Saturday, March 06, 2010

Felt Needs

Necessity is the mother of invention. It's also the mother of "kick you in the butt to learn more language." Nothing makes you realize you need to study more than staring blankly at someone who is talking to you, knowing they will expect you to respond with something intelligent, and you've got nothin'.

I've felt this butt kicking a few times this week. The piano tuner came to fix our piano which had not merely fallen out of tune, but plummeted out of tune as though pushed off a 12 story building. The extent of my piano vocabulary includes, "piano, sounds bad, fix." The winter months of dry, cold China air had caused various things to happen to our piano. She spent several minutes after her work describing, I can only assume, how she was able to resuscitate it. All I understood was, "Call me in August and I'll come again." Sigh.

Here's the problem - how do I possibly obtain this vocabulary? Invite a Chinese friend over and say, "If you were a piano tuner, what would you say about my piano?" There was no lesson on piano tuning in our classes. There was one on how to yell at someone who hits you on your bike, but not this. (I still don't have the guts to pull out the "Haven't you grown eyes?!?" phrase we learned. Let's hope I never do).

The other need I feel every month or so when I restock my shampoo. Normally I choose Herbal Essences, the light blue bottle, because that's what I bought in Singapore where it was in English. I'm trusting it's the same here. But today they were out, so I decided to try something else. How about Pantene? Well, I could read that it was Pantene (because it very nicely says it in English) and I could read the characters for shampoo, but beyond that it was a mystery. There were probably 7 kinds, several of which promised to fix something (important to know the character for "fix") but fix what? There was a woman at a counter nearby who watched me stare at the bottles for a full 5 minutes. I debated asking her about some of them, but suspected that I wouldn't understand her explanations. I kept hoping if I stared long enough, the characters would whisper their meanings to me. No such luck. In the end, I chose a Chinese brand that seemed "normal."

Now again, how do I learn this? I guess I could take a Chinese friend with me and have her read all the characters, then write them down. I hate using my friends for things like that. I did borrow the woman's pen to write down several of the common characters. Maybe Erik will know some of them.

I did redeem myself at the flower market. After buying flowers for a friend's baby shower today, I decided I needed the green sponge stuff that goes in the bottom of vases (see, I don't even know how to say it in English!). Because I am the queen of talking around something in Chinese, I asked for "the stuff that you can put flowers in to make them stand up" clarified with hand gestures. She said, "Ni yao hua ni ma?" I don't know. Maybe I do want hua ni. Can you show me the hua ni? Sure enough, I do want the hua ni! Erik and I have discerned that it must mean "flower cement."

The great thing about learning something in a moment of need is that chances are, you're not going to forget how to say it. So yay for learning a new word today.

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