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Saturday, September 29, 2012

The trials and tribulations of 中文

My drink of choice before starting my Mandarin Chinese 普通话/國語 homework...

It's been a rough week in Mandarin class. Without being informed in advance, I was placed in a new speaking class beginning on Monday afternoon (my morning reading class hasn't changed). That in itself wasn't a problem, as I'm not opposed to change, and I was welcoming a new challenge. Unfortunately, though there was only one other student in the class, her listening and speaking abilities were far greater than mine. Furthermore, she and the teacher had a well-established listening, questioning and reporting regime going that left me feeling clueless, helpless and intimidated, and definitely on the outside. In fairness to the 老师, she tried to incorporate me into the new routine, but it was clear to everyone there that I was out of my element. Frustration bred resentment and anger, to the point where I just started refusing to even try, not wanting to humiliate myself anymore (I'd already had my share of those kinds of moments when I was living in Taiwan). This morning I met with the head of the Mandarin Chinese department at the language section, and told him everything. He agreed that I had been misplaced, and this afternoon I found myself back in my original class. Back on familiar turf, I was able to open up again today, but I feel that a week has been wasted, and what little confidence in myself that I had going into this week has been all but shattered.

Let's face it - I don't think I'm ever going to be an effective communicator in Mandarin Chinese. Despite years of living in Taiwan, and having a wife and a child who both speak the language fluently, I still struggle to form coherent sentences. Even worse, my ability to comprehend the language when it is spoken by others is abysmal. Why do I suck at it so badly? The reasons are many - feel free to take your pick: a fear of making mistakes and losing face; shyness, especially when it comes to having to use a language other than my native one; and a thin skin that provides little protection during those embarrassing moments that arise out of misunderstandings and miscommunication. My wife says I worry too much, while a couple of the teachers at FSI 外交学院 have told me I stop and think when I should just open my mouth and let the words fall where they may. All of them are right.

One other factor may be at play - I am not a Sinophile. During one of the lessons this week, the teacher showed some slides of famous locations in China - the Great Wall 长城, Shanghai  上海 and the Terracotta Army 秦兵马佣 in Xian 西安. My classmate (who I felt sorry for, having to put up with me) had visited all of those places, but when I was asked if I would like to see them as well, my reply was 没有意思, meaning I have "little interest" in doing so. OK, a big part of my answer was plain old pique, as I wouldn't pass up a chance to go sightseeing in China (and I'll be going to Shanghai next year, provided I pass the Mandarin class). But China has always been at the bottom of my list when it comes to Northeast Asia. Whether it be history, culture, cuisine or modern society, Japan has always held pride of place for me. I am also 很有意思 when it comes to Korea, and I would like to visit Mongolia and Tibet someday as well. But what about Taiwan, you might ask? For me, the interest there has always lain in the differences between Formosa and the Chinese mainland, and not the similarities, and especially in the ways in which Taiwanese society absorbed, and continues to absorb, the influences coming from Japan. Not for me is the myth of a 5000 year-old unbroken civilization, and my efforts at Mandarin acquisition have suffered as a result.

Excuses, excuses. I've only myself to blame for why my Mandarin Chinese is as poor as it is now, and only I can overcome the many hurdles that I've put it in my own path. I'll do whatever it takes to get through the course, and be on my way to Shanghai when the time comes. Just don't expect me to wax lyrical on the beauty of  山水画 or on how tasty the 饺子 are. 

Though I do hope to eat some 炒饭 while admiring the peaks of 桂林 someday.

...and my drink of choice during and after studying Mandarin Chinese.


  1. "My wife says I worry too much, while a couple of the teachers at FSI 外交学院 have told me I stop and think when I should just open my mouth and let the words fall where they may."

    Great advice from your teachers. It makes me think that I might possibly be doing quite a good job when it comes to guiding Chinese-speakers to learn my language.

    The problem with Chinese, of course, is that it is so much more difficult than English. I sometimes watch my Kindergarten class doing their Chinese lessons with the teacher. They seem to have an easier time with English.

    The best advice to give someone who is learning a language is just to speak. Don't think too much about what you are saying or if it is right. Nobody should be reasonably offended by anything you say, anyway, particularly when your accent emerges.

  2. There were too many times when I was made to feel self-conscious attempting to speak in Chinese (like the teenage girl at the tea stand who was literally on the floor laughing when I tried to order a milk tea), that I think I just clammed up and forced people to communicate with me in English or not at all. It's a hangup I need to get over.