Things By Simon

Unexpected Linguistics

One of my favourite routines to perform is a card trick in Mandarin Chinese. The language skills involved came from my high school’s compulsory “study two foreign languages for at least two years” policy, and stuck with me ever since. I’m not fluent by a long shot, but I’m functional. You could drop me in the middle of mainland China and I could communicate my way out.

The trick itself started off as a demonstration how easy it can be to communicate between languages and cultures. Even for most people watching who don’t speak Mandarin, it’s still very clear what’s going on when someone does a card trick.

However, over the years there has been another unexpected bonus. While the routine works well for any audience, it has a particularly strong impact on a Chinese-speaking crowd. Though westerners who can speak Chinese are becoming more and more common, the sight of a blue-eyed Caucasian unexpectedly spouting a torrent of Mandarin still gets a great reaction.

Consequently I now get asked to perform at a great deal of Chinese cultural events. Having a Mandarin-speaking white guy around is often seen as a nice cultural diversity bonus, and if he can also MC the show and/or handle the after dinner entertainment, then all the better.

Just such a gig came up last week at the launch of Australia’s new Asian Literacy Program at the Museum of Chinese Australian History. I was asked to give a 15-minute after dinner performance, plus a talk about my experience with Chinese Language education in Australia. The Mandarin-speaking card trick went down particularly well, and looked something like this:

Thank you to William Lai from Central Equity Group for capturing the video.




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