I am 5”7, less than 160 pounds and have never taken a self-defense class in my life. My one and only weapon of choice is my tongue and wit. I have been using the English language to express myself all my life, and therefore I consider my use of language to be acute and dexterous.
It’s also completely ineffective in China.
I knew that from the moment I left the Dallas airport and beyond I would be getting a few mental bumps and bruises as I shed my native language and tried to adapt my textbook Chinese to the real world. That’s why one of my goals for my time in China is to botch the language as much as possible; when I speak I can be corrected, but when I am silent I learn nothing.
And as I anticipated, my pride is taking a few hits.
When you think about it, it’s not surprising why Chinese often laugh at foreigners using their language. Just imagine some large, bearded Swedish guy trying to ask where the bathroom is in English with the language confidence of a four year old. It just looks funny. That’s what I am to Chinese—the college-age American with brand clothes, a trained wit, and the vocabulary of a precocious 7 year old.
“Can You Say Again?”
The most difficult part of the language learning process is establishing conversational flow. Conversations should flow like a river, passing easily and turning naturally where it pleases. Someone built a dam in my river, however, and the resulting mess is normally equal parts hysterical and embarrassing.
For example: the other evening I wanted to order a taxi for a few of my friends who needed to get somewhere. The Chinese conversation with the service man at our hotel went as followed:
Me: May I please ask you, can you order us a taxi?
Service Man: Where do you need to go?
Service: [sighs, then in English] WHERE you want to go?
An even better example is when I tried to ask a local Tai Chi instructor if she taught any classes that I could take:
Me: Qiao Qiao, do you have other Tai Chi classes?
Qiao: Yes, I have classes by Fudan University.
Me: Fudan? Really?
Qiao: Yes! Here, I will write down my number. The address is BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. We normally do BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH.
Me: …Good. Thank you.
Every time I hit a dam I have to attack it ferociously. I use hand gestures, English to supplement unknown words, and frequently ask natives to “please speak a little slowly.” This turns the leisure of conversation into a high-energy activity where I am forced to be vulnerable and experiment with the language.
“Continuously Go Forward”
Chinese is a challenge for me that can be awkward, humbling, and sometimes a little embarrassing. All of this just means that when I nail a small conversation, I feel like I just conquered a mountain. They are still uncommon successes, and even these successes require a little creativity, but they are progress. Even in the five days I have been here, I have seen an exponential gain in my confidence and progress in my vocabulary.
Languages are tough. There are good reasons why many people just speak one. However, I am fortunate enough that the TEAN program that brought me to China established me in a supportive community of both English and Chinese friends that will help me establish myself in this new city.
This semester is going to be a rapid, winding river full of language-learning dams. I, however, relish the challenge and choose to just keep moving forward.
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