Adventures in Mandarin

Learning Chinese was unfathomable in the US. Between the characters and the four tones, I had no clue where to start, and whatever Netflix episodes in Chinese I watched, or lessons I completed on my language learning app, none of it stuck in my brain.

Upon arriving in China, I was told that for survival purposes, the quickest method was to not worry about tones or characters, and focus solely on pinyin, the Romanization of Chinese characters. This advice coupled with my own grim determination to learn was the spark I needed, and soon I was flying through my app sessions. Stripped of the tones and tricky pronunciations, it’s not so grammatically complicated at its core. There aren’t a whole lot of tenses, and no ridiculous conjugations like in English.

I also signed up for Chinese lessons with a tutor for more speaking practice. I’ve always loved learning languages but mostly steered clear of them in college for fear of damaging my GPA. Picking up a brand new communication form without worrying about grades and fueled solely by my own motivation is more rewarding than I ever anticipated. And whoda thunk, turns out living in China is ideal for language learning. My exposure to the language is nonstop, and my ears are always working overtime to pick out words I know.

My favorite teachers are my students, and my most effective test is listening to the kids chatter in Chinese during classes. We’re not supposed to allow them to speak Chinese (the command is NO CHINESE) but I’m constantly tempted to try out my own Chinese on them. I can cobble together the words I know to understand maybe 10% of what they talk about. I can even occasionally pick out the dirty words (sha bi is stupid cunt, word of the day) and my discipline is swift. (The local teachers tell me that it’s better for me not to understand Chinese when teaching the kids, as they can be incredibly  and openly insulting about teachers’ weight, hair, perceived gender, etc. Also the older kids apparently really like to discuss their penises.) The preschool age kids don’t notice or care, but the older kids are without fail stumped about my race/nationality, and after numerous sessions of “Is Grace weiguoren? Ta shi zhonguoren?” I have since started giving a brief autobiographical presentation to all my tweens/teens classes. (Where do you think I’m from? I’m from America. Where do you think my parents are from? No, not China. Korea. Hanguo*. All right let’s get on with our lives.)

When I took classes about teaching English language learners, I was told that a good way to enrich my growth as a teacher would be to learn a language myself.  And it’s absolutely true. From my various learning sources, I glean what methods work and what doesn’t. What particularly impresses me is the neverending process. I have to keep reviewing my notes, keep practicing my pronunciation on my coworkers and roommate, and as frightening as it is, keep testing my Chinese on strangers. And with all this effort, my fluency rate still hovers at around 0.00002%. The best aid to my teaching has been empathy. I understand when my kids are frustrated with English or don’t want to do their homework, because I am working through the same issues on my own time, although their English is 500000000x better than my Chinese. It blows my mind that they can sit through two hour lessons in immersive English when my conversation topics in Chinese quickly runs out after “Wo xihuan pijiu” (I like beer, which I don’t.)

Putting my knowledge into practice is hardest, and visiting the dumpling stand across the street from my apartment is risky. During the morning rush people crowd and cut the line, shouting out their orders and tossing the money. I know “give me”, “meat”, “dumpling”, “that one”,  the numbers, and how to point, but I don’t know enough about the specific dumplings and lack the aggression to compete. I usually hover in the back and wait for the crowd to die down before I go into my mumble and point routine. I think the dumpling man and lady have figured out I’m a foreigner though, since they recently started holding up fingers to tell me prices, which actually bums me out since I’m getting good at numbers.

My tones are atrocious, and I don’t understand 98% of the Chinese that is aimed at me, but every 1/10 of a sentence that I understand, and every successful interaction in Chinese that I have is a victory.

*The Chinese word for Korea, as I have been corrected, is Hanguo, and not, as I previously thought, Chaoxian, which in fact refers to North Korea.


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