In 2011 I took the dive to study Chinese and International Business for my undergraduate. Many people ask me “why did you study Chinese?” and my answer has always been “I really don’t know.” I didn’t put much thought into my future at 17 and I chose 10 courses, and I came out with Chinese and International Business.
When I started studying Mandarin, I didn’t know it was a tonal language, I called characters symbols, and my understanding of Han culture and history was on par with my understanding of women at 17; not a whole lot but enough to know I didn’t know enough.
By the end of my four-year undergraduate stint, I was an Irishman with a Beijing accent.
Four years a student
I studied my ass off for four solid years. In the beginning, I put in four to five hours of studying a day and neglected my business course material until two weeks before exam time. At least with the business courses were in English and I could flook them. Seriously, business lectures are just about buzzwords and not sounding too confusing; basically like everything you study in university. The Chinese couldn’t be flooked and I wanted to do well because even at that time, I had no clue what I was doing.
Studying Mandarin was like wrestling four fish at the same time. By the time you get a grip one, you lose the other, “hey I got the hang of writing, but my reading and oral are slipping up, better catch up on those, oh wait, there goes the writing and my sanity.” It was mess and I somehow came out on the other end not too 傻逼 with Mandarin.
Picking up the Beijing accent
“Man, that Beijing accent is sexy” said no person ever. And yet, I picked it up like something you’d get after making some bad decisions on a night out. But hey, I really digged the Beijing accent. It was thick, a bit hard to understand if you do it right, and it’s unique. It reminded me of my Belfast accent; you know, that accent nobody in the rest of Ireland can understand.
I spent a year in Beijing’s Minzu University as an exchange student. I took 20 hours of Mandarin classes a week and wrote my thesis on Alibaba’s Taobao. At the time, my girlfriend was a Beijinger I met in Ireland. So, from my environment, lectures, ex-girlfriend, and my own liking of the accent, I left Beijing in 2014 with a Beijing accent I still can’t shake.
Fast-forward to Taipei in 2018
The first thing my taxi driver told me when I arrived in 2016 and took the journey to Taipei was “you sound like a Beijing” and he kept laughing. To be honest, I totally get it. In Ireland, I worked with a Chinese guy with a mixture of a Chinese and a really Dublin accent and it was amazing. I guess we as people like it when others emulate something we are familiar with.
I suppose that’s why I took up the Beijing accent. Even with other languages, I’ve always took up an accent. But I actually made an effort to learn Mandarin. Just check out my secondary school grades for French and Gaelic, I tried as hard as a bored teenager would. Not very well, not very well at all.
So, here I am, Taipei, starting my Master’s and everytime I talk to local people, after a while, I get asked “why did you learn Mandarin?” and I’d say Beijing and they’d just do that thing that people do with their lip when their guess was correct. You know that thing.
It was funny though, having the accent made me more approachable I guess. People found it a bit odd, but they were more curious. Instead of the same old questions about where I come from, how long have you been here, etc. they were more curious about me as a person.
It’s not every day an Irishman with a Beijing accent comes to Taipei after all. I’m pretty sure I am the first. I hope. Don’t tell me if I’m not, I like this bubble.
Getting chatty with locals and that one landlord
I’ve had a lot of nice times with people when it came to my accent. Right now, my Mandarin accent has softened and I use less of the Beijing tongue thing and all those “er’s”. When I get drunk, I go all out with the Beijing accent, and my own Irish accent.
I’ve had people tell me about their grandparents and parents, and how their accent was like my own. They would share stories about their family and it was a really nice experience.
Another time, I was searching for an apartment and I called up a landlord and made an appointment to check out their apartment for let. I knocked on the door and the landlord opened it and asked me why I was there. I told him I called him yesterday and I was here to see the apartment, I’m Sun Ke (孫柯). It took him a few seconds to put my voice to my face and he replied “foreigners not okay” and he closed the door. I just laughed it off because he thought I was Chinese and didn’t realize I was foreign. That was hilarious.
I always like the idea of having an accent when it comes to learning a language. That’s not the say you should 100% choose an accent, god knows there are so many accents in the English-speaking world that are beyond belief!
I just think it adds a bit of a flair if you can add a bit of a twang to what you say and makes you a little bit more approachable. My only problem is, I had a Beijing accent in the wrong bloody place. Not the best accent to have in Taiwan.