I am sitting in Beijing after spending 20 days in Southern China visiting my in-laws. I just found your blog and find it most timely. I am writing because I find myself so lost when it comes to the endless, dreaded family gatherings. My Mandarin is intermediate level and I’ve only travelled to China many times. Each time I come, I hope I can improve my skills but I am always disappointed by the fact that I almost never hear Mandarin, except on TV. Even more challenging is that while my mother-in-law is from the city, my father-in-law is from a bit further north in the province and he speaks a mixture of Mandarin, the city’s dialect and his local dialect. Naturally, we have so many family dinners and I am so frustrated by the use of one or more dialects at the table depending on the crowd and almost never Mandarin, except to me with strong accents. Please give me some advice on how to cope with the scenario. I am working on improving my Mandarin, so that will generally help, but I could sure use some advice based on your experience when your in-laws get together and just speak dialect.
Lixifur, I’ve been there — the dinners at the family home where the local dialect flows as easily as the wine, and all the while I scratch my head as I can’t keep up with the conversation (or, for that matter, the drinking).
Like you, I used to feel so lost, lost enough to bring it up with my Chinese husband long after those family dinners. I too wanted to connect with his family, but in that common language of Mandarin that we all could understand.
One suggestion he gave me was to just ask them in Mandarin about the conversation, a sort of “Nǐmen zài jiǎng shénme?” (你们在讲什么?/what are you talking about?). Sure, it’s not ideal — after all, you’re still getting the short version of the conversation, and probably missing some of the cool expressions in local dialect; you’re also, in a way, interrupting the conversation. But as long as you do it politely and don’t interrupt too often (I usually do this when everyone’s either laughing a lot or talking with some real passion about something), then you’ll still end up getting something out of the family dinners.
Here’s another thing you can do — just remind them to speak more Mandarin when you’re around. It might sound bossy to say this, but in reality they probably just forget that you need them to speak Mandarin. Think about it — this is their family home, and all the rest of the time when you’re not there, they settle into local dialect (or any other dialect they’re comfortable with) the way they probably dive into any of the local dishes set at the table. A little reminder might go a long way to getting you into the conversation — I’ve done this a few times, and it’s definitely led to much more Mandarin language at the table.
Finally, don’t rule out what might be perhaps one of the easiest ways to get the family talking to you — ask them to teach you some local dialect (or whatever dialect they prefer). They’ll have to explain it to you in Mandarin anyhow, so it’s an opportunity to use your Mandarin. Plus, the more words you learn, the more you can connect with his family. My husband’s grandmother speaks almost unintelligible Mandarin, and that’s meant that even learning a few simple phrases and improving my listening (after years of hearing my husband speak it with his family and friends) actually brought us closer together.
But remember, the table isn’t the only place to practice your Mandarin (and, honestly, sometimes when that table’s packed with a ton of people, it’s tough to practice anyhow). You can also polish your language skills one-on-one or in small groups between or after meals. I’ve had some of the most productive — and instructive — Mandarin conversations with my family when, say, I asked my mother-in-law about how to make pickled radish, or asked my father-in-law about the book he wrote about his ancestral home. In fact, sometimes such a conversation turned into an hour or two hours worth of talking in Mandarin, particularly with my father-in-law (so much so that I actually had to call it a night before him on more than one occasion!).
So if that happens to you, well, you might just come writing to me with a new kind of problem. 😉
What do you think? What advice do you have for Lixifur?
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