A review of “AIYEEAAA! Learn Chinese the hard way”, by Larry Feign

Larry Feign, cartoonist extraordinaire and a character in his own right, contacts you and tells you he’d like you to read his book about learning Chinese. What do you do?

You read it, of course!

Let’s be honest.

No matter how much we try to convince ourselves that learning Chinese is easy, it isn’t. I personally think that it isn’t that Chinese ITSELF is hard: it’s the culture and custom that comes with it that makes Mandarin, Cantonese and all other Sinitic languages that makes any learner have to face the learning of this language with a healthy dose of humor and open-mindedness.


Now, when Larry contacted me offering to send a review copy of “AIYEEAAA!”, I didn’t know what to think because this book is not precisely a teaching book (although if you learn something from it, kudos!), and that’d be a first for The Polyglotist. However, after reading it and rubbing my jaw (it hurt after holding a grin for so long), I decided it definitely deserved a place on the blog.

“AIYEEAAA” may be considered a humorous dictionary, but I suspect it’d be better described as the thoughts of a man who’s lived his life looking at and analyzing life lived in a different context. Its format is very simple: it has a concept in English, its Cantonese and Mandarin translations in gorgeous hanzi, and a joke+cartoon on said concepts. It’s also pretty un-PC (something I personally don’t mind, but I know some people might).

Who should read it? Honestly, I think this book is for everybody, from those who have a passing curiosity about the Chinese language(s) to those who have studied the language of the Middle Kingdom for years and been right in the middle of the linguistic fray that is this culture. It’s short enough that you can finish reading it in two days (and that’s reading slowly).

I confess that after finishing my first read of “AIYEEAAA”, I was curious about Larry himself: anybody with the type of biting humor this book shows has to have seen some interesting times in life. As it turns out, he’s the author of The World of Lily Wong, and has produced animation for Disney, Cartoon Network and DiC. He not only graciously conceded to me asking him some questions regarding his relationship with the languages featured in this book, but he answered with such a level of detail and wit that I decided to relay them to you verbatim:

What led you to learn Mandarin and Cantonese? Travel? Curiosity? A romantic interest? 


Cantonese first:

I was living and working as a cartoonist in Honolulu, studying Japanese 5 days a week, with the intention of eventually moving to Japan to teach English and immerse myself in Japanese manga culture. Then I met a brilliant and beautiful Hong Kong Chinese woman working at a souvenir stand across from my caricature booth at Waikiki Beach. It was love at first sight, on my part, at least. I bought a few Cantonese textbooks (rare in those days) and tried to impress her by telling her “Ngo ngoi lei” (I love you). Her eyes bugged out, and she told me my pronunciation was so awful that I’d just said “Ngo ngau lei” (I bite you). Thus began an intensely loving and humor-filled relationship with my now-wife and an excruciating love-hate relationship with Cantonese.

Two years later we went to visit her sister in Hong Kong for two weeks and ended up staying to live there. At first I tried formal classes in Cantonese, but the Chinese whip-and-rote-memorization teaching style didn’t work for me. Since then I’ve picked up the language organically on an as-needed basis. For example, when renovating our house I spent every day with the builders and became conversant in construction worker argot. But there are huge obstacles to learning everyday Cantonese, primary among them that Chinese people refuse to believe that foreigners are capable of speaking their language, and even those who do acknowledge it are absolutely unforgiving about the slightest error in tone (hence the incident cited in my book’s introduction in which we nearly had a wall-sized window rather than a wall-sized wall). This approach has left notable gaps in my knowledge–I can’t hold an intelligent conversation about politics, for example–but at least I am comfortable in just about any informal situation.

As for Mandarin:

For decades I was a Cantonese chauvinist, like most Hong Kongers. I resented the implication than HK people “must” learn Mandarin. I would have nothing to do with the mainland’s cultural imperialism. Anyway, most of my forays into the mainland have been into Guangdong Province, where Cantonese is the native dialect. Then one day I found myself all alone in a working class district of Zhongshan, a manufacturing city populated almost entirely by migrants from elsewhere in China. I was desperate for a cup of coffee and couldn’t find a single sign for coffee (I can read the characters) or on a single menu. I tried asking people in shops and on the street, AND NO ONE UNDERSTOOD CANTONESE! I finally found a noodle shop that offered stomach-corroding instant coffee, yet I didn’t know how to ask “How much?”, nor did I understand the numbers when the person named the price. That’s right, I couldn’t even count to ten in Mandarin. I had never felt so linguistically isolated anywhere on this planet. It frightened me.

The day after returning to Hong Kong I signed up for Mandarin lessons online, with a private tutor 5 days a week. I discovered that learning Mandarin is like cutting butter with a hot knife compared to Cantonese. After two years of study my Mandarin was already on a par with my Cantonese, and I can get by with full confidence now in Taiwan and on the mainland. I continue to formally study Mandarin, while continuing to pick up new Cantonese vocabulary by osmosis.

In the intro to your book, you state quite plainly that learning Chinese is not easy (I’ve recently tried to learn it, so I can vouch for that). What would you describe the process of learning Chinese to be like? Hard, fascinating, frustrating? 

The problems are different in Cantonese and Mandarin. I can’t comment on the problems for a new Mandarin learner, since I came at Mandarin with an ear at least somewhat attuned to a tonal language, an existing ability to read several hundred characters and a familiarity with some of the common grammatical issues (though the grammar diverges quite a bit between the two).


Problems with Cantonese:

1) Locals do not allow foreigners to practice their Cantonese.

a) Locals assume that foreigners know only two phrases in Cantonese: “How much?” and “Where’s the toilet?” When a foreigner opens his/her mouth and Chinese-sounding phrases emerge, it must be one or the other of these phrases. For example (true story), in restaurants it STILL happens that I will ask for a receipt, using perfect pronunciation and tones–“M goi, sei jeung daan bei ngo”–and the waiter will reply, pointing, AND IN ENGLISH, “Toilet back there, turning left.”

b) Locals are trained in a Pavlovian way to respond in English to foreigners, even if their own English is limited. I deal with this in one of the book’s cartoons, based on a true story of my attempt to purchase an orange popsicle.

c) Cantonese has nine tones. Therefore Cantonese ears are very finely tuned. Imagine playing a C and a C-sharp on a piano, a half-step, the smallest interval we westerners are used to differentiating, and turning into a tune. Now imagine that there are four quarter steps in between C and C-sharp. That’s Cantonese. They hear those quarter steps even though we don’t. And if we make a mistake with what to us are insignificant differences, to Cantonese ears we have mangled the tune beyond recognition.

d) If a Chinese person speaks English with a horrible, garbled accent, most western ears can adapt and make out what they’re saying. If one word is so mangled that we can’t understand, the surrounding context often fills it in. Cantonese ears can’t make such an adaptation in reverse. It goes against the entire foundation of the way they speak and listen. Therefore, WHEN YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, THEY CAN’T FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU MEANT TO SAY. So you can’t go into a shop and ask for a bottle of water (sui) without risking calling the shopkeeper an ass (sui). In other words, they can’t even correct your mistake for you and thus give you a learning experience…which is how most people acquire languages.

2) Cantonese language changes by the hour. Half the words in Hong Kong Cantonese seem to be slang. Certainly slang is far more prevalent in Cantonese than in any other language I’ve encountered. The slang I learned last week is out of fashion now. Recently I did an interview with a local reporter, and I used several slang words which she laughed at–these were terms her grandfather might have used. She didn’t even understand some of them. She recited a bunch of current slang, and I couldn’t gather the meaning of a single one. Here we were speaking Cantonese, yet it was like two mutually incomprehensible languages. Learning Cantonese is like shooting a moving target.

Nevertheless, learning Chinese is a rewarding challenge, as with any language. Getting lost on a bicycle trip through rural Taiwan, I asked a local mushroom farmer for directions, he was so delighted to meet foreigners who spoke Mandarin (my Cantonese wife counted as a foreigner), we ended up receiving a tour of his farm and learning the terms for some of his process (which I’ve since forgotten). I can’t imagine having such rewarding experiences trying to rely on a phrasebook or even the linguistic crap shoot of Google Translate.

And of course, a basic mastery of Cantonese gives you the ability to speak with 200 million people, and with Mandarin, you can add more than a billion people to your potential chat list. How cool is that?

What would your advice be for anyone trying to learn this language?

In my opinion, the only–not the best, the ONLY–way to learn Chinese is through immersion. There are too many obstacles to learning–especially Cantonese–through textbooks or classes. Things like tones tend to come more naturally when you’re not thinking about them.

And you’ve got to keep it up. Any hiatus can be harmful, and you can forget a lot.

I get my immersion in Mandarin with 5 daily one-on-one Skype lessons. When I cut back to twice a week at one point, I totally lost momentum and it was a waste of time. This month I’m going back to five online tutoring sessions a week.

Thanks, Larry! 

If you’d like to find out more, you can acquire Larry’s book here.