I was speeding down state route 167 outside of Seattle when I spotted the Great Wall shopping center. The name conjured up something exciting. I imagined dragons and upturned roofs, and roast duck. I quickly exited. While looking for a parking spot close to the bevy of pan Asian stores, I translated Great Wall shopping center into Chinese: Changcheng shangchang.
What a startlingly horrendous mouthful! Great Wall shopping center falls off the tongue so nicely in English. Not so in Mandarin! I had discovered a Chinese tongue twister right off highway 167. A garble of ch’s and sh’s, ang’s and eng’s, with the consonant and vowel sounds both shuffling and scuffling like tango dancers.
I could hardly follow the verbal dips and twists. Of course you must say it with the correct tones – as if the oh so similar sounds weren’t already tying my synapses in knots. Cháng is said with the rising or second tone, and chéng also is said with a rising tone. Two consecutive rising tones can be tricky, because you have to quickly return to a lower starting point in order to once again make a rising tone sound. So saying cháng chéng is more deliberate than easy.
I had encountered cháng chéng, Great Wall, before, but had always immediately forgotten it. This time around I was more familiar with the component words and their meanings, which helped the task of remembering. Cháng means long. And chéng means city, town or city wall, as for example with zhong guo (China) chéng (town), the word for Chinatown. So cháng chéng, or Great Wall.
Besides cháng and chéng I was able to recall the term for shopping center: shāng chǎng. Shāng, first tone, means commerce. Chǎng, third tone, means large place used for a specific purpose. Thus for example there is fēijī (airplane) chǎng, place for airplanes, that is, airport; or in this case, shāng chǎng, a place for shopping, in other words, a shopping center.
I drove around the bustling parking lot saying aloud, cháng chéng shāng chǎng. It sounded like babble even in my own ears. Cháng chéng made me think of Cheech and Chong, which was no help.
I couldn’t say chángchéng shāngchǎng fluidly. Rather I had to break it into parts and reinvent production each time. First I had to say cháng, remembering to use a rising tone, pause to establish the next consonant, the hard ch, and then say chéng, again with a conscious effort to use the rising tone. Shāng was a little easier; then pause and reestablish my mouth shape to pronounce the hard ch and the third tone ang, stressing the third tone dip I often overlook: Chǎng. But when I tried to say the whole thing as a simple whole my brain froze. I couldn’t utter a word. I had to reboot my seized brain and start again.
Pitfalls like this keep me amused studying Chinese. I was exhilarated to have discovered the tortuous phrase all by myself in the Great Wall shopping center parking lot. I sat in the car, like a boy who just tumbled into an abandoned well, stunned at the predicament, yet also a little thrilled. Tongue twister hidden in plain sight! I could freeze my brain at will!
Turns out there’s some poetic revenge. The proper name for the shopping center was Great Wall Mall. I’ll have to ask one of my Chinese native friends to try saying that five times fast.