Not everyone speaks Chinese the same way.
Before I first came to China, my naive, un-traveled self assumed that everyone here spoke the same language. Now I suppose technically everyone here does, but in practice sometimes it seems like there are hundreds of languages in this one country alone. Just like the many different accents of English (American, British, Australian, etc.), there are also many dialects of Mandarin. Many of them are based upon geographical regions, while others are based on the different ethnic minorities. And some of the dialects can be pretty hard to understand.
You know how Mandarin has four basic tones, right? Not so much here in Sichuan province! If you’re speaking the local dialect here, your words are slurred and your tones become melded into maybe two or three.
This is quite commonly exhibited whenever we’re in the grocery store checkout line and the cashier tells us the total price. Let’s say the total cost is 40 yuan (which is presently close to $6.50 USD). Normally, you would say sì shí (literally means “four ten,” or “forty”). But here they say something that sounds like sì sì (“four four”). This is where I end up standing there awkwardly doing what I’ll call double translation. I have to translate from the Sichuan dialect to Mandarin, and then from Mandarin to English.
It’s a little embarrassing when I think I understand what they are saying and give them what I think is the right amount of cash, not realizing that I’m short by ten or twenty yuan. Sometimes I’d rather just save face and give them a hundred dollar bill so I know that I’m not short-changing them! Even on those occasions, I still get funny stares sometimes.
What’s even more hilarious is when I’m in the middle of a lesson with my Chinese tutor and I unintentionally pronounce a particular word with a perfect Sichuan accent. This results in a great deal of laughter from my instructor, while I sheepishly compliment myself for speaking like a local.
“I totally did that on purpose!” I tell her.
“This is a big problem,” she laughs.
Oh well, I’ll get it right one of these days!