15 November 2014

Why is Chinese (Mandarin) so difficult to learn?

I just read that Mark Zuckerberg spoke in Mandarin during his Q&A at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

I watched the video in the article and frankly, I could hardly make out what he was saying, but the Chinese audience seemed to get it. 

The article went on to discuss how extremely daunting it is to learn Chinese if you are not native Chinese and / or not living in China where people speak the language the whole day.

I wholeheartedly agree with the reasons given in the article as to why it is so damn hard to learn Chinese:
-- Because the writing system is ridiculous.
-- Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet.
-- Because the writing system just ain't very phonetic.
-- Because tonal languages are weird;
-- Because East is East and West is West, and the twain have only recently met.

Uh, that last reason probably just applies to Westerners.

I am a Malaysian-Chinese. I did not learn Chinese growing up, but instead learned my country's national language, Bahasa Malaysia and of course English. My family speaks the Cantonese dialect at home, and I picked up a smattering of spoken Mandarin from my mother who was educated in the Chinese medium of instruction. I also picked up the tiniest knowledge of the Hokkien dialect from Hokkien colleagues at work.   

Now, my 2 children attend Chinese vernacular schools where they are instructed primarily in Mandarin, but also learn Bahasa Malaysia and English. It has been very tough going to keep them in Chinese schools when both my husband and I are illiterate in Chinese.

I just cannot comprehend how an entire language can be constructed with no alphabetical structure. Chinese words seem to have been created at the whim and fancy of whoever it was that conceived the language. A large part of learning Chinese is having to memorise words, to memorise how those words are supposed to be written (this stroke first followed by a curve then a dot then another slash etc.) and to memorise how those words sound.

It is so simple in English: if you come across a new word, one you have never ever seen in your life, you can at least pronounce it. That's half the battle won. No such luck in Chinese!

Whenever my kids come across a new Chinese word, they are well and truly stuck.My kids are intelligent and I know they would do much better in their exams and school ranking if not for Chinese derailing them. I continually encourage them and tell them so.

I am proud and happy that despite the difficulty of learning Chinese my kids have persevered in Chinese schools and not asked to be put back into the English or Bahasa Malaysia medium schools.

It has so often been said that the world is now witnessing "a major shift in economic and cultural influence, from the U.S. to China," hence raising the profile of the Chinese language. 

For me, I feel it is good to learn more languages and being ethnically Chinese, there is that added obligation.

07 November 2014

My first mammogram

I went for my first mammogram 2 days ago.

Being above 40 (under 45) my doctor said it's time to do it. I've been asking for it the last couple of years but she said wait a few years.

I live in Ipoh and my doctor told me to go to the Ipoh Specialist Hospital(ISH), part of the KPJ group. No problem with that. It's close to home and well established in Ipoh.

What did I expect from my first mammogram?

I was expecting discomfort, some pain and embarrassment.

This was my experience :

1. Register at the radiology department

This is on the ground floor of ISH, the same level as the covered parking. It was relatively quiet at the hospital today (Yay! Means not many people are sick and more people are enjoying good health, hopefully). There were 2 patients ahead of me and 2 patients after. Out of the 5 of us only 3 were going for the mammogram.

It was a short wait. I was called in after about 10 minutes.

2. The mammogram room

The technician brought me to the mammo room with some small chit chat along the way ~ is this your first time,  are you married etc. It was an appreciated distraction.

The mammo room was small but adequate. It contained a small changing area with curtains, the mammo machine and the control desk.

I was asked to undress from the waist up. No robe. Then I noticed my name lighted up in a display panel at the foot of the machine.

Even though the technician is a lady I still felt awkward stepping out from behind the curtains when she called me. She asked me to take off my shoes and stand close to the machine.

3. The positioning

Now, people have mentioned the pain and discomfort but nobody said anything to me about the awkward poses expected of you and the effort needed to position your breasts just right onto the plastic plate!

I am doing a 3D mammo today. I don't know how different an experience that would be from a 2D mammo.

Now, here is the big mammo machine. You see the black lower plastic plate? And the upper clear plastic plate?

Well, one has to position the object of scrutiny nicely between the 2 plastic plates. The technician explained to me that that the image would be taken from 2 angles for each side, so 2x2 in total 4 times.


The first angle: I was asked to stand directly in front of the machine. The lower black plate was positioned exactly beneath the breast. Lean forward slightly for the technician to lower the upper plate that would then compress the breast as much as possible. The technician needs to help you position the breast correctly onto the lower plate for the upper plate to compress it the way it should.

Did it hurt? For me, yes!

The technician tells me to hold that position and to avert my face slightly away from the top of the machine as she said the machine will move when taking the image.

The technician retreated to her control desk, leaving me trapped and feeling extremely vulnerable. Oh, and in pain. The machine then swiveled above my head from left to right, making an almost 180 degree arc. Done.

I am released from the painful grip momentarily until I got into position #2. This time I had to stand at an angle, with my hip close to one corner of the lower black plate. I was told that I had to assume a leaning stance. How?

The technician pushed me forward and asked me to extend my right hand forward to grab a hand-hold in front of me. At the same time my upper body was half-lying on the black plate. The technician had to do a lot of handling of the breast to get it just so onto the black plate while again lowering the upper plate to compress the breast. She didn't get it compressed to her satisfaction so she raised the upper plate, readjusted my body's position and maneuvered my breast onto the black plate until it was just right. The pressure came back on.

"Right! Stay right there! Don't move! And remember to tilt your face back."

I think I gritted my teeth.

And this was repeated for the other side.

Then, it was done. The technician was professional and polite, apologizing for the discomfort numerous times.

Screening is important

Despite the discomfort and awkwardness of the procedure, we are fortunate that medical science has come so far in providing a way to detect potential breast abnormalities. I have relatives and friends who have suffered from breast cancer. My cousin-in-law impressed on me the importance of regular screening and early detection.

I hope and pray for good health, for myself and you.