm.., sorry, I…”
She then said “Oh..!” and continued to repeat her question. I did not manage to answer it anyway – her friends showed up there and then, and without muttering a thank-you, she took the stuff she had put on the floor and went off to talk to her friends.
You might not find anything wrong with the brief conversation both the girl and I had at first glance, of course – because I had left out an essential part to it:
The girl first posed her question to me.. in Mandarin. She switched to English to repeat her question.
And the odd thing about it is that, well.. I did understand her question. But I do not really know the reason as to why I could not answer her. I suppose I was actually trying to decide how to answer her – in which language? Of course, it’s only polite and appropriate to answer others using the same language. Eventually, my thoughts became jumbled up and I was rather unnerved by the uneasy silence that had came to cross between that very moment – therefore, my need to automatically respond to her question by using an apology.
Sometimes, incidents like this might appear insignificant. But now that I think about it, I wonder if my lack of proficiency in Mandarin will only form a barrier and deter me from going very far in life. I went for Mandarin classes for four hours a week – for six years – my final year ended in 1998. All those time and effort I had put in – to the extent of coming up top in class – and I wonder if is it really doing me any good. I admit that I know quite a number of Mandarin words – but I am not sure if is it really enough for me to survive. After all, Mandarin is (or has it already?) to become the most used language in the world. And heck, I couldn’t even reply to a simple question in Mandarin.
Indeed, there must be a good reason as to why and how the phrase ‘banana’ was coined to describe us non-Mandarin speaking Chinese.
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