Last week we watched “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (and the influence was immediately visible in Ben’s sword fighting). What really struck me watching it is that I actually understood some words. Not enough to follow the story, although I could understand the whole phrase “she is mine” (ta shi wo de). It may partly be because many of the actors are not native mandarin speakers, so they spoke more slowly and clearly, but in any case it was a pretty amazing feeling. It doesn’t usually feel like that. I know numbers and a small number of other useful words, and can tell a taxi driver the name of the four or five places I most commonly go, and that’s about it. I wish I knew more, but learning Chinese is a pretty full-time occupation, and what with working and being a parent and attempting to do some research and writing, there’s not a great deal of time and energy left for learning.
When I first arrived in China, Chinese felt like a wave of sound crashing over me and overwhelming me. I had no idea how to pick out what might be a word; I had a constant look of panic on my face whenever anyone spoke to me. It was a very different experience from hearing unfamiliar European languages. I’m not sure why, maybe the tones, but in any case I had to start someplace well before beginner. I took the emergency Chinese class provided by my work, and that helped me begin to pick out what might be a character’s worth of sound. Doesn’t mean I had any idea what that character might mean, but at least I could begin to recognize little pieces of language. Slowly I learned a few phrases, so now I can correct people who call Ben jiejie (big sister) and explain that he is gege (big brother), my erzi (son), and say hello and thank you and excuse me and count up to 100.
Helping Ben with his homework, I learned a very very tiny number of characters (many fewer than he knows) and had the revelation that avenue was dadao in Chinese after I recognized the character da, which means big. I also recognized the character men (gate) and came to the very belated realization that dongfangshimen station was named after the big pants (the gate of the orient). I know these are very silly revelations, but when one is illiterate, recognizing a word from time to time is quite exciting.
I am pretty sure that I will never know very much Chinese, although depending on how long we stay here it may become a higher priority. We have big hopes for Ben, but haven’t been tough enough to throw him into an immersion situation and force the matter. Meanwhile my Chinese isn’t much better than baby talk, but I still feel pretty excited to be able to understand a few words and phrases and occasionally chat a tiny bit with a taxi driver.