Similar to my astonishment at the previously-discussed Chinese proclivity for stating the obvious, I’ve often been struck by how much of what I say in Chinese gets repeated right back at me. At first I was a little annoyed, and then I realized “Hey, I can use that!”
I’m convinced the hardest thing about speaking Mandarin is getting all those darn tones right. I’m constantly fighting tone wars in my head to try to stifle the natural, feeling-induced tones I’m used to using in English to get the meaning-dictating Chinese tones right. I’m not ashamed to admit that English often wins and my Chinese tones are broken (enter zhonglish). That’s where “parrot people” can actually help.
The fúwùyuán 服务员 actually have a good reason for repeating back what I order: they want to make sure they got it right. Since I often go many months (years) without using some of this vocabulary, it helps to hear it again right away to confirm whether I got the tones right.
Waitress: suànmiáo chǎo ròupiàn, shì ba? 蒜苗炒肉片, 是吧? Garlic seasoned greens and pork slices, right?
Me: duì duì duì 对对对.
Right, right, right.
The first duì was for her getting the order right and the next two were for my realization that I’d said the tone for “miao” wrong. (Those 2-3 combos will get ya! The way I said it made it sound like suànmiao.)
It takes some careful listening, but once you know it’s coming (and it usually is), you can prepare for the instant replay and use it. I now purposefully choose words that I’m not sure about just so I can get instant feedback on whether my tones were correct. Of course, the assumption here is that a native speaker will not say it wrong even if I did. I think that’s a pretty safe assumption (usually).
Before I knew the rules for tone combinations, and before I’d memorized exactly how to pronounce the name of my country, I would often say I’m from méiguó or mèiguo or méiguǒ rather than měiguó 美国. Those mispronunciations could be hanzi-fied as 没国, 妹国, and 没果 meaning “not country / not-land,” “younger sister country,” and “no fruit,” respectively.
The good news is: no Chinese person would ever talk about “Not-land” or “Sisterland” so I was never misunderstood. The context was very much in my favor to allow a Chinese person to understand me despite the wrong tones (not always the case at all!). But I noticed people would often (dare I say always?) repeat the name of my country back to me like this:
Stranger: nǐ láizì nǎli? 你来自哪里?
Where are you from?
Stranger: měiguó 美国.
Me: duì 对
Now I say it right most (dare I say all?) the time, but the repeating hasn’t stopped. That’s the last point I want to make: parrot people don’t mean you’ve said it wrong.
They Do it to Each Other
I often have the treat of listening to two Chinese teachers here on campus meat each other for the first time. The conversation goes something like this.
A: nǐ shì nǎge xì de? 你是哪个系的?
What department do you work in?
B: kuàijì xì 会计系.
A: o, kuàijì xì. wǒ shì wàiyǔ xì de 哦, 会计系. 我是外语系的.
Oh, accounting. I’m in the Foreign Language Department.
B: wàiyǔ xì. nǐ jīngcháng lái zhèlǐ dǎ qiú ma? 外语系. 你经常来这里打球吗?
Foreign Language Department. Do you often come here to play ball? (pingpong, basketball, whatever)
A: bù jīngcháng 不经常.
B: o, bù jīngcháng 哦不经常.
Oh, not often.
If I were really on the qiú 球, I’d get some recordings of this sort of exchange so you don’t have to take my word for it. But trust me, there’s a whole lot of repeating back going on even among Chinese people.
I always get the feeling that it’s more common between strangers or from a xiàshǔ 下属 to a shàngsi 上司. That makes me think there’s something curtural going on like: repeating what someone says is polite or shows that you respect them and what they’ve said. Can anyone shed some light on (guess at) some of the curtural factors behind instant replays? Has anyone else even noticed this? Chime on in.