The Chinese Experience

Since Tuesday evening I've told myself that I need to sort this blog post out...I'm finally taking action now. It's been a hectic week and so far I've had to ask three times whether it's really Friday. This is the level of confusion I'm presently dealing with. Work is ridiculously hectic and it's bound to get worse as we slowly enter the last week of the financial year. This year I'm playing the financial yearend game for the sixth time and I'm well used to the requirements, the stress, the tiredness, the all-round crankiness  and the "do it yesterday" attitude. Despite all that it's every year is a new (unknown) challenge so I really welcomed the out-of-the-blue dinner invitation I received from my Chinese teacher on Tuesday.

Instead of studying in a classroom (like we usually do) my teacher invited me to her home for homemade dumplings and a side dish of congee as well as some salad and of course a vinegar/garlic and soy sauce mix to dip the dumplings into. I mentioned to my teacher in a previous lesson that I'd never tried dumplings before but would love to do so. She therefore suggested that I come by for dinner to her place but we didn't make any fixed plans so I was excited to receive an e-mail from my teacher around lunch time on Tuesday inviting me to dinner that evening. When I say excited I mean I was also somewhat scared. My teacher's mother and her aunt are presently visiting Ireland and they don't speak English. I was of course immediately worried that my beginner's Chinese wouldn't be good enough to communicate, and then told myself to relax - my teacher would be there, there really was no need to panic.

I left work somewhat late (stressing about public transport, as usual) and started my adventure which I have come to refer to as "The Chinese Experience" for reasons I'm not quite sure of. The headline stuck with me though and that's good enough + my colleagues did find it amusing.

When I arrived at my teacher's house I got a very warm welcome which sort of made up for feeling somewhat of a failure for forgetting a friend's birthday. All my worries about not being able to remember a single word of Chinese and trying really hard to pronounce everything correctly without sounding like a muppet were of course very much unfounded. I didn't even have to think how to say hello and introduced myself without any major obstacles. Within seconds we were all laughing and I got my first compliment on my efforts which I gracefully turned down. Secretly I was of course delighted about the compliment. After introductions we chatted for a while at which point I resorted back to English and my teacher translated. I threw in the one or the other Chinese word - much to everyone's amusement.

As a novice to the Chinese language it really strokes your ego when a native speaker compliments you on your efforts even if they just intend to be polite. I have a lot to learn still and a long way to go but I definitely cherished the chance to try out my (very little) Chinese. To be told that I am doing very well made me feel even better and all of a sudden I felt like all those longs hours spent studying were definitely worth the effort.

It really is astonishing how much patience native Chinese speaker show when you make the conscious effort to communicate with them in their language. They don't expect you to get absolutely everything right but to know that the effort counts - well that ought to inspire every student. In comparison, through my work I am exposed to six languages every day (Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, German and English). It's only natural that you pick up a few phrases here and there over time but I have found that it's not cherished quite as much by the native speakers of said language as with Chinese. I may possibly be a bit biased although I have recently brought this topic up in a conversation with two friends and they agreed. Even I have to admit that I'm more likely to frown at a colleague (who doesn't speak German fluently) but insists on greeting / asking me something in German. In my experience (so far anyway) Chinese people seem to be far more willing to let you try, to give you a chance. They're more patient and more appreciative of your efforts. Truly a great attitude to have.

Before we veer entirely off topic, I'm going to change the subject swiftly back to my, as I call it, first real Chinese dinner. After a little bit of small talk, my teacher and I started our lesson and were therefore left alone to give me the chance to concentrate without distraction. About an hour and a half later I promptly got distracted when my teacher's mum started frying dumplings in the wok to warm them up again. The smell was mouth-watering and the way she twisted and turned the dumplings using chopsticks was just mesmerising. Nevertheless I managed to concentrate on the remainder of the lesson and when it was finally time for dinner I felt all those funny worries creep up again.

They were (again) unfounded though. I managed to handle the chopsticks just fine and the vinegar/garlic and soy sauce dip was marvellous. It gave the dumplings the perfect flavour and I had to laugh when my teacher's mum insisted on putting a few dumplings onto a little plate, I had in front of me, to get me to start eating. That and a few insistent !吃 !吃 (chī / eat) did the job and I tried my very first dumpling. Heaven! It was perfect. Hot, crispy crunchy, great filling... I of course had to praise the dumplings much to everyone's amusement.

Dinner was a long affair, we spend some two hours eating, drinking (non-alcoholic, I had work the next day), chatting and just generally having a good time. It was a fabulous adventure I am ready to repeat again without hesitation. Maybe next time I'll know even more Chinese and I'll be able to string together a couple of sentences to mark the start of a real conversion. Eventually I am hoping to have a proper conversation in Chinese over dinner sometime without having to resort to English or a dictionary but that day is still sometime in the future. For now I'm contend with making small steps into the right direction and if those small steps include being able to say "hello" and "goodbye" in Chinese as well as dish out a few compliments then I am more than happy with my achievements.

Let's see what the future holds...