Thursday, August 25, 2011

Single to Burgess Hill

Waiting for a train on Brighton station today, I saw a middle aged Chinese couple faffing around, looking for information about the trains and calling up someone for advice over the phone. For all I knew, they were probably phoning a friend in China who'd once visited Birmingham, Bristol, Bridlington or somewhere else beginning with B, hoping they could give directions to the correct platform. I stood watching, aware that it was Mandarin Chinese they were speaking, fantasizing about approaching them and offering to help in at least passable PuTongHua (Mandarin Chinese - though contrary to the elite naure of a mandarin, PuTongHua means common speech). After they'd clearly gained no pertinent information from their mystery friend, I decided it was worth my seeing if I could help. No one else was likely to.

Aware of the stereotypical situation experienced by foreigners in Taiwan where someone approaches you with nothing to say simply because A. they want to practice their English or B. they want to tell everyone they know that they spoke to a foreigner, I dived right in.

NiMen qu na li? "You go where?", I asked. Bhezshessherl came the answer. "Nimen qu Bedford ma?" I asked. Puzzled looks all round. "LunDun!" "Ah, London" I went on to ask them which London station they were going to so I could direct them to the Victoria or London Bridge train. "Bherzheshill"

The penny dropped. These visitors from the other side of the world wanted to go to Burgess Hill. No problem, same train as me. I now had an opportunity to ask them why the hell they wanted to go to Burgess Hill!

It turned out that they both lived in England. He was a chef and his English was very limited. I never discovered quite what she was doing here but her English was probably much better than my Chinese. We did the usual lines. "Ah, you speak such good Chinese!" (curiously, she said GuoYu, not PuTongHua) "No, really, I don't!" "How old are you?" she asked. "What do you think?" She was only one year out - usually people of different races have more difficulty judging each others' ages in my experience. It's even been suggested to me that I look 25!

"NiMen chong na li?" (you from where?) They came from GuangZhou. "Where did you learn Chinese?" asked the woman. "Taiwan." I said I spoke a few words of Taiwanese too, and was corrected "Minnan" (south Min language). Knowing glances all round. By this time speaking in English, she said "It's about geography." "Politics too" I chipped in and left it at that.

The semantics of "Taiwanese", versus the broader terms "Hokkien" or "Minnan" is a little like speaking "American" (MeiWen) versus "English/British" (YingWen). Or eating Freedom Fries versus French Fries for that matter. Language and culture and the ownership and control of them are intensely political.

I enjoyed speaking to them (and practicing my Chinese - as Taiwanese have done in reverse to me) though I could feel my Chinese ability slipping away already, and with it.......

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