Letters & Opinion

Mastering Mandarin on A Two-way Street

Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

Finally, Saint Lucians will learn Mandarin – in other words, to speak, read and write Chinese, thanks to the Taiwan Embassy, which made the announcement last week.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to get friends here and in China to establish a Confucius Center here, where Chinese could be taught; so now that classes are about to get going here, I’m simply pleased.

Mandarin is an important language, not only for communicating with Chinese and Taiwanese.

Instead, given Saint Lucia’s ties with Taiwan over time and China’s global expansion tourism and trade, extension of the old Silk Road worldwide through its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) that’s already in the Caribbean and South America, Caribbean citizens will surely benefit learning Mandarin.

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I well know that benefit…

It started sinking-in from my exchanges with an old Guyanese friend and Caribbean students in China and Taiwan.

Indeed, my best special memory about the ease with which we can learn, read, speak and master Mandarin is one’s encounter in the popular Taipei Night Market.

A fellow senior Saint Lucian media colleague and I were simply blown-away watching – from a distance — a fellow ‘Lucian’ playing hard ball with unwilling vendors and salespersons in the nighttime mall, driving them up-a-wall over whatever prices quoted or displayed.

He’d told us ‘Everything is negotiable’ an insisted some pries would be inflated because they would automatically assume we didn’t know the real prices or approximate value.

‘Cheerah’ (name withheld) was so good at extracting favourable bargains that same vendors would just surrender to get rid of him, or those in mobile stores would eventually summon the owner, who would also soon shrug their shoulders, give-up – and wave him out…

My colleague and I, who he was shopping for, returned to our hotel with bags full of precious items we knew we didn’t pay the full market price for – like at home along Jeremie Street in Castries on a Saturday morning — all thanks to one ‘Lucian’ who’d learned to master Mandarin.

On another occasion, former Prime Minister Stephenson King and then Saint Lucia Ambassador to Taiwan Edwin Laurent invited Saint Lucian students to a traditional Saint Lucian ‘Friday Night’ at the exclusive hotel where he stayed.

Knowing only three necessary words in Mandarin, I wasn’t able to tell the Uber driver taking me to the minister’s hotel that it seemed to me like he was circling my hotel’s block repeatedly.

On arrival, after explaining my concern about the taxi driver, one of the Taiwanese ladies who accompanied a Saint Lucian living and working in Taiwan came close-up to my ear and whispered, ‘Ou pwee en sa!’

I heard her, but just didn’t believe it was she who said what I’d just heard…

One culture shock and a few ‘Campei’ shots later around the Friday Night dinner table — past midnight — the same young lady, sitting next to me, would show me some photos of herself and other Caribbean people at a waterfall I thought was somewhere in Taiwan.

Since I didn’t respond as she might have expected, she showed me again; and when I asked: ‘Where is that?’ she laughed and replied: ‘Latille Falls…’

My next stupid question: ‘What were you doing there?’

And her response bowled me clean: ‘But I marry a Lucian…’

I then shared tales about my own similar other personal Mandarin comeuppances, especially in China.

On several occasions, as part of visiting delegations of Caribbean journalists in Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan and Xiamen, we’d been approached, out of the blue, by Chinese boys and girls of primary school age, who’d lead their parents across streets to start conversations with us, in English.

Most times, the girls would eventually question the women about their braids and the boys would find a Black movie or basketball of athletics world-famous start to say one of us ‘looks like…’

Like us, the parents were surprised their children were communicating with strangers in a foreign language but were also naturally anxious about being unable to follow.

We’d then end-up discussing how amazing it was for Chinese children to learn to speak English, ignoring that all spoken languages can be learned by anyone – and the reverse also applies, hopefully soon to be realized in Saint Lucia.

There are many Saint Lucian professionals at home who graduated in Taiwan and are therefore fluent in Mandarin, but it will please my heart much more to see and hear local students calling Chinese and/or Taiwanese visitors aside and questioning them, in Mandarin, about life on the mainland, or the island.

In the past year under the current Philip J. Pierre administration, Taiwanese assistance has included another project close to my heart (especially after COVID-19 arrived) – a ‘Seven Crops’ aimed identifying foods and fruits with higher levels of body immunity.

Ditto the Farmers Market and public product and tasting exhibitions that highlight the many value-added and healthy entrepreneurial uses (apart from eating and drinking) of many traditional local agricultural products like Coconuts, Mangoes, Bananas, Guava, Golden Apple, Sugar Apple, etc. and many others also grown in Taiwan and exported to China.

Help for activating the Youth Economy, Housing for the most needy and continued cooperation in untying the badly knotted mysteries surrounding Taiwanese assistance to major projects like Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) and St. Jude Hospital, marks, yet again, the fundamental differences in approaches of Labour and UWP administrations to matters of transparency, accountability and showing appreciation for funds provided over years – and continuing — from Taiwanese taxpayers’ coffers.

All that said (and despite my own continuing concerns about the political price Taiwan’s allies must pay for meaningful assistance), I still hold that teaching Saint Lucians Mandarin is an investment in the future that the youth (in particular) and our educational institutions (eventually) is a long-term Taiwanese investment with a guaranteed Rate of Return that will allow a bright lantern to glow where darkness prevails.

Xièxiè!

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