I just spent 2 hours this weekend practicing Mandarin at a Meetup. My jaw and my mind is tired. What a wonderful experience. So fun.
Learning a new language can be hard. Especially if you've never been taught. That was my experience with Burmese. My parents never taught me Burmese. It was their secret language. They would use it to talk in front of us kids without us understanding. They would use it to talk stink about Chinese people in front of Chinese people. Aren't they sneaky?
The secret language could only be kept secret for so long. They spoke Burmese with each other and to their siblings and friends. They taught us a few words here and there. Ohno kao swe, mohinga, tamin. All the words pertaining to food. You could never go hungry,am I right? Oh yeah, and also the word for hungry.
I remember one day, they were talking about having to go out but were worried about leaving my sister and I at home for a few hours. This conversation was in Burmese and in front of our faces. I understood them completely and I responded in broken Burmese using the words I knew. They were shocked and a little proud. From then on they told everyone to be careful because I could understand Burmese.
I never spoke Burmese with them regularly. Not like how my uncles and aunts spoke to their kids. Chinese was spoken at home. English outside the house. So imagine the trouble I had on my last trip to Burma visiting my parents. I got by speaking Chinese and English with my parents and their friends and family.
I was introduced for the first time to a “cousin” my age who didn't speak any kind of Chinese and wasn't confident in speaking English. Only Burmese for him. I spent a month hanging out with my cousin. He took me all over Yangon and all over Burma. He looked out for me and made me feel like I was at home.
Remember how I told you I was never really taught Burmese? It's true. I had the vocabulary of a child. I had to cobble together basic words to make sentences that hopefully he could understand. I used the simple words to describe more complex words that I didn't know. And I used English as a last resort. For the first week or so, my brain was fried after hanging out with my cousin. My brain would search every file to push out a word, then another until a whole sentence came out. Sometimes the word would be translated in my head from Hokkien to Mandarin to Cantonese to Spanish. And it still wouldn't come out! It was frustrating how I could recognize the word in Burmese if it were spoken, but the word could not be retrieved on command!
But with all things, practice makes perfect. Or makes it easier at least. My ease with Burmese would be put to the test over the next week. Towards the end of my stay, we took a trip up north on what I'll translate directly as a “pagoda pilgrimage.” It was the most economical way to tour Burma. It involved a 20 year old Japanese made tour bus and 50 or so Burmese from Yangon. I was quiet most of the time on the bus as to not give myself away. Although I'm sure they all could tell I wasn't a local. My cousin shielded me from most direct questioning especially by government workers at different checkpoints.
At one stop, while we were waiting for the guides, a woman was speaking directly to me. My cousin wasn't right there to answer her. The woman repeated herself a few times because I didn't even realize she was talking to me. She must have thought I was deaf because I didn't understand what she was asking me. Finally she asked me if I spoke Burmese. A question I did understand and could answer.
We made it up north to Shan state and back. It only took 2 extra days with the old bus breaking down so much. I had plenty of practice speaking Burmese on that trip and throughout my stay. I wonder how long it would take me to become fluent if I lived there? If I took some classes, I'm guessing less than a year. How long for these circles, lines and dots to make sense? I need a little more time.
Anyone want to learn a secret language with me?