We currently have the great joy of looking after a congregational dog while her owner is back in the United Stated for six months. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt in the first month with her…
I definitely still have a New Zealand accent.
[In Chinese] “What is the dog’s name?”
“Tiddy” (no Australian/Canadian mocking of the NZ vowels, just an earnest effort to say exactly what I said)
“She’s very beautiful”
My Chinese is okay.
I went to the pet shop to buy Teddy a new brush. Being brushed is not her favourite thing, but I was worried about the knots she was getting behind her ears (don’t want the groomer to report my negligence to her owner!). With a little bit of miming (I didn’t know the word for brush) I managed to ask for a dog brush. They showed me the options
“Do you have a smaller one?”
“Do you have something a little smaller?”
“Oh, an especially small one. We have this. But it is for a cat”
“She is not a cat.”
“Well, this one then?”
“Okay. But she doesn’t like this thing. I will also need small snacks” (yep, went to the pet shop without the word for “brush” or “treats”.
“These ones are especially good tasting”
“I’ll take both” (and the accompanying small sense of triumph about getting by in Chinese in this conversation)
My Chinese is really awful.
There are too many examples to mention. But the very day I triumphantly bought the brush I failed to understand at least half a dozen questions asked about the dog while walking her. I can say she is a girl (after the first week I learned that there are different words for the sex of humans and animals), that she’s seven years old, that she belongs to a friend who is working in America for a few months, that she has been spayed, that I don’t know the Chinese name for her breed (half schnauzer, half poodle, conveniently a schnoodle in English) but then my conversation pretty much runs out…
There are advantages to not understanding Chinese.
About the only time I enjoy not understanding the many many things I fail to understand on a daily basis is when the old woman shouts at me as I walk Teddy in the garden in the compound. She shouts and wags her finger. Teddy is a very well-behaved dog, walks politely, I pick up the poop so I really have no idea what her problem is. I am glad that of the many ways I know to say “I don’t understand” I can very politely explain that I am terribly sorry that I speak Chinese so poorly! It is one of my most grammatically sophisticated sentences and I really enjoy the irony of rolling it out in the face of a situation where I am not comprehending a word! There is also something about having no idea why you are being berated that makes it especially easy to let go of…
Dogs bring joy and perspective
Walks, breaks from writing to throw the ball, toilet breaks… dogs are good reminders not to take it all so seriously.