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HOW I BECAME FLUENT IN CHINESE (MANDARIN) Part 1

2011, for me, was an eventful year. It was the year I brought my high school education to a close, took the SATs and saw my country’s capital for the very first time. The transition was fast to say the least, friends began to disperse. A zephyr of adulthood beckoned, boys started to look like men. Big decisions awaited us; the future had never been closer.

Many of my peers knew exactly where they wanted to go, but my case was different. I was torn between following my SAT scores through to fetch a scholarship to further in USA, and continuing in my country, or going elsewhere. Cutting a very long story short, the third option prevailed. December came and I was in China to chase my childhood dream of becoming a doctor. It was surreal.

I kicked off life in China with unprecedented zest. My presence illuminated my environs with optimism and laughter. In the first month, I was practically the sunshine in that winter, like a hummingbird, singing songs of good cheer with contagious smiles. However, all that was going to change. Of course it was! What was I expecting ? The unpalatable manacles of reality loomed. The dopamine began to wear off and things started to become clear. I had left my family behind and moved to a country of 1.4 billion people none of which was a friend or family. The food in this new land tasted like a chemical from the science lab in the first few months. The culture was inconvenient and the language otherworldly. I became increasingly, sickeningly nostalgic . I just wanted to go back home.

When sorrows come they do not in single spies, but in battalions– Claudius (Hamlet)

In my quest to head back home, my thoughts slipped off my tongue and into my mother’s over the phone. She screamed at immeasurable decibels that almost deafened me in one ear. She had lost it, and she was right to. She and my dad had amassed quite a fortune to send me onto a foreign land. She later calmed down and empathized with her poor boy, but I could still hear the disappointment in her voice. Going back home started to look very cowardly. I couldn’t go back, no! I felt stuck, but I had to make this work. “I had the chance to go to USA instead, why didn’t I wait?”, I often cried.

My environment was super-eclectic. An ideal heterogeneous mixture of races. This had both a good and bad side. The good side being that at least there was hope of finding someone to speak a language I understood with. The bad side was brutal; they had traveled together from their homelands in castes. They were already friends. I was already an outsider even before we started our lives in China.

I had traveled alone, but later I met some of my countrymen. However they were seniors, and most of them lived quite a distance away from the school. My compatriots who lived close…most of them were so much older than me that we actually had a generation gap. Some of them even called me “son”. Don’t laugh, it was a living hell! Whilst I was interested in talking about sneakers and hip hop , they preferred to talk about funerals, hypertension and belly sizes, and for a long time too! Hearing them speak and debate who had the biggest belly felt like excruciating physical pain. My brain shrieked every time they came around as if to say, “what in the name of all that is holy are you feeding me today?” They were kind-hearted, God-fearing people, but we had conflicting interests. I often felt lonely, even when surrounded by them in their usual neck and neck debates. As a classical extravert I had never been short of friends, but this whole new world had news for me.

Many months passed and school work kept me occupied. Our lecturers were foreigners with compelling demands. I had become my own friend and it wasn’t as bad as I had earlier imagined. I got to know myself better and grew slightly more confident. It dawned on me to confront some of my fears, such as petting a dog, finding a girlfriend, attempting to speak Mandarin. The very thought of them made me dizzy. Growing up, I had been chased innumerably by Dalmatians and was pretty much a Rajesh Koothrapalli around potential girlfriends.

However it was the thought of learning Chinese that scared the bejesus out of my daylights the most. The language sounded unlike anything that had ever passed through my ears. I was pretty sure this was the kind of language they would speak on Mars. It was confusing how human teeth could make that many sounds in seconds. I started to believe the Chinese had somewhere between 40-50 teeth. What frustrated me the most was when they would speak so quickly as if I understood everything they said and then would wait, with a smiling face, for a response.

I decided to, with the help of Google Translate, find how say in Chinese: “I don’t understand anything you’re saying, and how do you make those sounds so fast? Can we use gestures?” The translation was too long and I wasn’t going to remember it after 5 minutes, so I just settled with the Chinese equivalent of “I don’t understand what you’re saying”- wo ting bu dong. This phrase was a lifesaver! It saved me episodes of embarrassment and spared my ears endless chimes of Chinese consonants. Now when I went to the shop, even before the shop salesman started talking I would let him know, wo ting bu dong! On the football field when my Chinese teammates tried to explain the game plan to me they would have already heard it, wo ting bu dong! I used this phrase so often it became a reflex. My roommate swore I was muttering it repetitiously one night whilst sleep-talking.

“Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship” – Denzel Washington

The Chinese are a very amiable breed. Their proactivity when it comes to making foreign friends is intense. Some, who knew a little English, came with the intention of bettering their English off practice with foreigners. However , more often than not, their English levels were still inadequate to hold a meaningful conversation. These were really warm-hearted people who I could establish genuine relationships with if I made an effort to meet them on a linguistic middle ground. Wo ting bu dong’s shield was starting to become porous and outdated. Somehow, somewhat, I knew I’d be better off speaking a little Mandarin. I was going to live there for 6 years, or 600 years if you asked how long it felt at the time. Speaking Mandarin would make my life much easier, and would enhance my prospects of landing the oriental feminine graces. “I don’t have 40 teeth, I don’t even have 32”, I thought. I was scared and skeptical, but I was ready. This resolution changed my life.

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. Stephen Hawking

I ended the wo ting bu dong campaign with immediacy. I resolved to mingle more with the Chinese and accept dinner invitations by acquaintances, which was frequent. That was the Chinese way of stretching out hand of friendship. They were extremely hospitable. I decided not to take the language learning too seriously on myself, but to playfully temper with it. I was no longer self-conscious about how ridiculous I sounded when I tried to speak it, it was all a part of the game. Sometimes my combination of words resulted in really absurd meanings, sometimes even risqué. They would laugh at my ridiculous constructions and I would join in and laugh along…at myself! No sentiments, just games. Gradually, I gathered a few words and phrases. Although not enough to carry me through a meaningful all-Mandarin conversation, I felt a little sense of achievement and an impetus to go at it more ferociously. Little is more! Baby steps are oft times overly under-appreciated.

This thick-skinned, hands-on approach brought considerable results; enough to get me through shopping or hiring a cab, but my eyes had opened as to how far I could go. I wanted more. I wanted to have proper conversations. Luckily the school introduced Chinese Mandarin classes two mornings a week. It was compulsory. My classmates were all foreigners. They hated the class and they probably had reason to. It was taught by one middle-aged Chinese lady who knew only a little English at best. She had the temper of a volcanic eruption, and was extremely sentimental. Terrible combination huh? She would strike her glass bottle on the ground in anger and cry about it 5 minutes afterwards. Her class could be likened to watching a Hindu film without subtitles- all gibberish, no translation. It was a nightmare, at least at the start. She usually spent half the time yelling at us to “be quiet”, the only English phrase she communicated with somewhat clarity. The class paid her no attention and kept on chattering, nonetheless. After all, they had come to learn Medicine, not Chinese.

Later we would find out she was a great person and all her theatrics in class were just out of brimming passion and hunger to achieve results. Before that realization, I had long lost interest in the Mandarin class. It just wasn’t worth waking up that early. Missing that class meant a 0.5 deduction each time in my overall semester scores, but I couldn’t care less. I wanted results, practicable results, not high scores. Hope became frail, progress flattened and my spirit diminished until one day I met Fu Xing. He was the first Chinese guy I had met who had considerable command both on English and Mandarin.

To be continued…

Thanks for reading!

Have a blessed weekend!

Regards,

JSK, M.D.

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Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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