If you ever want to understand and speak Chinese, the first thing to know is many words sound or even look the same.
But how you say it makes all the difference. All told, my Rosetta Stone lessons appear to help me well with pronunciation. I've generally received good marks from the Chinese community on my speaking — spelling and Chinese characters are a whole different matter.
I spent some time with my newfound friends from the Tampa Bay Chinese Chamber of Commerce — eating. First it was dumplings at the 10,000-square-foot MD Oriental Market in Tampa and then it was at the Ivory Mandarin Bistro in Dunedin.
Xi gua, says Linda Hibbeln, as she and Aileen Brandstetter, vice president of the MD Oriental Market, give me a tour of the grocery store that opened east of downtown Tampa on E Adamo Drive.
Chee, gu-wa, I respond.
"Your pronunciation is very good," Hibbeln says. "It means watermelon. It literally means 'west melon,' because that's where it grows in China, in the west."
Nan gua, Hibbeln says, pointing to a pumpkin.
Non gu-wa, I repeat.
After a couple of months working on Rosetta Stone's latest program, TOTALe, I have found that it is a powerful tool in grasping the Chinese language.
The greatest difficulty I have had in the last couple of weeks in studying the language has been finding all the time I need between work, children and life. But even with some missed practice, I have found many of the things I have learned are sticking.
On a visit to the deli, I recognized from my lessons the roasting fowl.
Ya zi, I say with a smile at the ducks.
Hibbeln and Sunny Duann, a reporter for the World Journal, the largest Chinese newspaper in North America, wouldn't let me stop there, though.
"You have to have some Peking duck," Hibbeln says.
But that's not the sampling before us.
Zhe che shen me? I inquire about the finger-sized strips of meat in front of me on the deli counter.
Zhu ro, pork, Duann says.
But not just any part of the pig. It's pig tongue, pig ears and pig stomach.
"You have to try it," Hibbeln says. "It's very good."
The highlight of this trip still remained. Chef Zhenjun Huang is teaching me how to make jiao zi pi, or dumplings, which are known to Americans as "pot stickers."
"He looks at his cooking as his favorite thing to do," Brandstetter says about her chef.
Huang fashions the dumplings by stuffing them with zhu ro he bei cai (pork — without the tongue, ears and stomach — and white cabbage).
The taste testing culminates at the Ivory Mandarin Bistro, an authentic Chinese restaurant in Dunedin, where I sampled the Peking duck.
The visits to MD Oriental Market and Ivory Mandarin Bistro perhaps alone have made the Rosetta Stone experiment worth the time. Among the various goals was to find one of the best authentic Chinese restaurants in Tampa Bay, and Ivory doesn't disappoint.
Besides, it gave me another opportunity to connect with native Chinese speakers at both the restaurant and the market.
"Are you understanding what is being said in Chinese?" Duann asks.
There's a lot I don't understand, but I'm no longer completely lost when I hear the language. The Rosetta Stone program has, so far at least, put me in a position to get by at restaurants and to have basic conversations.
I'm a long way from talking economic theory or making speeches in Chinese, but my comfort level with the language is vastly improved from when I started in late August.
I've still got three weeks to go before I draw my final conclusion.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.