A Journey To The East... Pt. 3

I just indulged in some fresh strawberries (草果). I’ve a pot of coffee (咖啡) by my side and I successfully survived my laptop, mainly Google Chrome, testing my very last straw of patience. With food and my caffeine fix sorted, I’ve turned up the volume on my iPod and am blasting Miquel Abras latest album “Temps de Zel” – listening to Spanish rock singer sing in Catalan while blogging about learning Chinese is something only I could think of! All in all, it’s the perfect setting to work on a blog post and since I’ve used up all my excuses not to sit down and put together a blog post this past month, I’m biting the bullet.

It’s been nearly four months (四个月) since I last wrote anything about my quest to learn Chinese (学中文). A long four months, I may add. About a million and twelve things happened about which I’ll talk about in a separate post as soon as I can find someone who is willing to lock me into a room and stand guard to ensure I’m really writing – life is so distracting, I tell you. People are too. I’ve seriously considered a stint in prison to get some peace and quiet to write but then it occurred to me that they don’t really allow laptops there and I’m pretty sure my fellow inmates would be nasty pieces of work out to make my life behind bars a living nightmare. Since I’m a wimp and my karate really sucks, I’m just gonna have to do without somebody supervising me to make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I’ll let you know how that’s going to go. ;-)

So yeah, learning Chinese. Some six months on it’s still fun. This is largely down to my super awesome, ever so patient Chinese teacher (中文老师)and some pretty amazing friends.

My understanding of the language has got a lot better in the last few months though I still tend to look at my teacher with big I-don’t-have-the-foggiest-idea-what-you-want-from-me-eyes – this usually happens more than once per lesson. It is amazing how my teacher manages to keep her cool when I – for the fifth (read: millionth) time – confuse yesterday (昨天), today (今天) and tomorrow (明天)five minutes after I correctly recalled the words or simply stare blankly when asked what ‘bread’ means in Chinese. For the record it’s (面包/ miànbāo– I shall remember it one day. Whenever I’m asked how I get to college (大学)my response is that I take the (地铁)when my response should be that I take the (电车). On the odd occasion that I tell my teacher that I’m planning to walk to China to take (read: hijack) a plane it is the cause of much laughter and amusement. I also should really know that (出租汽车)means ‘taxi’ instead I’m quicker to recall the Cantonese (的士)which is truly counterproductive unless of course I’m in Hong Kong. By the time I am 100% certain that 水果 (shuǐguǒ / fruit) means “cucumber” (yes, this has happened very recently) I ought to be knocked unconscious with a really heavy Chinese dictionary.

In my head my pronunciation is flawless. The moment the words actually come out of my mouth, it’s an entirely different story altogether. I despise any words that start with z / zh / c / ch (Pinyin!) – it takes me at least three attempts to get them right.
Tones Guide
I’m on a warpath with the second tone, whom I really don’t get along with. Somehow it appears to be beyond me to pronounce the word as though I’m asking a question. The first tone, which should be the easiest of all, tends to go into every direction apart from straight. The third tone requires serious effort and a pen which I use as a conductor’s baton much to the amusement of my teacher – oh if my old piano teacher could see me, she’d be proud! On the bright side, I’m excellent at getting the 4th tone right. Incidentally that tone is pretty darn common 现在 (xiànzài / now), 再见 (zàijiàn / goodbye), 但是 (dànshì / but) so I’m in luck. Not that this will get me very far – I’m aware that my pronunciation is in dire need of improvement and I make a point to repeat any words, I happen to mispronounce, several times to ensure I remember the correct pronunciation. I ought to marry a Chinese man and make him sign a pre-nup in which he agrees to tirelessly correct my rotten pronunciation. This suggestion has been welcomed by some of my friends but poses two difficulties – 1) I’d never manage to have conversation with my husband or finish a sentence and 2) men are not really my cup of tea (or coffee!) but then that’s a subject for an entirely different blog spot.
粽子 - so good!!!
On the subject of Chinese culture I have to applaud my teacher. She regularly incorporates interesting topics into the lesson or shares random anecdotes which makes for a fun, relaxed lesson. Thanks to my teacher I’ve also experienced real Chinese cuisine in the form of dumplings – which you can read about here and Zongzi (粽子 / zòng zi) which are seriously amazingly yummy treats. Don’t get me started about food though. There’s so many amazing Chinese treats I’ve get to try and I can’t wait to get started – my mouth practically waters when my teacher tells me all about them…bring it on!

At this stage I may actually be able to say (and mean) “I speak some Chinese” instead of “I speak a little Chinese” but since that tends to invite people to actually try and speak Chinese with me, I’m hesitant with that – I’d fairly quickly run out of things to say so it definitely wouldn’t be a very long or meaningful conversation. At this stage I do know enough to purposefully embarrass a colleague (or show off, you decide). I took the liberty to ask said colleague whether he speaks Mandarin “你会说中文?” (Do you speak Chinese?) when he said 你好 (nǐhǎo / hello). He didn’t even understand me and you have no idea how good it felt unless of course you’ve been there, done that! I know, I’m mean.

I’d love to tell you that I’m absolutely amazing at writing Chinese characters but alas that would be a lie so I refrain (even if it pains me to do so). I believe there’s about five characters (if that!) I can write without having to copy them and when I do handwrite it looks nothing short of awful. When I look at it afterwards it resembles anything (mostly fly dung) but the beauty that is a Chinese character. I’ve added the mastery of writing actual characters to my list quests to accomplish as part of learning Chinese but I have to admit that it’s not very high on my list of things to do. I make an effort to write a bunch of characters every so often but I don’t feel the need to focus on learning to write characters by heart.

Writing the characters (by hand) is a good way of memorising a character them and more often than not I have realised that it’s helped me to recognise the character in a text later on. This is one of the few things I focused on from the start – characters. I didn’t just want to learn to speak (e.g. read Pinyin and forget about the characters). It’s a fairly easy (lazy) way of learning Chinese but once you built up a considerable vocabulary you won’t be able to distinguish between the words, you’ll just feel lost – going to the bathroom in China may actually become a problem for you if there are no pictures on the doors. What with learning the characters right from the very beginning I can now look at Chinese text and pick out the characters I know and translate them. Sometimes it’s enough to sort of figure out the meaning, other times I need to look up every single character to figure out what was said. The later is usually the case but I’m working on that so patience please – I’m still a novice after all. ;-)

With that I’m gonna finish up my update from the world of all things (学中文)but before I finish, I must thank 谢谢你们!Chinese Hacks  and Social Mandarin  – two wonderful websites with a ton of info for a lost and confused newbie like me. I'd move in if I could!

To sum it all up, choosing to learn Mandarin is still one of the best choices I’ve ever made! I'm looking forward to what else this journey has in store for me...it's definitely not been boring so far. On occasion it's made me want to tear my hair out but I've managed to resist and honestly I don't know why you all think it's so difficult to learn Mandarin Chinese. You just need to want to make the effort so next time you're "bored" or "don't know what to do with yourself" maybe you should contemplate taking up learning another language. It doesn't have to be Chinese, although I'm biased here!