Chinese Characters in Singapore, 2011
Chinese Characters in Singapore, 2011

“So I need a… venti… is that the biggest size? Yeah? So a venti vanilla latte… two shots of espresso… add syrup… Caramel? Caramel drizzle? Well, the other store has it. Sugar-free syrup, of course. With whipped cream and one of these dome lids… Oh, and soy… no, almond milk. Oh and…”

For fuck’s sake, lady, it’s a drink, not a four-course meal. If your coffee order requires more than two adjectives, you failed at life.

The barista glances at me, our eyes meet and I roll my eyes. He can’t, obviously. But he wants to, I can tell. He shrugs discreetly.

While the obnoxious yet-to-be-caffeinated lady is still figuring out what she really wants from life and from a Styrofoam cup, I eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.

“Love it. So you.”

“I bought it on Bank Street, you know… It was like, $30. I just hope it doesn’t say anything stupid. I’d be so embarrassed.”

I turn around and see that she is wearing a cute jacket with Chinese ideograms printed all over.

I squint at the sleeve.

“These are addresses,” I say.


“Sorry, didn’t mean to intrude. Just saying, your jacket doesn’t say anything stupid. These are addresses written in Chinese. Like here it says ‘3 Nanjing Road, Shanghai’ and here it says ‘Sichuan’—that’s a province—and here it says ‘Inner Mongolia,’ another province. So just addresses and place names, like our mailboxes that have postal codes printed all over, you know?”

“Oh my God! You can read that?”

I shrug. “Yeah, I swear, I’m not making it up.”

Indeed, I’m not lying. This is my hidden skill. I speak Mandarin. I can read and write as well. Everybody’s got a hidden talent, well, that’s mine. Used to be a fun pickup line in my teens, when Chinese ideogram tattoos were popular.

That said, it’s the kind of “hidden skill” that, when revealed, leads to weird comments.

“My coworker can speak Chinese too, that’s funny!”
“It is! Do you know where he learned Chinese? University?”
“Er… at school, I guess. He is from Beijing.”

“How do you say ‘I like to fuck hot Chinese girls’ in Mandarin?”
“You don’t. Unless you want to get slapped.”

“Can you write my name in the Chinese alphabet?”
“No, I can’t, because there is no alphabet in Chinese.”

“What does it say here?”
“No idea, this is Korean.”

“Oh cool! You must know where to eat good traditional sushi, then.”

“Oh, you speak Mandarin! 真的吗!”
(Chinese person immediately starts talking really fast in some kind of Southern dialect, probably assuming I somehow grew up in the same district as them.).

“You know that China is developing fast and there will be opportunities in business and…”
Yep, been hearing that since 1996. Unfortunately, I’m hopeless in international business (or even at selling lemonade on the street) and speaking Chinese doesn’t automatically qualify me to run a mega-corporation (which is probably a good thing, unless you’re aiming for complete and fast bankruptcy).

Yeah, sometimes I wish I had another cool hidden talent. Like doing splits. I’ve always wanted to be able to do a split, casually and gracefully. “Oh, this? No, just stretching, hi hi hi!” Unfortunately, my hips never quite agreed. Bitch. Around twelve, I wisely realized that I probably would never wear a tutu—I loved Nutella and croissants too much to compete with Russia-trained students anyway. So I turned to gymnastics, and by this I mean I desperately tried to master headstands, flips and cartwheels. The best I could do was a somersault—not the cool kind, in the air, but on a padded surface, on the ground. I don’t even finish on my feet most of the time… and yes, just in case you were wondering, I’ve just tried one in the living room and made a complete fool of myself.

In my late teens, I set the bar lower and aimed at whistling with my fingers, being known for an amazing to-be-determined signature dish, dancing gracefully… oh, singing too. Like those people who burst into song a capella with a deep rich voice you didn’t quite expect, and then laugh it off, “oh no, me? I can’t sing!”

I have mastered exactly zero of these skills. My hidden talent remains knowing the difference between 白 and 百 or shí, shǐ and shì.

I wonder if somewhere, in China, a woman who can read Victor Hugo in French and conjugate subjunctive whines about not being able to do splits…

So, what’s your hidden talent? And what’s the talent you wish you had?

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  1. Martin Penwald June 29, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    In fact, I have a question too : I think that Cantonese and Mandarin use the same sinograms, the difference is in pronunciation. How different are they ?

    Hidden talent : I used to be a Viennese waltz and cha-cha dancer.

    1. Zhu June 29, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      Re. Mandarin and Cantonese both languages are very different, as different as Spanish and French. Cantonese is more spoken than written, though, but it uses standard Mandarin characters (Mandarin is the official language) and a few colloquial ones.

      You’re a dancer? That’s awesome? How and where did you learn such skill?

      1. Martin Penwald June 30, 2015 at 11:03 pm

        Long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, when I was young and student in Auvergne. In fact, I’ve learned other dances (I was not too bad in maybe 7 or 8 kind of dances, and correct in a few others), but cha-cha and waltz were my favorite. No competition, just leisure.
        I even knew to dance Macarena, Carnavalera, and a few of these things.

        1. Zhu July 2, 2015 at 2:28 pm

          It’s a really cool skill, I admire anyone who can dance at all, let alone complicated dances like the waltz! When was the last time you danced?

          1. Martin Penwald July 2, 2015 at 9:27 pm

            Nearly 9 years, when I left Auvergne. Waltz is not that comnplicated, but there is a hint to look great, hint that is not easy to achieve : the dancers should dance hips against hips, so it is a little bit awkward to do that with a perfect stramger. That’s why I’ve ever dance waltz the grown-up way with only 3 partners, no ambiguity, we were here to dance, not to cruise.

          2. Zhu July 3, 2015 at 3:33 pm

            Makes sense. Now I have to find videos to see what the three-partner dance looks like!

          3. Martin Penwald July 3, 2015 at 9:25 pm

            I mean, one at a time

  2. Gagan June 29, 2015 at 9:00 pm

    Mandarin, as I hear it is not at all an easy nut to crack, kudos!

    I was in Japan about a year ago, with another colleague from Indonesia, before leaving I went through some podcasts and mastered “excuse me” “thanks” “Do you know English” and “Where can I find…..” My colleague would hear me use these words at a restaurant or a mall, he thought I knew the language, he wouldn’t go shopping or eating without me. I enjoyed the feeling so much and I never told him, so you my hidden talent; being evil 🙂

    1. Zhu June 29, 2015 at 11:18 pm

      Ah! You’re the opposite of evil, my friend! I’m starting to know you… 😉 At best, you’re… naughty 🙂

      I quite enjoy being the “language master’ when we travel, I understand the feeling!

      1. Gagan June 29, 2015 at 11:38 pm

        Guilty 🙂

  3. Cynthia June 30, 2015 at 4:47 am

    I would guess that it is more useful to speak Mandarin than being able to do the split ! I tried to master doing the split when I was very young and nimble but I was never able to do so!

    1. Zhu June 30, 2015 at 11:11 am

      … depends, I’d say 😆

  4. Christiane July 24, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Hmmm hidden talent…hmm i can swim under water for a bit ….oh and i can bake my ass off lol !!

    1. Zhu July 24, 2015 at 3:36 pm

      Baking is a true skill, one I really don’t master (but appreciate!) Where did you learn?

  5. Christiane September 23, 2015 at 10:39 am

    watching too many cooking shows and i have quite a few cookbooks and plus i love sweets lol !!

    1. Zhu September 23, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      I stopped buying cookbooks. I collected them all, never have the time to try the recipes. I just drool on the pictures, knowing I can never replicate that!

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