This morning I called Song Ying on her cell phone (here it’s called a hand phone). I ask her, "Ni zai bu zai jia [Are you at home]?" She replies, "Wo zai ba-shi." I did a double take. Is she in a taxi? I had to think for a minute.
The word "bus" in Mandarin is "gong-gong qi che" but it usually gets shortened to something shorter than that long word. The word for taxi is "xiao che". So, she wasn’t speaking Mandarin. It wasn’t English, either.
David was just coming down the stairs for breakfast. I said to him, "Song Ying is on a ba-shi." I thought she was on a big thing with wheels that carries a lot of people all at once, but it the concept wasn’t quite solid in my mind. He replies, "Chinglish! She’s on a bus."
But actually another flash of a second later and it registered. Not Chinglish, but Cantonese, of course! Some modern Cantonese words, like bus and taxi, are much closer to English than Mandarin. "Ba-shi" is the word for bus in Cantonese, just as the word "Di-se" (pronounced like dee!-seh!) is the Cantonese word for taxi. Nothing like their Mandarin equivalents in sound, even though Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can read the same Chinese characters.
When I first came to China and was taking Mandarin classes, I kept getting confused about how to pronounce things. One particular challenge was how to say the word for "rest room." One of my friends joked to me that the best way to communicate that particular need was by jumping up and down. I’m stubborn and I wanted to learn to speak the language, but I thought it was all my problem. It wasn’t until I began to have more language discernment that I realized I was hearing two separate pronunciations for two similar but very different languages. In Cantonese, the word for restroom is more like Suh-Suo. In Mandarin, it’s more like Shee-show. Close enough to always be confusing about "how" to say it if you’re trying to figure out the "one" best way to communicate.
Then combine that with the fact that Chinese is still in fact spoken in many, many, many different local dialects. A person from a town 70 miles south of here will speak that same word with an accent that is noticeably different from that of someone who comes from a town 70 miles north of here. At this point I can tell them apart and even modify my own accent accordingly, but it was confusing at first.
And still can be confusing before breakfast as it all jumbles together in my mind. Ba-shee. It just takes a bit of time on the uptake for the word to register. Is this what it will be like for me in old age?