Having been in an intensive language-immersion course for two years now (called Marry a Chinese Woman Who Doesn't Speak English — I highly recommend it), I seldom get the tones wrong in my Chinese pronunciation. The other day, however, I flubbed.
Ma Lei's father had asked us to pick up some cigars for a fairly wealthy friend of his, in exchange for a bunch of money. The word for "smoke" is yan, spoken in a high flat tone — much the same as singing a high note in English. The word for "salt," unfortunately, is also yan, spoken in a rising tone like a question. ("Do you want some salt?" That same sort of tone.)
Ma Lei had asked me about the cigars earlier in the morning, and mid-afternoon we happened to be running some errands near a smoke shop. I asked if she wanted to go check out the yan, but I said it like "salt," not like "smoke."
"Salt shop?!" She asked incredulously. "America has salt shops?!"
"Dui," I said: "Yes. America has many different flavors of salt
"I told you no such thing," she responded. "Did you have some sort of crazy dream about salt?" (I kid you not, that's exactly what she asked me.)
"No, it wasn't a dream! We already went and bought your brother expensive salt to give his boss. Your dad wanted the same sort of salt. Did you forget?!"
"No," she said. "Why the hell would I want to go to a salt shop?! Let's just go to the beach."
Later, she reminded me that her father had asked us to buy cigars, and I was re-flummoxed. "We were right next door to a cigar shop," I challenged, "and you told me you didn't want any." She thought, and thought, and thought, and finally remembered: "No, you dumbass, you told me it was a salt shop!"
My bad! Not all yans are created equal.