I met a chap last night who has come to Beijing for a one-week holiday. And he's going to spend it on an intensive Mandarin course. I was flabbergasted! This is not my idea of fun. This is not anyone's idea of fun.
He knows what he's getting himself into. He studied Chinese some years ago (at University, maybe; I'm not quite sure - it was a fleeting party conversation), but it has withered from disuse. He now finds himself living and working in Vietnam - with a Chinese driver and maid who speak no English. So, he'd like to be able to communicate a little better with them. That makes sense. He complains he feels frustrated that although, in theory, he has a great opportunity to keep his Chinese skills in good shape by having daily conversational practice with his domestic staff, in fact he gets bogged down at the level of issuing basic instructions, and can't understand too much of anything they say to him in return. That sounds familiar. And he's not very confident that one week of mind-breaking study is really going to get him over that hump. Indeed not - but I suppose it's brave of him to try.
I was reminded by this little exchange of some of the reasons why, for most people, the attempt to learn Chinese is such a miserable experience - but these should be the substance of a further post.
My point here was meant to be this: Mandarin Chinese - far more than most other languages I have encountered - seems to produce these 'ceilings' of functionality that it can be extremely difficult to break through. To some extent this phenomenon is no doubt engendered by the characteristics of the language. However, I think it is probably rather more the result of the nature of the language environment in China; and in particular, of the fact the Chinese - for whatever reason or combination of reasons - appear to be uniquely obtuse (or mischievous or malevolent??) in dealing with non-native speakers: they rarely if ever make any allowance for your level of Mandarin.
Often (though this is less of a problem in the big cities today than it was a decade ago; I expect it is still quite common in the countryside) they will be baffled, disbelieving that you are attempting to speak their language, and will simply fail to make any attempt to process what you are saying. But then, if they do recognise that you speak some Mandarin, they seem to assume that you speak it well, and will enthusiastically launch into an animated conversation. They won't slow down their speed of speech for you. They won't do anything to soften their accent. They won't simplify their vocabulary. They won't try to think of alternate ways of expressing something. They won't attempt intelligent guesses to rectify your mispronunciations and grammatical slips.
With some of them, it almost seems to be a perverse kind of game: whatever your level of Mandarin is, your Chinese interlocutor will take a wicked delight in finding it and then demonstrating to you that he or she still has a higher level they can speak at. I have seen many good Mandarin speakers almost weep with frustration at this on occasion.
This naivety - or bloodymindedness - about dealing with imperfect speakers of their language goes hand in hand with a certain national penchant for unhelpfulness. Time and again I have seen laowai friends with a really good Mandarin level get involved in protracted arguments over giving directions to a taxi driver, buying a railway ticket, or trying to get a cold beer from a streetside stall. And I am afraid that I have reached the conclusion that - at least in simple, everyday encounters of this kind - the one thing you really do not want is to become involved in a conversation.
In situations like this, my functional level of Mandarin is just about as good as any of my friends'. In some ways it is better. I simply ask for what I want - in the barest, most fractured terms. Then I repeat myself. And, if necessary, I repeat myself again, with a really determined look on my face. And - 9 times out of 10 - people realise that there is no fun to be had with me, and they give me what I want fairly promptly.
But if you get into a conversation - oh, god help you!