by Myra Brien – The Calculated Adventurist
Before I moved to China, I dabbled a bit in Chinese. Because I never really dove in and got my feet wet, I could barely count and knew some words here and there. Later, a few months before we left the U.S., I kicked it up a notch – just a notch, and I felt I was doing better. Even my husband thought he was on the cusp of fluency (he’s a much better student than I). When we landed at the humid Beijing airport that hot August day, we realized we knew nothing about what we thought we knew.
Once a Chinese friend told me not to worry about my grammar and just talk … I gained a lot more confidence. And even though it’s every language learner’s dream to have no accent and be indistinguishable from the natives, that’s a bit unrealistic for most Chinese learners for obvious reasons. I kept my expectations intentionally low when I began learning Chinese, but this isn’t to say I didn’t have a goal. My goal was, and still is, to be understood when I speak Chinese. It was important to me, though, that I was able to go at my own pace … an osmotic pace. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Learning by soaking up experiences and vocabulary was OK with me, even if Chinese people did think I was a half-wit sometimes.
One of the first things I learned, through trial and error, was how to give directions and be understood by the gruff, yet friendly, Beijing taxi drivers. They pulled no punches and if they had a hard time understanding they would say so, and correct my pronunciation. Taking a taxi was always a Chinese lesson and was an easy way to learn to make small talk.
Shopping at grocery stores is also a good place to build vocabulary and learn how to say, for example, that you want to buy skinless chicken breasts and not pork testicles. You may think it would be hard to mix up the two, but mistakes happen and the point and purchase method doesn’t work 100% of the time.
My first three months in China I think I only asked questions. “What’s that…? Where’s this…? How do I…?” and, “What did you say?” were the main ones. If I didn’t understand someone, I would find someone else and ask them. Chinese people are very helpful that way and like to tell you the name of the strange gourd you’ve never seen before, where the next bus stop is or why chicken feet are so good for you. Usually, the blank stare on my face was enough for them to see they needed to repeat themselves and speak more slowly.
Two or three weeks after arriving in China, we decided that we needed to buy an extra futon so visitors would have a place to sleep. Since my husband was working, it was up to me to find one and get it back to our apartment, even though I didn’t know where to get one or where I lived exactly in order to get it home. Another expat friend showed me where to go, but then had to leave me on my own. Somehow I managed to communicate the name of the University where my husband taught and was able to get a ride home with the futon shoved in the back of a mini bus that looked like a large C battery.
The driver didn’t speak English, I couldn’t really speak Chinese and yet it was a very pleasant ride. He talked, I asked questions and acted like I understood him. He asked me questions and I repeated him so I had time to figure out what he wanted to know, which was, “Do you like Chinese beer?” I did and said so, then asked, “Do you like Chinese beer”?. “No way!”, he said, “I can’t drink. I turn too red!” To this day, he is the only Chinese man I met who doesn’t drink beer.
Even now, after I have a conversation in Chinese, sometimes it will occur to me hours later what someone was really saying to me. I’ve had those revelations too many times to count and wonder what they must think of me. I only hope my response, to what I thought the question was, wasn’t too off the wall. At least I can count now.
See Myra’s personal blog: The Interactive Expat