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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: April 17, 2010 NO. 16 APRILL 22, 2010
Speaking Up for Myself



It's gone on long enough: I've been in China for six months and existed on a vocabulary of roughly 500 Chinese words plus a handful of characters to get by. Since many foreigners living full time in Beijing speak an impressive amount of Mandarin, my relative ineptitude is beginning to make me feel like a social pariah in expat circles as well as severely limiting my ability to befriend local people. It makes me highly envious when I see a Westerner and a local happily chatting to each other in Mandarin and, quite frankly, I feel rather rude that I'm unable to do the same. Many of the younger Chinese generation speak brilliant English of course, but this is no excuse: I need to improve my Mandarin skills, fast.

The concept of living full-time in a country and being unable to speak a reasonable amount of the language is a relatively new one for me, and being a native English speaker I often take for granted how lucky I am to have learned from birth such a universally recognized language. On top of this, I'm a talkative soul and, clichéd as it sounds, I do think learning the local lingo is the single best way to break down cultural barriers and make a person feel at home. So I've finally bitten the bullet and shelled out hen duo qian (a lot of money) on a course of Chinese lessons (see, they're paying for themselves already).

Before I continue I should point out that, up to now, I have made at least some effort to learn Chinese: before I arrived I'd been backpacking in Asia for several months and every "China veteran" I met recommended that learning a few words and characters would make my life immeasurably easier, not to mention ingratiating me with the locals (they weren't wrong either—I arrived from northern Viet Nam via a fairly remote border crossing and my first few days are a blur of rickety buses, gesticulating with hotel owners, playing "guess the meat" in roadside restaurants and being grateful I could ask for train tickets in broken Mandarin). So I took their advice, downloaded a series of self-study podcasts, and spent many an hour lying on rickety Vietnamese beds learning the basics.

Unfortunately, though, the language course I selected had strange priorities when it came to deciding the most useful words and phrases for its students to master. For example, by the time I crossed into China I had reached lesson 22, and I knew how to say, "No, I would not like to come back to your place for a coffee" but I still hadn't been taught the phrases "I want a hotel room" or "can I have the bill." Consequently, I formed some odd preconceptions and was almost disappointed when nobody tried to chat me up immediately after I crossed the border.

Nevertheless, I persevered with my self-study techniques and have managed to pick up most of the basics when it comes to things like getting on transport, ordering food and bargaining in the markets. The problem with all this is, if somebody answers my perfectly crafted questions in any way other than I've been taught by the robotic voice of my podcast, I haven't got a clue what they're saying. On top of this, (due to the afore mentioned fact most Beijing expats speak decent Chinese), once I've rattled off the two or three sentences I'm comfortable with, the person I'm addressing assumes I'm all but fluent and often launches into a happy flow of Mandarin to which I can neither understand nor respond. This is a particular problem in taxis and I have perfected the art of lasting for 10 or 15 minutes pretending that I fully understand their one-way conversation through a series of smiles, nods and vague grunts.

In a nutshell, the self-study isn't really doing it for me and I wouldn't want to put a language partner through the pain of an hour's worth of my tortured muttering just yet, so last week I attended my first one-on-one Intensive Spoken Mandarin lesson (intensive being the operative word).

Despite dark warnings from expat friends that Chinese language schools are not all they should be, my inexhaustibly cheerful and enthusiastic teacher immediately proved her worth. She performed minor miracles by forcing me not to speak English, at all, for two full hours, and drilling Mandarin words, phrases and pronunciations into me by asking me to repeat them again and again. It remains to be seen whether she'll have me fluent within weeks (which I would like, but I accept is not a realistic goal however good she is) but already, after four lessons, I am more confident and comfortable speaking Mandarin with people, and somehow feel I have more of a right to be here. This sounds schmaltzy I know, but considering how often I've had a laugh over a bad Chinglish translation or strangely pronounced English word, it is only fair that I put the boot on the other foot and learn to make myself understood.

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