Day 21: Confusing Dialects
Firstly, a note about my genealogy. My grandparents from my father's side were from Shandong and Liaoning, but mostly lived in Heilongjiang, shown on the map. My grandparents from my mother's side were from Luoyang, which is right underneath the Yellow river. Many people tell me that I have a Dongbei accent, which is shown in my slightly heavy pronunciation and the catchphrase "zala?", which roughly translates into "What?".
Pre-Microcampus, I was very confident that my Chinese was good enough to make me seem like less of an outsider. And speaking Chinese fluently has helped me greatly over the course of my stay, from being able to translate text for my peers to being the only one who could read the menu at a restaurant. But I realized that Chinese still proved to be a struggle. If you identify all of the places on the map, you would realize that none of those places are anywhere near Yunnan, and the dialect is nowhere near the Yunnanese dialect and the Bai language. In contrast, my friend Clark W., who was better at Chinese than I was, somehow managed fine. He could seem to understand the strange dialect, while I was struggling to decipher the phrases. He told me that it was just one of his talents, the ability to understand dialects.
For service learning, we he to find a partner who would tell us about their story. The lady that was our partner just happened to be one of those people I had some trouble understanding. As I asked questions, I usually blanked out until she was finished with her answer. And then Taylor S. and Shirley X., who were also in our group, would ask for a summary. As the panic set in and my brain furiously spinning to pan out the slice of gold in the muddy water, my last groupmate, Clark W. came to the rescue. Clark could understand her speech, and would be doing a lot of the translation.
But speaking with a Dongbei accent helped me understand people who were of Dongbei genealogy. For example, the Yuanzikou owner's father was from Shandong, and I decided he was a great Inquiry Project partner. Before we arrived, Mr. Chen briefed me that he had a very strong accent and I would be warned that I would not understand much. Confident, perhaps cocky, I replied: "Watch me." The conversation actually went very smoothly, and I understood almost everything he said. When Mr. Chen asked me how it went, I replied: "Awesome. He understood me, and I understood him."
I realized that across the vast lands of China, the generation older than our generation is most likely the last generation that still carries to torch for the diverse dialects. Our generation has been inundated with only Mandarin, and other dialects, except for the major ones like Cantonese, were disappearing. Although my vignette clearly illustrates the struggles of understanding others' dialects, the erosion of the dialects are also evidence of the erosion of the unique cultures that define China.