Getting into “language character” or: I’ll wear a half-shirt if it will help my Chinese

Rewind 9 years ago to a train station somewhere in Andalusia, Spain…

I approach the ticket window and in mediocre High School Spanish, say:

“Quiero dos billetes a Rhonda.”

The kind-faced, ticket agent asks:


I say (in still flat Spanish):


Ticket agent:




Ticket agent:


Me (finally rolling the “r”):


Happy ticket agent:

“Ah! R-r-r-r-r-r-r-honda! Bien!”

I genuinely don’t think he was being an ass; I just hadn’t tried hard enough to get into “language character.” I wasn’t using my hands, talking loudly and rolling my r’s. I wasn’t being “Spanish-me.” I was still being quiet, unassuming “American of Scandinavian heritage-me.”

This old story has got me thinking about “Chinese-me” and how I can better embrace Chinese speaking cadences and gestures. How can I better “get into the part?”

If I were a guy, it might mean I need to start wearing my shirt rolled up over my belly. This would be a double-bonus, since it’s already humid and hotter than hell. Probably won’t work as a woman…

“The Chinese Shirt Roll” from “Buzz Feed.” You can click-through for the original article and more pictures:

I have started listening to both Mandarin and Cantonese radio a lot. I have some faith that it’s tuning my ear to tones and cadences (and since our house is still empty, I don’t have much else going on).

But it’s also not helping with my Chinese language character. The Mandarin speaking radio-announcers that catch my ear are the men, who always speak so deeply and forcefully. I don’t always catch much of what they are saying, but the radio station I’m currently listening to must be heavily sponsored by some sort of Chinese liquor, since he’s always blasting with such gravity: “Zhongguo ming pai…. jiu” (中国名牌…酒). Going around the house, saying in a loud, deep voice, “中国名牌!” is somehow very satisfying, but this also doesn’t help form female “Chinese-me.”

Over on the Cantonese station, which I have an even harder time following, the week was filled with: sing-song-y Cantonese, sing-song-y Cantonese, “Lady Gaga,” sing-songy-Cantonese, sing-songy Cantonese “little monsters.” All the female voices were from the “Teen Beat”-set and were gushing about Lady Gaga. Also not helpful to formation of the adult, female “Chinese-me.”

I could switch to Chinese films, but the first ones that pop to mind are “The Road Home” which mainly features a Chinese woman running through fields in padded trousers and not talking much (just talking with her eyes) and “Raise the Red Lantern” in which the woman also only seems to talk with her eyes. There are the martial arts movies, but those women also don’t seem to actually talk much.

Could kill two birds with one stone: stop trying to actually speak Chinese (either kind) and just look wistful and “talk with my eyes.”

16 responses to “Getting into “language character” or: I’ll wear a half-shirt if it will help my Chinese

    • Yeah, I guess women really only “talk with their eyes” in slow/beautiful/historical movies and male fantasies… The old ladies at the wet market “food court” this morning had plenty of loud advice to offer me as to what kinds of dim sum I should try, what I should feed my son, etc. I think they will be my inspiration: loud, bossy, opinionated, but well-meaning. I just need a granny trolly to haul my purchases around in and poorer posture and I’ll have my language character.

  1. That’s so funny! The Mexicans also always do this roll-up thing with their shirts – and they are not the slimmest people on earth. The only time they use the word six-pack, is when they are about to purchase some more beer. So not a good sight, but very popular!

    • If it also exists in Mexico, maybe there is a distance below and above the equator where the shirt roll predominates? The tropic of hot belly?

  2. I’m currently trying to learn Korean and you’ve just helped me realize what the hardest part about it is for me! I haven’t found my “Korean self” just yet. Thanks for the insight!

    • Ha! I think the only Korean women I’ve been regularly exposed to is that Korean woman on “Lost” and the Korean women in the historic Korean dramas that were so popular on TV when I was living in mainland China. Neither much help for your purpose… Good luck.

  3. My Chinese self is much, much louder than my English self. Living in Shanghai I have to be more aggressive, more self assured, even when I’m not. Great post – you may want to consider listening to the BBC Mandarin podcasts. They have both types of anchors and are also just a touch slower than typical radio. Good luck finding your alter ego!

  4. Pingback: “Gau go gaau gau gau ge!” Song by The Police or Cantonese tongue twister? | Expat Lingo·

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