It’s all Chinese to me

I awoke this morning to a sunny winter’s day in Cape Town, and decided to go for a run in the Company’s Garden. It’s more like a park, and its beautiful botanical plants and heritage site status attract plenty of tourists – Chinese, in particular, this time of year. The regions’s first European settlers established the garden in the 1650s to grow fresh produce to replenish ships rounding the Cape. Earlier this year a project began to reintroduce a vegetable garden to the Company’s Garden, and orange overall-wearing men have been hard at work on it for a few months now. This morning, as I ran past the construction area, I saw three of them surrounded by a group of middle-aged Chinese tourists. There was an exchange of some sort going on. I took my headphones out and slowed to a jog.

“Gong-zuo xin-ku,” one of the workers said to the tourist, enunciating clearly. He faced a portly Chinese man who paused before slowly repeating the same words. Surrounded by grinning Chinese tourists, the two men echoed each other, taking turns to lean forward and make the sounds until it was the other’s turn again, .

“Gong-zuo xin-ku!”

“Gong-zuo xin-ku!”

At first I thought the workman was showing off a Chinese phrase he’d learned, telling the tourist: “My job is really tough!”, but I soon realised it had begun in reverse. The Chinese man was making a comment – proverbially patting the workman on the back for his efforts – and the workman was repeating it until he had memorised the meaningless words.

The delight that Chinese take in hearing their own language from the mouth of a foreigner – particularly when it’s outside China – never ceases to amaze me. And, it seems, when they can’t find locals like me with whom to excitedly converse in Chinese on holiday, they’ll simply start from the beginning, and find someone to teach the Chinese ABCs.

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