We just wanted to stretch our legs. Huddled in a pocket of space nearby the mid-plane beverage station, my classmate and I chatted quietly as we touched our toes and reached for the ceiling. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but we laughed louder than we should have.
“You’re American, right?”
This phrase–the first of many to come. But this particular one came from the mouth of a young white male, whose clothing hung awkwardly on his lean frame. His ears displayed a collection of piercings, and his fingers glittered with heavy rings. He was a non-practicing lawyer, apparently. Teaching at a university, apparently. Besides the fact that he completely ignored me (indeed, his eyes strayed towards my direction the once), staring at my friend with rapt attention, it was this rather than the earlier statement that caught my attention:
“You shouldn’t bother learning Mandarin. You’ll never become fluent in it.”
Because, wow, Debbie Downer much. I was as disdainful of his opinion as dismissive as he was of me, which was very much so. But here’s the thing: learning Chinese is an arduous process. As encouraging and optimistic as family and friends were (“You’re going to be fluent in Chinese by the time you get back!”), I’m really not. Going to be fluent, that is. Even if I have an itty bitty edge on classmates who are just beginning. I’ll explain: Chinese isn’t alien, it’s just confusing. There’s a difference. When I was little, I’d hear my mother speak to her family in a Cantonese dialect (which, I know–plenty different from Mandarin). Sure, it was background noise, but it’s not weird to hear people speak Chinese. It’s childhood.
I can feel my mind working furiously, sometimes, spewing steam like an old-fashioned train in an effort to accommodate, stretch, grow, remember. But I’m only here for four months. It’s not enough time; I know that now. Were I here for a year, like some of my other friends, the possibility of fluency is greater. Immersion, and all that. I’m learning and remembering faster than I did in America. I have to. I remember seeing two characters, over and over again. We were still in Beijing, at the beginning. 银行. 银行.银行. These were banks. There are…a lot of them here. I would say the number of banks in any given Chinese city rival or surpass the number of Starbucks in any given American city. I saw them enough to recognize them, and when I finally attached the correct pinyin 银行 became memory. This was further driven home during our Chinese placement exam, when I was asked to name a random building on a hand-drawn map. It was a 银行.
Maybe I won’t be fluent, not anytime soon. I’ve only studied Chinese for five consecutive semesters. Two years. But living in China has given me something that’s probably just as good: the confidence to try, and keep trying when your best efforts afford you confused expressions. Mistakes are fine, when all you’re trying to do is get by in a foreign city.
Accidentally order four bowls of noodles instead of one? Laugh. Give the leftovers to somebody else or eat it. Eat it all.
Try to order strawberry juice and sound like you’re swearing? Shrug, smile, apologize. In whichever order.
Correctly explain you want the same dish twice, one to-go and one to eat immediately and they understand? Fudging celebrate.
It’s, y’know. A work in progress. To be continued.