Here is an example of a perfectly logical Chinese sentence, written by one of my students who is growing in his ability to work with English: “Yesterday there is something wrong with my computer.”
Soon after I arrived here I found out that the Chinese language does not have tenses; verbs themselves occur in the present tense, with context and modifiers, such as “yesterday,” indicating when something takes or took or will take place. What this young lad, then, is meaning to say is, “Yesterday there was something wrong with my computer.” Of course, his ability to write what he did already puts him light years ahead of my knowledge of Chinese, which is coming along very slowly.
This slowness on my part was made apparent when I read out my students’ family names today. I knew they would laugh. And they did! Following collective hysterics on the part of one class, I found out that “Sun” is not pronounced “sun,” but “soon.” Then, I tried to pronounce another common family name, Shi. The best I can do with this is to imagine eliding the “sh” sound with “u” sound in the name “Burt,” with just a touch of the “r” thrown in, all formed toward the front of the mouth, right behind the upper and lower teeth. “Shee” would have been so much easier. Of course, when I used this pronunciation, I was regaled with yet more delighted laughter. Additionally, some of the tonal differences (in Chinese there are 4 major tones: flat, rising, falling-rising, and falling) I cannot yet distinguish at all. In my attempts to say words with the correct tone, I have already gathered more than a fair share of confused looks.
In an earlier post did I write of a short drive down a one way street — the wrong way — ironically enough to a physical examination? Driving in Beijing is a somewhat metaphysical activity. This was demonstrated yesterday when a new friend of mine here lent me her bicycle to ride. One really has to believe that you are able to pass through physical objects, as though some exotic subatomic particle, in order to navigate the frightfully Newtonian world of Beijing traffic.
Last night this same new friend and I attended a choral concert of sacred music at St. Joseph’s Church. These choristers, from children through adults, with one spectacular bass soloist thrown in, though not paid, could near well match any choir I have heard in the States, including the paid choir of St. Ignatius Loyola in NYC. They sang pieces as early as Palestrina up through the contemporary English composer John Rutter. However, the closing hymn, sung in Chinese, and which most everyone in the standing-room-only audience seemed to know, was something like “Jesus Always Lives in My Heart.” What a blessing.