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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Perils of Pǔ​tōng​huà

That isn't me in the photograph above, but it might as well be. Apparently I'm not making sufficient enough progress in Mandarin Chinese 普通话, and so, instead of leaving for Shanghai 上海 in early February as originally planned, we're going to be here in Washington until mid-April. 

Mandarin and I have had a long, mutually antagonistic relationship. In spite of having lived for years in Taiwan, taking Chinese lessons first at language schools such as TLI and now at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia and, most inexplicably, being married to a native speaker of the language (not to mention having a daughter who is also proficient in Mandarin), I still struggle to understand what people are saying and fumble what should be easy sentence formulations. I could blame it on the humiliations handed out by certain less-than-kind Taiwanese (like the young woman at the tea stand who was literally rolling on the floor laughing at my efforts to order an 一杯奶茶不要冰快), but let's face it, I have no one to blame but myself. 

My hang-ups are numerous, but it mainly boils down to the fact that I don't really like to talk for fear of making mistakes and looking foolish in front of others. Which means, of course, that I don't learn what I need to know and thus end up making mistakes and looking foolish in front of others when I do have to speak Chinese. I also tend to freeze up during evaluations and tests. Though I'm far from fluent in Japanese, while I was living in that country I could see doctors and discuss tax and insurance matters at city hall, all in the medium of 日本語. And those few of you who read this blog semi-regularly know that I frequently travel solo in Japan, relying on the local lingo for almost everything while getting around. And yet when I was tested in Japanese at FSI, my score wasn't high enough to get off of language probation. I was told that even though I demonstrated comprehension and speaking skills, my answers were "too short". Reticence, thy name is me.

On the bright side, now that our timeline has been pushed back, a lot of deadline-generated pressure has been temporarily lifted. And, of course, I now have more time to learn what needs to be learned in order to get out of here and on our way to Shanghai. 加油!

 A view I'll be seeing more of until next spring


  1. Jim, i learned most of my conversational Chinese by drinking down at the local canteen. when you're relaxed and just hanging out, the pressure is off. you'd be surprised how much you know and can say when no one is testing you. now all you need to do is find a place like Xiao-hui's!

  2. That's the best advice I've been given so far. Now if I can only find such a place around here...

  3. Agree with MJ Klein above. I tested 2 in Russian. I was talking with my language teacher here at post, and she said "Why did they give you a 2? You speak at a 3 level." I said, "I test poorly."

  4. I Taiwan you almost have to fight to have someone talk to you. It is almost impossible to have a fluid conversation due to the Taiwanese burden of presupposition. You are a foreigner. You can never comprehend such a difficult and complex language. You did not have to cram and study the classics for several years. You did not have your knuckles rapped by the teacher for improper stroke order. You didn't pay your dues and therefore you will be unintelligible... whether you are or not. Simply put; foreigners can't learn Chinese... even when they can.