So you think you can speak Chinese! Well, think again!

Hello from China!

When I arrived back in Ireland a little less than two weeks ago, after spending two weeks in China, I felt a little confused. Or a lot. I'm not quite sure yet as my sentiments on this vary. Never mind that I was a sicker than a dying dog on my return flight from Beijing, no, I also felt like someone had suddenly and viciously decided to uproot me in my sleep and replant me somewhere else.

My layover in London was mostly spent with trying to get from one Terminal to another which, considering that Heathrow is the most troublesome airport I know, wasn't exactly a piece of cake. I was also fairly busy assuring my other half that I was in fact not on the verge of dying and when my phone refused to continue to establish a connection between the UK and China I had to resolve to typing Chinese characters to ensure my other half would not jump on the next flight to supervise my impending funeral.

Try doing all this while navigating through the one airport you hate the most. Add to that that you're sky-high on drugs (administered by a doctor on your previous flight, thank you very much), tired as a dog and confused beyond belief by the sudden time difference between China and the UK. Travelling ain't easy, I tell you.

Anyway, I got to Dublin alright and that's where the confusion started.

I'm confused...I think?
After spending two weeks speaking almost exclusively Chinese (or trying to anyway) I suddenly couldn't figure out what was going on around me. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who speak my language, people I could understand. I was so baffled that I stopped dead in my tracks and and started looking around me, trying to figure out where the hell I was. I stopped reading signs at Dublin airport sometime in late 2008.

These days I navigate the airport almost blindly. I wouldn't say that I know it just like I know the back of my hand (which I by the way don't know at all so that saying is just plain silly!) but my feet know which direction they need to go to navigate me and my luggage from the arrivals hall to the bus stop. I never have the pleasure of getting picked up at Dublin airport so I just try to get out of there as quickly as possible.

I somehow managed to avoid speaking to anyone but the customs officer (who was convinced I was smuggling cigarettes and royally annoyed me for about twenty minutes until he figured that I was in fact NOT smuggling anything and resolutely had to let me go since he had no grounds for keeping me) but I did mistakenly use Chinese to inquire about which Aircoach bus I should board. The poor customer service rep looked first confused, then bemused as he pointed me into the correct direction.

Mind you, I'm quite sure that he didn't understand a word of what I asked but there is no Chinese word for Sandyford, at least not to my knowledge, so I figure he got the gist of what I wanted. I'd like to formally apologise to the Aircoach customer rep. I do realise that he probably struggled to work out why on earth I was speaking Chinese with him, that is if he worked out it was Chinese that I used. I'm quite sure he decided I was an unknown alien species on the run from the MIB guys and wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible so that I wouldn't resolve to eating him. 

Anyway, before I venture even further off topic, let's swiftly turn our attention back to my China holiday. The entire trip was nothing short of a dream come true and I'm not just saying that because of my super romantic Shanghai Love Story and the best birthday ever. I genuinely had the most fabulous time ever and I truly have the best friends ever. I have a bunch of posts in the pipeline, plenty of pictures to show you and loads of funny stories to tell. You just wait until we get to the tale about the squad toilets. You'll die laughing. Or not.

Okay...whatever you say China.
So. Why did I title this blog "So you think you can speak Chinese! Well, think again!"

Well quite frankly, for the simple reason that I asked myself that very question at least five times if not more every day while in China. While in Hong Kong I didn't actually use a lot of Mandarin, except whenever my friends proudly told shop owners or restaurant owners that I speak fantastic Mandarin. Needless to say these people of course all started speaking Mandarin to me and I had no choice but to try and pretend that I do in fact speak "fantastic Mandarin". Let's just say I resolved to loads of nodding and smiling and used words and phrases that keep up the appearance beautifully. Why? Well, it would be just plain rude to let my friends diūliǎn (trad. 丟臉, simpl. 丢脸 (lose face)) and I do have manners.

The only time I did not get away with that kind of cheating was when my Chinese teacher introduced me to her friend, a fellow teacher, who teaches Mandarin at a primary school in Hong Kong and ruthlessly quizzed me and made me chatter away to her. At first I failed royally and didn't understand a single world she said (it's kind of difficult to focus when you're speaking to someone who teaches Mandarin for a living) but then the food arrived and I relaxed and we jabbered away. I think I passed her little quiz for she gave me some great (and very valuable) feedback.

I did speak some Mandarin with my Chinese teacher, who accompanied me while in Hong Kong but since she spoke Cantonese for most of the time, she usually switched to English when chatting with me. Also, not all of our friends speak fluent Mandarin so it would have been somewhat rude for us to speak Mandarin, leaving them to understand nothing. While my Cantonese is fairly basic and by fairly basic I literally mean VERY VERY basic I can understand quite a lot so I don't mind my friends chatting away in Cantonese. I usually just nod happily and throw the one or other Cantonese word in that I do know, which causes great amusement among my friends. I can't say I've ever been much of a class clown but I do like to keep my friends happy so occasionally I will make a fool out of myself for their benefit.

You have no idea how long it took me to pick up this slippery (but yummy!) piece of pork and yes I did curse, much to the amusement of my friends!
Nevertheless China taught me a great lesson. Mainly that I know as much as a little more than nothing and a little less than something. While I do believe I have made great progress in the year and a half that I have been studying Mandarin, I most definitely still have a long way to go and a lot more to learn. Speaking Chinese while not in China is somewhat easier. Stopping by the Chinese supermarket, exchanging a few words with the boss of my favourite restaurant, ordering my Starbucks coffee or a couple of Dim Sum dishes. I wouldn't say it's a piece of cake but I do get by and it's rewarding to know that some of what I've learned has stuck.

China however swiftly knocked me down a peck or three. Maybe even five. I'm not yet sure.

Uhm. Okay. Exactly what is it you want me to do?
I took a humble bow or twenty in front of China, apologised for telling everyone that I can speak Mandarin and vowed to study harder to which China smiled warmly (a bit like a granny, really), gently patted me on the head and told me me add oil (加油).

I remain of the opinion that studying Chinese is not hard as long as you figure out how you yourself learn best and are prepared to put in years and years of hard work. When learning a language you never stop learning, there is always more you can learn, improve on, etc. You'll get rewards along the way, some big some small, but you need to be prepared to work hard. In this orchard the apples won't fall at your feet, waiting for you to pick them up. No, you're going to actually have to carry that ladder all the way from the barn, lean it against the tree, climb up and pluck the apple you want to eat yourself. 

If put to the test, I can get by in China though my big brother (my former Chinese teacher's husband), my boyfriend and my friends all forever want to protect me. They do occasionally dump me in the deep end which I only ever learn appreciate in hindsight though. It really is frustrating when you've asked for the twelfth time whether the restaurant has some hot water but the waitress still gives you a blank stare because you got the pronunciation royally wrong and you're getting thirstier by the minute.

Besides, you try to explain some IT geek that your laptop is connecting to the internet alright but you still have no internet and Weibo (or any other website for that matter) just won't load so you can't get in touch with anyone because your phone isn't sending any text messages and phone calls cost an arm and a leg while roaming. Let's just say I resolved to a lot of pointing and repeatedly stating that XYZ wasn't working (in Chinese), followed by a series of apologies for my rotten Chinese. 

And just why did I apologise? That's easy enough to explain. I was trying to get sympathy. "Oh look, that Laowai is trying so hard and she's humble too, she just melts our hearts, let's help her." Trust me it works and it WILL get you want you want so don't hesitate. Especially when you're a girl (if you're a guy, I would advise to execute some caution). Throw in a few cute looks and if you know how to 撒娇 (sājiāo) a little and when it's appropriate, well that's even better. It's always appropriate to 撒娇 when you're with your big brother and you're trying to get him to help you read out a couple of Chinese characters for practice. It definitely works with your boyfriend (in this case I would actually recommend to up the 撒娇ing considerably although not to the degree some Chinese girls do it because that's just a tad bit too much) + you have the added bonus of threatening to withhold kisses if he doesn't help you.

No, I don't want to read the English translation. Help me with the Chinese, won't you?

When you're with your second mum (my former teacher's mother), offer her your arm, happily chat away with her as you travel together on the Beijing Subway but make sure to listen to her words because well we should 听妈妈的话 as Jay Chou once rightly said.

The last time I saw my second mum (I actually call her 妈妈 which amuses her, my old teacher, my teacher's husband and just about everyone around us) was early last year when my Chinese was pretty much non-existent. This time around I got to properly chat away to my 妈妈 and while I still have to ask her to repeat certain things or rephrase them we can chat a little and I can listen to her warm, motherly advice and guidance.

Also, it's also just nice to listen to her talk, even if I don't understand everything she says. My most treasured memory is a moment we shared while travelling on the subway. I read out an advertisement for a radio show and for a change I understood most characters (yes, I've been struggling recognising characters pretty much everywhere I went while in China), much to her delight. She helped with the characters I did not know and everyone around me smiled warmly and had nothing but lovely things to say.

If I'm not mistaken, at one point my 妈妈 smiled proudly when someone pointed out that I was a really good and obedient daughter (they thought I was married to her son-in-law, you may giggle now). That kind of love is just so heart-warming and one of the many reasons that I have fallen head over heels in love with China.

I do still feel extremely humbled though, there is a lot I still have to learn and improve on and while climbing Tianmu Mountain (天目山) I had the chance to do some thinking about just that, heavily inspired by all the monks who carry heavy bricks up the mountain to restore/renovate various parts of the temple at the top. The winding path up the mountain is quite uneven and most definitely not a piece of cake. The way down is even worse because it's nothing but stairs but more on that when I get that blog post up. Still, either path is not suited for lengthy conversations and the tranquil surroundings do invite you to do some thinking.

So instead of being frustrated by all the things I did not understand while in China and upset that some people simple did not understand me no matter how much of an effort I made, I'm going to take this as valuable feedback. All those things while go on my list of things I need to improve on, like learning a lot more characters, working on my pronunciation, speaking a bit slower, making some notes, allowing the other person to get used to my accent while getting used to their accent.

Lesson learned. Thank you, China. Next time I'll do better. I hope you'll welcome me back just as warmly as you did the first time I stopped by. Have some tea ready, won't you? Oh and don't forget the dumplings, the dumplings are really important.