Sunday, April 24, 2011

American English and Old Beijing

The American accent is high in demand in China, where it's considered "standard" English.  In China, there is "Standard Mandarin"-- a pure, unaccented version of good ol' putonghua, the language Chairman Mao enforced to become the language of the nation, simply because it was what was spoken in the capital.  I keep reminding my students that there's really no such thing as "Standard English," but years of watching Friends and Prison Break has given many Chinese the impression that if one wants to speak English, they should speak it as Monica and Rachel do when they're bickering in their fabulous Manhattan flat.

Being from California-- where most American TV shows and films are from-- and having a Western American accent has blessed me in the TESL department, since I was born with the "standard" accent.  So it was only natural that my friend and colleague, Zhang Kun, asked me to co-teach a Pronunciation Class with him.

My buddy Zhang Kun and me
Teaching Pronunciation is a really tricky thing.  Imagine trying to tell someone how exactly to manipulate their mouth to make them pronounce "usually," when what keeps coming out is "urally," or to say "think" instead of "sink."  Or explaining why your sentences drift up and sink down at certain parts.  It ain't easy.  Fortunately, Zhang Kun had undergone the long arduous task of trying to perfect the American English accent, though what comes out now is more of a charming marriage of British and Chinese English.

After a few hard weeks of class, Kun offered to give Jason and me a proper introduction to Old Beijing snacks, since we still didn't really know exactly what Beijing cuisine was.  He took us to a place that is just about as old school as you can get.  You first go to a ticket window, where you buy 50 RMB worth of paper tickets.  Then, you go from window to window, exchanging tickets for snacks.
Snack offerings and illustrated menus
Beijing snacks are-- at best-- interesting.  It's mostly marked by fatty meats, sesame flavoring, and a lot of heavy, oil-laden fried things.  Neither Jason nor I were big fans, but we were grateful for the experience.

No, this is not a bowl brimming with sewage!  It's sesame soup!  It's basically made of a thick, starchy paste topped with sesame paste mixed with oil.  I wasn't nuts about it, but I managed to put down a few spoonfuls before feeling completely full from all the oil and starch sitting like a rock in my stomach.  But there was plenty more to consume, of course...

 It's not an authentic Chinese meal until you eat some unusual animal part.  This is a plate of flash-boiled tripe.  Despite the aforementioned piping-hot bowl of thick, oily sesame soup waiting for me, the tripe comes with a bowl of sesame paste sauce meant for dipping.  I actually quite like tripe, but this wasn't my favorite incarnation of it.

These little sandwiches were what I had my hope for a good meal riding on.  Sadly, they didn't deliver.  I've had some excellent versions of the sandwich (called bing in Mandarin), where the meat is juicy, flavorful, and dripping with yummy fats that are soaked in by the sesame seeded bun.  What we found were two sad, cold, dry sandwiches lacking in any flavor except salt.

After our meal (on which Jason later commented that he'd never eaten at a meal where he didn't like a single thing on the menu), we three decided to take advantage of the rare beautiful Spring weather and take a walk through Beijing's historic area.  We passed the back end of the Forbidden City, and Zhang Kun took us to one of the oldest standing Catholic cathedrals in Beijing.

While we weren't thrilled about the grub, it was a good day.  

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I just love this, Grace. What a wonderful experience you and Jason are still having despite the YUCK, YUCK, YUCKY looking foodstuff you consumed ever so politely. And, yet, how nice of Zhang Kun to want to share another one of Beijing's traditions with you. I had as much when I first came to teach with colleagues at ICB, meaning friends and co-workers who'd been in China for a few years as well. The experience was an admitted treat, but for me as a vegetarian, also a food nightmare. :)

    Back to your EFL experience and what you have to say about Chinese believing 'Friends-speak' :) to be the most desirable accent to have. LOL. Coincidentally, I just commented something on being an expatriate living in Holland (almost 12 years now) and having a few of my pronunciations change as well. The blogging friend's original blog was a critique on Americans developing what she calls 'farcical accents'. She points a finger particularly at Madonna, who's lived in England for some years now and has developed some speech patterns ringing a bit false to the American ear. I can't speak for Madonna but did point out to my blogging pal that it's quite natural for accents to rub off on one living awhile in a culture that is not their homeland.

    My own experiences as an EFL teacher in Holland were met with original criticism because of my deemed 'very American' accent. Like you, I'm a native of the West, having been raised in California with an accent others have told me sounds very much like Jane Fonda's. That would make sense, as we were both Valley Girls way back when, though she's at least 10+ years older and, I admittedly add, 'posher' than I'll ever be. :) Yet, I've often been told by other Americans that it's a sweet and clear sounding accent. But not so to many of the Dutch! Some in this very outspoken culture have even told me that they'd been considering dropping my class if I didn't start enunciating better. So I did! And I learned how to start spelling more in the Queens English as well. I think this preference has a lot to do with Holland being situated directly across the North Sea from London. So, it's natural to assume that they would be more accustomed to and prefer the British accent over the Yankee style. :)

    Regardless, this critique was an initial affront and rude awakening, as I was challenged to get with the 'programme'. ;~D With that said, do we ever really lose the accent we were raised with? Not entirely. And I see, or should I say 'hear', quite clearly when playing back tapes of my English colleagues as we critique our test candidates for standard English certification that one can always tell the 'Yank' in the bunch. And between you and me, I'll forever and always be proud of my 'red, white and blue' heritage!