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Sunday, August 16, 2015

My struggle with Chinese and the difficulties of shopping on Taobao

I think it's safe to say anyone who knows me knows I can barely speak or write Mandarin to save my life.

Yes, I'm Chinese, yes yes, I've been blessed with HOURS of tuition, courtesy of my long-suffering parents, But honestly, Chinese just won't stick! I seriously contemplated dropping it and heading straight for CLB (Chinese Language B) for my O levels but my mother was against it as it meant I would never get into JC.

Not that I had any intention of going, but knowing that I could go and rejected the opportunity seemed like the better option.

But come the O Levels. Lo and behold, I scrapped through with a C6. I think the examiner and markers took pity on me.

My improbable pass was too much for my Sec 4 Chinese teacher - before the O levels she had thrown in the towel and said most like I would fail and have to retake. When I told her I passed, her shoulders literally rose upwards and light came back into her eyes. She... gave me a hug. And she was teary-eyed.

I suppose moments like those were meant to be touching, awe-inspiring and a reminder for all aspiring teachers that they make a difference in the lives of hopeless cases like myself.

I just felt awkward and embarrassed.

Looking back, that was nice of her. But I still feel a bit awkward now. I suppose I have a deep appreciation for personal space.

But my point is, my Chinese SUCKS. It's awful. I recently sent my friend's mother home in the car, and I remember just thinking, "when will this drive end", "must I say anything to her?", "How does one make conversation in Mandarin?", "What's the pinyin for "Have a good night? I know the words, but how do you pronounce it?!" PANIC. I can barely speak to my own grandmother in Mandarin without my short sentences sounding as though they came out of an autotune machine.

My ill-informed cousin from Australia, requested I be his Mandarin MC for his Singapore wedding. Two sentences into my introduction and my grandmother loudly and unabashedly, shushed me and told me to stop in Mandarin.

I immediately switched to English after my humiliating muzzling.

I had hoped that I would never have to deal with Chinese in detail ever again. I don't know who I was kidding cause Taobao soon hit the internet.

Shopper's paradise! You could buy EVERYTHING from sanitary fittings to a whole LIVE pig. The only catch was that it was in Mandarin.

I avoided it like the plague, pooh-poohing it to hide the fact that I was DYING to shop online but just couldn't cause of the language problem. I watched on in envy as friends had boxes upon boxes delivered to their homes for a fraction of local prices. Finally, I took a deep breath and took the plunge.

I'd start with buying stuff for my wedding.

"I'm just looking for boxes." I told my friend as I typed taobao.com into my address bar for the first time.

Really. How to read?! SO MANY CHINESE CHARACTERS!

Jeslin kindly walked me through the whole process and helped me picked the boxes. She asked if I needed to help to pay, but I wanted to shop more. I was looking to shop a lot more. Tucked into bed and armed with Google Translate and a credit card I marched in with a vengeance ,alone.

I went in confident from my friend's tutorial but came out battered, bruised and defeated.

It was like Chinese O Levels all over again.

The words. SO many! SO SMALL. How to read? I remember hyperventilating over some product information that couldn't be translated because they were saved as an image. I couldn't highlight, copy and paste into Google translate!

I was hoping to walk away from the battle with boxes of loot. But a hour into my Taobao venture and my shopping cart only had the boxes Jeslin had found for me and 40 white marker pens.

Clothes, bags, shoes... all left on the battle floor. The Chinese characters and descriptions had defeated me.

I thought the worst was over, so I comforted myself with the fact that I bought SOME items and went straight to payment.

Jeslin had introduced me to a Taobao agent (NOT 65Daigou) who charged considerably lower shipping rates. She warned me that his method of payment would be a little more complicated than expected. I tried to brave through it.

IT WAS TOO TOUGH. I ended up in tears. I had problems logging in, saving a password, registering my phone and even problems talking to their cute little interactive FAQ cartoon character that hangs on the right side of the page. GOOGLE TRANSLATE WAS USELESS.

Taobao asked me to registered my passport number, upload my ID card etc etc. I caved and asked my friend and she clarified that I had NO NEED for all those things. I was confused. Her explanation confused me too, because she had to use the Chinese characters to illustrate where and how I was going to make payment.

"Okay, okay. Thank you so much! I get it now!" I gushed to her about an hour later. She hung up. I still hadn't paid. I only told her I was done because I could sense her growing frustration, and Taobao's not gonna ruin a friendship for me. No sir.

So I continued staring, but this time, I google translated THE WHOLE PAGE.

Turns out, I had been shopping as a person living in China, which is why they wanted my passport number etc. I had completely missed the option for payment as a shopper from other countries. That was why I was struggling so much.

I burst into tears. Two hours. It took me two hours just to get to the right payment page. It brought back that sense of horror, frustration and hopelessness I had from every test I had in school. I had even worked it the same way I did for Chinese comprehension, I just copied chunks of text and assumed that I had answered the whole thing.

I'm calm now.

It's over. I paid.

Now I sit and wait, don't know when the shipment will come, I couldn't understand the email.