I don’t speak any Chinese. My vocabulary consists of 5 spoken words (hello, thank you, small, big and tea) and 4 written characters (person, big, middle and small). I get along fine. I gesture a lot, point to what I want, and often have E. around, whose Mandarin, though not boardroom efficient yet, does very well for everyday life. I still regret not learning more Kannada. Not that it was necessary to function, but it demonstrates an interest in the people’s lives and culture. Hence, I have decided to learn some Mandarin (and yes, the 5-year old in me still giggles at the thought of a language named as a fruit!).
I will be bad at it, and I don’t care. The perfectionist in me will have to take the back seat (I understand Spanish but only speak it in emergency situations, which has been a total of twice in my adult life). I do not intend to make speeches but to understand, and be understood on the streets, in the shops. What worries me are the tones. There are three ways of pronouncing “ma”, one meaning “mother”, the other “horse”, and the last “to beat”. I barely hear the difference between the three and have found myself incapable of replicating them. I need to find someone who will explain them to me. Then I will learn vocabulary. I will probably remain illiterate, in the sense that I won’t read the characters, but that’s ok. I don’t plan on writing Mandarin, but converse with random people.
What motivates all this? A cat of course. Her name is Dumpling. She’s a little tabby that lives on our block, between the fancy hair salon and the pet store. Smart kitty! She now trots towards us when she sees us and eats out of our hand. And she meows the cutest meow. We feed her treats that we buy at that pet store. They are not exactly cheap but it puts us in good graces with the store owners (though we started buying some at Carrefour, the French supermarket in town, when I realized we were feeding the stray cats about $4 of kitty candy a day!). But the strays on our block are not starving. Lots of people feed them. If you take a stroll around 6pm, you will meet two ladies on a bicycle leaving little plastic containers of rice and “human food” under the bushes. We, foreigners, get treats instead. It’s yummier, and it’s a way to entice the cats to come closer to us.
Lots of people stop when they see us play with the cats. They are usually older people, perhaps on their nightly constitutional. If they stop, smile and stare, I put a couple of morsels in their hand and gesture towards Dumpling, who comes and eats out of their hands. That always makes them giggle. There is this older woman, with no teeth, who laughs her head off when the cat licks her fingers. These are what I have called the one-minute friendships, and I would like to expand my vocabulary to make those into 3-minute friendships, learn their name, where they come from, about their family. It is those people I want to engage in conversation.
And Mister Hubby is looking into making Dumpling an inside cat.