Learning a second language is a daunting challenge that can take years of practice and skill development in order to achieve some sort of level of fluency. My mother tried to teach my sister and I Mandarin when we were both quite young. Our house was littered with Chinese storybooks, videotapes, CDs and singing toys. At one point in time, she enrolled us in Chinese school, which consisted of weekly vocabulary games in empty rooms of a church. My mother would ask us what we had learned after class ended and my sister proudly affirmed how she made an elevator move by jumping up and down. My mother would then shake her head and muttered how she should have moved back to Beijing a long time ago.
The first question people ask me when they find out that I am half-Chinese is if I can speak Mandarin. I usually say that I am capable on a conversational basis, explaining how my reading and writing skills are similar to that of a third-grade student. In fact, the first (and most fluent) words I know in Mandarin are curse words. Both my mother and father have potty mouths, and while neither of them will be willing to admit it, my sister and I inherited the unsavory habit. And so, when a series of misfortunate events occur in both of our individual lives, we would unleash a rollercoaster of obscenities, decorated with Mandarin insults in a Northeastern accent.
Like American slang, Mandarin insults illustrate a certain archetype that is synonymous with the culture it has been derived from. Curse words, for example, share a common motif of utilizing numbers. "Why is 250 an insult?" I asked my mom one afternoon after I refused to practice the piano. "250!? It's more than 100 and it's less than 500. It's weird and doesn't fit in. It's nothing and will always be nothing. You're stuck! Your father is 250." She would scoff and resume back into her Taiwanese dramas. I later learned that this insult originates from the ancient Chinese coin system.
My mother would also bestow a teaching of unique proverbs. Similar to how curse words are related to numbers, proverbs are related to animals. One of my personal favorites that came from my mother's collection of Proverbs describes a person who is unable to follow directions or instruction. "Kick a donkey, it doesn't move. Spank a donkey and it moves backward. People will do whatever they want until they fall down." She would then raise one of her index fingers and say "Never. Marry. A donkey."
Throughout our adolescence, my sister and I learned how my mother's teachings were her unique way of illustrating Chinese humor. We enjoyed sharing these sayings with our friends who were deeply amused. However, the one who was most amused by this was my father. His butchered Mandarin was also deeply dependent on curse words. He'd usually try to tease my mom with little spritzes of insults, in the hopes of getting a chuckle or at least, a smile. However, my mother would usually grimace, squint her eyes and barked, "If you're going to speak Chinese, learn Chinese! Don't just say a word or two. Who knows what you're saying?!" My father would then leave, looking like an abandoned puppy. My mother let out a sigh and said "I don't even know why I try. Advising your dad is like singing to a cow."