So a European immigrant of some undetermined nationality walks into an American hotel and books a room. The bellboy takes him up to his room, drops off the guest's luggage and tells him to have a nice evening.
The foreign hotel guest sees that the bed has been stripped but not remade, and there are no sheets anywhere to be seen in the room. He calls down to the front desk:
"This-a is an out-a-rage. How am I supposed-a to sleep on-a this-a bed?!" he demands. "I have-a to have a SHIT on-a the bed," he adds, angrily.
"I don't know where you are from, Mr.," replies the concierge, but here in the US, you need to do that in the bathroom. Your room comes with a bathroom. You must use the bathroom and not your bed for that, sir!"
The foreign guest hangs up, bewildered.
A while later, he goes to eat dinner at the hotel buffet. He stands in line and when it is his turn at the bread station, he says in his friendliest voice, "I wanna PISS on-a my plate."
The bread server is taken aback. "Whoa, sir! We don't do that kind of thing here at our hotel. If you need to do that here, you have to go to the bathroom."
Again, the foreign guest is confused. He takes his piece of bread, which was what he asked for in the first place, and he sheepishly returns to his table.
When he arrives back at his table, he notices that his fork has somehow gone missing. Perhaps someone else from another table took it while the foreigner was standing in the breadline. He calls the waiter over.
"I need a FUCK on-a the table," he tells the waiter. "I wanna FUCK on-a the table!"
Well, this is too much. At this point, everyone is starting to stare and enough is enough already. The waiter calls the hotel manager over. The hotel manager begins to raise his voice and the foreign guest goes absolutely ballistic.
"What seems to be the problem here, sir?" the hotel manager asks, trying his best not to scream.
"I'll-a tell-a you what is-a the problem here. First, I go to my room and-a the bed, she is-a not made. So I call-a the desk and I tell-a you, 'I need a SHIT on-a the bed.' Instead you bring-a me SHIT, you tell-a me go to the bathroom.
"Then I stand-a in-a the line to get-a some bread. I ask-a for-a the bread. I say, 'I wanna PISS on-a my plate.' Again, this person, he tell-a me go to the bathroom. I no wanna go to the bathroom!
"Finally, I ready to eat-a my dinner. I back to-a the table and the silver, she is-a gone. I ask-a the waiter, 'You bring-a me FUCK. I need a FUCK on-a the table.'"
"I don't understand-a this country. I just trying to enjoy my time-a here."
I have probably butchered this joke, because to be honest, I don't remember the punchline or how the joke is supposed to end; I only remember that it was my first excuse circa age 9 or 10 to say piss, shit, and fuck. I think I remember even telling this joke to both of my parents and BOTH sets of grandparents at one of my mom's Jewish Holiday dinners -- and if I remember correctly, the joke killed. It absolutely killed...
So, the point, my friends, is this:
It doesn't matter how well YOU think you are pronouncing Cantonese or Mandarin when speaking with Chinese people; it ONLY matters what they think they have heard you say.
We will talk more about this in the coming weeks and months because THIS is the sole purpose of this blog: To make you aware of how utterly, utterly important proper pronunciation is as a beginner speaker of Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese.
It is not enough to learn the vocabulary and to repeat after the teacher in class. You have to constantly work to refine your pronunciation -- turning every SHIT into SHEET, every PISS into PIECE, and every FUCK into FORK -- until you have eliminated at least 85% of the most common mispronunciations for your chosen language of study. Only then can you begin to feel secure that native speakers will understand what you are really trying to communicate, without you accidentally creating humorous, awkward, or insulting situations.
One last thing to say about this -- one more thing that I can actually promise you, in fact:
If you really pay attention to your pronunciation errors, recognize them, take literal notes on them in a journal that you will keep to chart your language learning progress, and promise yourself that you will fix these errors and not make the same mistakes again going forward, your embarrassment that you will feel while making these errors during your journey towards learning this language will become your favorite memories that you will share with others one day when they ask you how you learned to speak Chinese so well.
THIS will be my topic for my next posts on mispronouncing Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese.
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