by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

DAY 15: Talkin’ the talk, walkin’ the walk.

BEIJING -“Ma,” I say.

“Mother,” she says.

“Ma,” I say, my voice rising.

“Linen,” she says.

“Ma-a,” I say.

“A horse.”

“Ma!” I declare.

“Fight,” she says.

One word. Four meanings. The only difference is a tone change. You could, with the slightest wrong inflection, ask your mother what she wants for Horse Day. Or tell Mr. Ed you want to punch him in the snout. Oh, and if you put “ma” at the end of sentence? It turns it into a question.

You following-ma?

I am getting all this during my one-hour Chinese lesson with a teacher named Chen Ying, who wants me to call her Chen, even though her first name is Ying, because to call her Ying, I “would have to be husband.” And that’s a bit much for the first lesson.

The truth is, with the Olympic Games winding down and the flame almost extinguished, I have decided it is the time to learn the language. That, and the fact that, as an American, I feel compelled to say, to the hundreds of millions of joyous Chinese fans reveling in their whopping gold-medal dominance over us, two of our favorite USA words: “Basket” and “ball.”

How you like us now-ma?

“Ni hao,” Chen tells me, “is the word for hello, or to get attention.”

“Ni hao,” I say. “Which actually means …?”

“You good.”

You good? Why, yes, we are. We good at basketball.

Did I mention that? Redeem Team to the rescue

I repeat it because, let’s be honest, these Olympics have been a comeuppance for those of us Yanks accustomed to American dominance. We moved down on the medal stand in the track sprints (yo, Jamaica!), we can’t even hand off a baton correctly (blown men’s and women’s relays), we no longer box worth a medal hoot, our divers are outdone regularly by the Chinese, our gymnasts have met their match in the host country, our virtually perfect softball team actually lost the gold Thursday – lost? – in perhaps the last Olympic softball game ever to be played. And without Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals, even our swimming results would be less than phenomenal.

Which is why, for the first time since they allowed NBA players into the Olympics, we kind of need our hoops stars to win. You don’t hear anyone in the States calling for college players anymore. This has gotten ugly. It’s clear many countries pay for training, schooling, travel and compensation to get their athletes to the gold-medal stand. Suddenly, the U.S. doesn’t feel so bad about a point guard with a Nike deal.

So with the Caribbean to the left of us and the China to the right, it’s all on Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo and company to remind people that, hey, when we pay our people to do something, we still do it better than anyone.

The Unites States plays Argentina today in the semifinals. “It’s go time …” Kobe Bryant told the media. “The money’s on the table.”

Right! You go, Kobe!

But that’s a lot of slang for my first lesson. So much to learn

“There are four tones in Mandarin,” explains Chen, who works with the Beijing Language and Culture Center for Diplomatic Missions. “Each one very different.”

Yes. And here, from my notes – and I hadn’t eaten in hours, so don’t hold me to them – are the tones: the first is flat, the second is up, the third is a dip and a rise (like how Scooby-Doo talks) and the fourth is straight down.

By the way, this is just in Mandarin Chinese. In Cantonese, there are nine tones. There also are countless dialects in regions and villages, some so dissimilar you can’t understand what is going on if you weren’t born there. Kind of how I feel at an Ohio State game.

“We like to make our sentences like a wave,” Chen says, moving her hands up and down.

Hey. No sweat. That’s how I communicate with the cab drivers.

“Test me out,” I say.

Chen has me make some tonal sounds with vowels, like “uh,” then “uhh,” then “uuhhh.” I sound like a man having his spleen removed.

“Also, when you have ‘a’ at end of sentence, it means you are excited.”

Got it-a!

“Also, there are 3,000 characters in Chinese, each one different.”

Got it.

“Also, when you put one character and a tone against another character and tone, it can change meaning.”

Got it.

“Any questions?” she says.

“How do you say, ‘You are a great boss’ in Chinese?”

She purses her lips as if embarrassed. “Oh, we never say something like this in our language.”

Sorry, Boss. I tried. Eyes on the prize

But getting back to basketball-a! We do want the rest of the world to call us boss this weekend. It would soothe some wounded egos. We’ve already been proved beatable on the track, the open road, the diamond and the soccer grass. We need to keep the hardwood sacred.

So far our Redeem Team has done all it should. It wins by a landslide. It plays great defense. It takes everyone seriously. Best of all, the only time you hear about these guys off the court is if they show up at a fellow American’s competition, like Kobe and LeBron James at Phelps’ swim races.

That’s a whole lot better than the original Dream Team, which made news in 1992 when Michael Jordan played golf in another country on the off days, or when Charles Barkley said after elbowing an Angolan player, “Well, he might have pulled a spear on me.”

Nobody is playing the fool here. The NBA guys are as serious as a typhoon. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Jason Kidd told reporters after the quarterfinal victory over Australia. “We’ve taken one baby step. And now our next step is going to be tough.”

Which is exactly how I feel when my Chinese teacher says, “Time for vocabulary.” A guarantee of victory

Here’s the thing about Chinese language. We can’t pronounce a word of it. And you don’t get any better. Go to France, and after a couple of days, you make progress. Words sound vaguely familiar. Go to Italy, Spain, it’s the same thing. Even in Norway, you can at least read something.

But in China? Every sign. Totally lost. Every menu. Totally lost. Every brief encounter – with a cop, with a volunteer, with a waiter, totally lost. Unless you’re lucky enough to find someone who knows any words in English besides “Yao Ming.”

The other night, this was an actual exchange.

“Do you have a Diet Coke?”

“Ahh. Co.’

“Diet COKE.”


“Yes. Yes! But ‘diet.’ “


“OK? Diet Coke?”

“Ah-K. Cola.”

“Diet Coke?”

“Ahhhh ahh. … Ah?”

After two weeks of stuff like this I finally had a revelation as to why it was constantly happening: We don’t speak their language!

So here I am, at a table, studying flashcards, with Chen Ying. She says that the word for “ask” and the word for “kiss” are so close, it is easy to get smacked. And that calling someone “a good friend” or calling him or her “a dog” is only a matter of a tone.

Which come to think of it, is true on a lot of levels.

“How do you say Ford?” I ask.

“Fu-teh,” she says. I am making up the spelling.

“How about Chrysler?”

“Cara-sula,” she says.

Much too easy.

“How long will it take for me to speak Chinese?” I ask, cutting to the chase.

“To speak? If you study hard, work very hard, you can speak maybe in two years.”

“How about to write?”

She looks me over. “I don’t think ever.”

I want to say, “Are you kidding-ma?” I want to say, “You don’t know me-a!” I want to say lots of things, but I can’t even get the Scooby-Doo sound right.

In the end, I take a few worksheets and promise to continue my lessons if for some reason my boss, discovering that there is no word for his greatness, decides to cancel my return ticket.

As for our basketball team, the players will do their talking on the floor today, and as a proud American, I fully expect them to win this horse.

I mean this linen.

This fight.


Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Missed a day of Olympic columns? Go to www.freep.com/mitch.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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