What language do we speak?

I have no idea what foreign language we are learning. In South China, Chinese refer to Mandarin as “Potunghua” and Cantonese as “Guandonghua.” In the North, dialects are not really recognized, the word “Potunghua” is not used and many insist there is only one Chinese language, and the Chinese language is referred to has “Hanyu” or “Zhongwen.”

Today we went to lunch at a great Fujianese local food restaurant. The two tables next to us were filled with Chinese who spoke no English. Table 1, a family from Beijing, began to talk to our kids in what was my view very clear Mandarin Chinese. When I spoke to them in Chinese, they had great difficulty in understanding me. Here’s the funny part…Table 2 was filled with Chinese from Fujian Province (whose dialect and accent are more similar to Guandong which is also in South China), and they, listening to my Chinese, explained IN CHINESE to Table 1 what were we saying. Do we speak Mandarin with a South China accent?

Another example: In the U.S. I learned that if I wanted a bowl of rice to ask for “wan fan.” I did this numerous times and ended up with an empty rice bowl. In GZ, if you want a bowl of rice, you ask for “mi fan.” Today, my fellow fulbrighters informed me that they all say “wan fan” for rice, and never heard of “mi fan.” What language do I speak? How can this all be “Chinese”?

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