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Language Troubles

  • Written by Felix
  • May 16th, 2012
  • 6 min read


Firehouse


A main reason why I chose to settle down in Thailand after retirement was that here lived millions of Chinese. I had learned and studied the Chinese language and culture since my childhood. How did it come to this? At my tenth birthday – living in Nazi occupied East Europe – I was invited to pledge lifelong loyalty to Adolf Hitler and his NS-party. While speaking the oath I had to touch a swastika flag. One year later Hitler had died by assisted suicide, and the territory of Germany was liberated to the last square inch by the Allied troops.

I saw no future for me in the ruins of Europe and turned my attention to the East, where the sun always rises first. Soon I became a China aficionado and made it the foundation of my professional life. It would be logical if I had sought a retirement abode in China, maybe in Hainan. But I am afraid of the irrational climate of political tension between Beijing and Washington, and my favourite resort Sanya is a naval port. Thailand seemed safer.

In Bangkok one early afternoon I visited a big Chinese bookshop in Yaowarat Road. The bookseller was a well fed lady of more than middle age.

“Ni hao!” I greeted her.

“Ni hao,” she replied.

“Xiao jie,” I demanded , “qing gei wo kan yi xieh cheng ren xiao shuo.”

Her answer: “Do you speak English?”

I asked for a page of paper and wrote the same sentence in Chinese characters for her to read.

“Dui, dui, dui,” she agreed. From under a table she pulled a box with thin paperbacks and put it in a corner, where I could select unobserved what I wanted. I have been a collector of contemporary Chinese pornography for many years. Not because I was addicted to its content, but to learn the most vulgar colloquial Chinese. I have in a sideline been a translator of present day Chinese literature. So it was important to always know the newest fads. For example, when the first cell phones appeared in China, they were called “Da go da”. I never understood why, but when it came to Chinese slang I tried not to let go of the tush of the horse.

The lady in the Yaowarat bookshop was able to read Chinese characters, but why had she not reacted to my verbal inquiry?

I am proud to say that I speak a relatively understandable Standard Chinese, which often is erroneously called “Mandarin”. I say erroneously, because the word “Mandarin” is not routed in Chinese tradition. It is a word of the Portuguese language, meaning a high official. The Portuguese had opened in Macao the first colony on Chinese territory and had for centuries negotiated with Chinese officials. The name of their function was transferred to the language they used in their negotiations. If you are aware of this background I think it impolite to use this expression, because it perpetuates the wrong of colonialism.

In China Chinese is called “Han Yü”, language of the Han (Chinese). But in Thailand nearly nobody speaks Han Yü. Why not?

Most ancestors of the Chinese living now in Thailand have emigrated from a small spot inside the South China Coast called Chaozhou (old fashioned Teochew). In China only 10 million people speak the local lingo of Chaozhou, but for the majority of the Chinese living in Thailand their mother language is Chaozhou. That leads to the paradox, that a language only zero point seven percent of the population of China understand, has become the lingua franca of the Thai Chinese.

One of the first things you do when you meet a foreign language is learning to count. How much for a Songtiao ride or a bottle of beer? When I tried counting in Chaozhou I discovered that most numbers in Chaozhou pronunciation have no similarity to their counterparts in Mandarin – excuse me: – Han Yü.

So there is a reason for the in fights of linguists, who cannot agree if Chaozhou is a Chinese dialect or an old Sino-Tibetan language of its own merit. The question would be purely academic, if the wide spread of Chaozhou in Thailand, quite out of proportion to its use in mainland China, had not created a communication problem.

“Xiao jie, qing gei wo kan…”

“Do you speak English?“

One day my Thai Chinese household manager Hong came to me with the ad of a super-sale. She was a learned accountant and always had a keen eye for special occasions. This here promised one weekend in Hong Kong, flying Cathay Pacific Business Class, for less than the normal Tourist Class price. She never had been in China, the country where both her late parents had been born. She hoped to make up for this with me as a Cicerone. As a typical second generation Thai Chinese she spoke neither Han Yü nor could read Chinese characters.

In Hong Kong I knew my way around, better than in Paris or Vienna. What surprised me right after our arrival in Hong Kong was that from all the Hong Kong people milling around not a single one recognized Hong as a Thai girl. (Admittedly she was not as young as those shampoo models that let their hair undulate in TV). For the Hong Kong-Chinese she was one of them, and they addressed her in Han Yü or Cantonese, wondering if she might be deaf-mute, because she did not grasp what they said to her. This language barrier did not prevent the locals to show their cunning. When invited to buy something, Hong always indicated that she needed nothing, but a clever sales woman convinced her, that she would feel good if she bought a present for me. So I received a bottle of Boss Eau de Perfume for Men. It was the real product, no fake, and the green bottle now standing at my sideboard, still emits after years of occasional use a strong scent.

On the flight back to Bangkok Hong told me that she was deeply attracted by the lifestyle of the genuine Chinese, but learning their language would be too much trouble for her.

While the delicious Business Class dinner was served, we discussed the main differences between Chinese and Thai social values. First: China is not a state with a mafiose superstructure. Or it would not be twice as successful as Thailand. (A case in mind: The Pirates of the Mekong). Second: Chinese families are protective towards their daughters. Third: Chinese people do not despise Farangs. “A guest from far away – what a joy!” stipulated Confucius 25 centuries ago. Still true. A brother of US President Obama has for years been living happily in China. When you enter the lobby of the centrally located Beijing Hotel you are greeted by the inscription “We have friends all over the world”. Visiting the riverfront “Oriental” in Bangkok, similar words of welcome never met my eye. Fourth: Chinese women can jealously fall in love without feeling an urge for physical contact. (This is the lead story of their classical novel “The Dream of the Red Chamber”).

We landed in Bangkok before we came to position the morale of the Thai Chinese as compromising between these two poles.



Stickman's thoughts:

Even today a lot of well to do Thais will often talk of their Chinese roots, even if ideologically they are not at all similar with their long lost relatives in China.