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Learning Chinese – “mai”, “mai” or “mai”?

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I recently retired as UK senior partner of BDO after 23 years as a partner with the firm. Last year, I took up a position as visiting professor at Xiamen University, China. My wife is Chinese and I decided to spend three months exploring business opportunities in the region and trying to learn some Mandarin.

I’m blogging about my experiences in China for Real Business – catch up on my journey so far (see “related articles” on the right-hand side).

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The Chinese spoken language has only about 800 “syllables” available, of which many are distinguishable from another similar syllable only by the tone used. 

Normally the context will guide one as to the meaning of the word being spoken, but confusion is possible. 

The word for “buy” is “mai” (pronounced “my”) and the word for “sell” is also “mai”; the former is pronounced in a tone which falls and then rises, whereas the latter is in a tone which merely falls. “Are you buying or are you selling?” requires a careful answer here; I also have this mental image stockmarket traders screaming “mai”, “mai”, “mai”…

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Exploring Beijing by bicycle, I had a guide who grew up in the Hutongs, the dense alleys of single-storey housing in central Beijing. 20 years ago, at the age of 8, he explored these alleyways on his bike; there were 7,000 of them then – and needless to say, initially he would sometimes get lost. 

There are now only about 1,000 of these alleys left. Many of the houses are still very basic, single or double room bungalows, with public toilets. Some areas are, however, becoming gentrified and I am told that wealthy buyers are prepared to pay £10m for a courtyard of these homes. 

They may not yet look like Chelsea, but the prices per square foot are not far off!

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