My Chinese is shockingly bad. It’s shameful really to be a person who loves travel, who has lived in a foreign country for over a year and yet cannot say more than the most rudimentary of things. I can ask for the bill in a restaurant but I can’t say my address. Actually most of my Chinese is related to food because my nonfunctional kitchen means that I almost always eat out. I can ask for a menu, but I can’t tell you the color of that menu. My Mandarin is limited at best.
I did try to learn the language. I started before we even moved to China by downloading Rosetta Stone (actually my brother downloaded it for me; thanks Walt). Rosetta Stone promises to teach you a language naturally. However, in order to follow RS you must forgo any sense of curiosity and simply follow the program, which I found difficult to do. I became frustrated because I wanted to know the rules of the language; I wanted to know why. Why was my pronunciation wrong? Why is the number two sometimes said ‘èr’ and other times it’s ‘liăng’? With RS there is no why, there is only do. Really the kicker for me was one level in which a picture of three girls reading books appeared on the screen and try as I might I could not guess what answer RS wanted me to give. The girls are reading…wrong. There are three girls…wrong. The girls are young…wrong. Turns out the answer was, “the girls have no rice.” At that point I decided RS was not for me.
When I arrived in China I hoped that cultural emersion in the language would naturally initiate learning. However, after 6 months all I had learned was “ni chī le ma?” (Have you eaten yet?) and I realized this too was not a productive learning method.
The next step was taking Chinese classes and so Josh and I hired a private teacher and began weekly lessons. While we did learn useful phrases I continued to struggle with the four basic tones in Mandarin. Unlike English which is a stressed-time language, Chinese pronunciation is based on the four tones. Said in the four different tones táng, tàng, tāng and tăng mean sugar, hot, soup and lie down respectively (I think). I blame my tone deaf ear as the partial cause of this problem, and after hours and weeks and months of my Chinese teacher saying “táng, tàng, tāng, tăng” and never ever, ever guessing the correct tone I was utterly discouraged and eventually quit.
Not to sound excuse-y but Mandarin is a fracken hard language. A person needs utter determination to learn it, and more than a lack of language skills I think my lack of motivation (i.e. laziness) contributed to my linguistic failure. When I moved to China I knew the move was temporary, I never intended to spend the rest of my life in Shenzhen. So though I wanted to learn the language for convenience it was never crucial for survival. Within the first month we were able to find work, get an apartment, open a bank account and feed ourselves without learning Mandarin. Also in the southern part of China, especially Shenzhen which is so close to Hong Kong, many people speak at least basic English and most signs are printed in Chinese and English which further negated my need to learn Mandarin. Additionally communication is only partially based on language and where my speaking skills fell behind my body language has been honed to perfection. Now with only a month left my motivation to learn Chinese is nonexistent but not forgotten.
For whatever the reason (or excuse), the fact that I cannot speak the native tongue of the country I reside in has probably been the single most influential factor in coloring my experiences in China. It affects the relationships I’ve built, the opportunities I’ve had, the frustrations I’ve felt, the way I interpret the world around me and of course the blog posts I write.
More than once I’ve heard the critique that because I can’t speak the language I haven’t had a real experience in China (though I’m quick to point out that even Chinese people will tell you that Shenzhen itself isn’t real China). Perhaps this is true, though I’d use the word authentic instead of real because I think what they mean is that my experiences in China don’t reflect a native resident’s experiences. If I was to describe my time here I’d say I had an immigrant’s life in China. And while my experiences have not made me overly fond of Chinese culture (a sliver a regret can be found in that statement) it has made me hyper aware of the struggles of immigrants as they strive to build a life in a city that is utterly foreign to them and that is a very real experience for people not only in China but in my homeland as well. My linguistic shortcomings have also instilled in me a deep respect for my students as they attempt to learn English, and for anyone who can speak multiple languages. In fact in terms of super powers the ability to instantly understand and speak new languages is now for me third only behind invisibility and flight.
So no I can’t speak Chinese. Yes that is a shame. But I do not regret the experiences I’ve had in China simply because they weren’t the experiences I wanted to have pre-trip or could have had if I was a better student. As Douglas Adams said, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I’ve ended up where I need to be.”