Sometimes I really don't understand why people can't understand my Chinese.
Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I use the wrong words, the wrong tones, the wrong facial expressions a lot of the time. But still, if you don't understand a person, don't you sit there trying to work out what they might have meant?
Of course, it's not just with Chinese - this is an English problem too. Let me start with an example that happened in Boston USA about a year ago. A small group of us were sitting in a restaurant (including my cousin, who had been living in Boston for 10 years).
The waitress asks us what we'd like to drink, my cousin orders a coffee, I order a "Sam Adams" (the beer is actually called "Samuel Adams", but this waitress is so smart, so she managed to work out what I wanted), and Charlie orders a water. She orders water using her English accent, saying "water" very clearly.
The waitress is really struggling to understand the word "water", in spite of the fact that she just asked us what we'd like to drink. "Wheelbarrow" would not have made sense, but "water" seems quite obvious.
My cousin interrupts: "She wants water." Lynn says this with a Boston accent, which sounds more like "wadder" than "waw-tuh".
"Oh wadder? Sure, no problem," and off the waitress goes.
Seriously. This really happened.
And so to Chinese.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Shenzhen. I'm in a restaurant, and wanting to order a Diet Coke. Dammit! I can't remember the Chinese word for diet Coke - so I say kělè (可乐)(可樂)('cola'). This part she understands.
I remember that the word for "lose weight" is jiǎnféi (减肥), which kinda rings bells. I know it's not quite right, but it's close ... so I take a guess by asking for "jiǎn kělè".
She doesn't get it. I clarify by saying "méiyǒu táng" (no sugar), then I repeat "jiǎn kělè". This is not going anywhere, and after another minute of trying, I give up and just order a normal coke.
Now the truly frustrating part is that the word I was looking for was "jiànyí kělè" (健怡可乐)(健怡可樂). When I looked that up back in HK, I was dumbfounded - because she knew I was looking for a type of cola, it doesn't contain sugar, and it sounds like "jiǎn kělè".
Wouldn't "jiànyí kělè" be an obvious guess? I guess not.
tom-A-to is different to tom-ah-to, but people can work that out.
water is almost the same as wadder, but people can't work that one out.
And I know that what I speak is is waaaaay different to proper Chinese, but still ....