D.K. Wall

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Language Skills

The Fun of Language Skills

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Don settled into his chair, tired from the long day. Annual meetings of location managers are an evil business necessity, a mixture of informative and dull, friendly and competitive, fun and excruciating. At least the big boss had picked an excellent Chinese restaurant for the evening’s meal, a chance to relax with the team.

Except Adam ensured no one could relax. Every company has an Adam. If you hiked with your family, Adam had completed the Appalachian Trail. If you enjoyed a day on the lake, Adam had sailed the oceans. If you caught trout in a local river, Adam had landed sharks on a deep sea fishing trip.

No one believed Adam’s stories. But you had to listen to them. Loud. Boisterous. Domineering. Always on center stage.

“I should have asked for the menu in Chinese since I speak Chinese,” said Adam. “Learned it as a child.”

“How did you do that?” Charlie asked.

“A nanny. Father was moving there and we needed to know the language.”

“Did you live in China?”

“No, Father had a better opportunity come up.”

“So can you still speak it?”

“Sure,” replied Adam. “Ping Ching Chow Do Mi.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means, ‘Of course I can.”

The Chinese waiter, ever mindful of the importance of tips, smiled and nodded, lending credence to Adam’s story.

Don stared at Adam. As with most of Adam’s stories, the story sounded too incredulous. In most cases, no evidence existed to disprove Adam’s stories. But this time . . .

Many of the men around the table had served in the military. The draft was active when they were teenagers, so they were drafted, volunteered, or enrolled in college for a deferment. The fact Don was an Army veteran was known to everyone.

What they didn’t know? Don was offered an opportunity when he completed basic training to join the United States Army Security Agency. And then he was offered the opportunity to learn Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. And then he was offered an all-expense paid trip to Taiwan to monitor transmissions of the People’s Republic of China.

Of course, anyone with military experience knows those offers all began with, “You will . . .” And the reply was, “Sir, Yes, Sir.” But since Don’s military time started after the Korean War and ended before the Vietnam War, an assignment that did not involve slogging through rice paddies holding a rifle sounded quite enticing. So, with an appropriate “Sir, Yes, Sir,” Don learned to read, write, and speak Mandarin and applied those skills in Taiwan.

That experience led Don to know “Ping Ching Chow Do Mi” had no meaning. And no one who spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese – the two primary languages spoken in China – would ever refer to them as Chinese.

Now what to do with that information. Call Adam out? Speak Mandarin to him and see if he replies? Satisfying, but dangerous with the big boss sitting at the table. And that would make Adam a permanent enemy.

The waiter approached with soups for the table, carefully placing a bowl in front of each person. When the bowl was placed in front of Don, he turned to the waiter and said, “謝謝 (Thank you)”

The waiter looked up, surprised, and replied, “不用謝 (You are welcome).你在哪裡學習我們的語言?(Where did you learn our language?)”

Don smiled, “軍隊教授如此多的有用技能 (The army teaches so many useful skills)”

The waiter nodded at Adam and smiled, “在你的朋友面前有用 (Useful in front of your friend.)”

Don nodded, “非常有用 (Quite useful).”

Adam’s face had drained of color, knowing he had been caught. Fortunately for Adam, all eyes were on Don as the Big Boss said, “Oh, yes, Don, I forgot that you learned Chinese in the Army.”

“Mandarin, yes, sir.”

“A difficult language to master.”

Don smiled. “As Adam knows, quite a difficult language to master.”

Adam nodded.

And for once, the team ate an entire meal without Adam’s boisterous stories providing the entertainment.


NOTE – This is a piece of fiction. Yes, something similar happened, but I wasn’t there. My father, whose name is Don and did serve in the United States Army Security Agency as a Mandarin interpreter, told the story. I invented the conversation and the name, Adam.

My apologies for any translation errors. Unlike my father, I have zero knowledge of Mandarin and relied on Google Translate. I would love to have asked him to proof my work, but he is, unfortunately, no longer with us. If you would like to read a story I wrote upon his passing, please read A Great Man.

And to all Fathers – living or not – I wish you a very Happy Father’s Day this coming Sunday.

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2 thoughts on “The Fun of Language Skills

  1. Respect to your father

    My fathers languages were Korean and Japanese
    He served WWII Korea and Vietnam . Perhaps they shared an office…

  2. To this day I remember dad (Don) drawing some of the Mandarin characters on my little easel chalk board and then me trying desperately to recreate them. It always fascinated me how one character meant so much.

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