Learning Chinese

My time in China has been woefully underreported, and I apologize.  I also really need to write more about my time teaching, exploring, learning and adjusting to this country, but I’m not going to.  Mostly because I have some stuff to do today and don’t have time to write such an all-encompassing blog.  This one will be a short one about how I am learning Chinese.

For those who know me, you know that I love learning languages and love learning things about their grammar, word construction, orthography, etc.  Chinese is certainly no exception.  I will say however, that the Chinese language is not quite what I expected while I studied in the states.

I should preface by saying that I am so so so glad I took two years of Chinese before coming here.  It makes me feel like I can communicate with people, I can go to the mobile phone store and buy a phone, and I can order and read a lot of dishes on menus.  However, that is about the extent of it and I want to learn more.  ASAP.

Although I only teach 20 hours each week, I am really exhausted a lot of the time and sitting on a bus the rest of the time, so until a few weeks ago, improving my Chinese was on the back burner.  One day at the gym, I randomly met an American who taught English and seemed to speak pretty good Chinese.  He recommended a private tutor to me.  Her name is Fay (or Fei in Chinese) and she is known by all the foreigners in Harbin for being the best teacher in the city.  She charges 50 RMB an hour (about 8 dollars) and we meet on Fridays for a two hour class.  My boss recommended a teacher who gives lessons for 30 RMB a month but I haven’t heard anything about her.  I have had three Chinese lessons so far, and I can say that it is my favorite part of the week, every week.  Fei brings along a small whiteboard and we chat for about half an hour, just to get me thinking in Chinese and get prepared for the rest of the lesson.  Then she usually has me write a dictation (听写) literally: listen-write, for which I am glad, because I would probably not study writing characters on my own.  Sometimes you can pick them up quickly, other times you can write them a zillion times and still forget (e.g. 聊天儿 - to chat, to talk).  (I’m pretty sure I learned that character in my beginning Chinese course and still can’t write it.) Then we usually learn some vocabulary, interspersed with mini-conversations about various topics, and then some grammar and some dialogues.  To be honest, the lessons are not particularly different than other ones I have had, but perhaps Fei’s penchant for making jokes or the one-on-one (一对一) (I just learned this one!) session make it seem a lot more meaningful.  I think I might ask if I can do three to four hours of lessons a week, because I just love it so much, but perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Speaking with locals can be really fun, but I can also be very discouraging.  Because they usually don’t speak another foreign language (besides: Hello! What is your name!), they don’t really understand the concept of someone speaking a language poorly.  So I usually approach them with some basic Chinese, and then they go off speaking Chinese super fast, in a Harbin rhotic accent with colloquial speech mixed in.  I often reply with a blank stare or (对不起, 听不懂) “Sorry, I don’t understand.”  Usually afterwards they stop speaking with me, because they suddenly think I don’t speak a word of Chinese.  This is why I enjoy my lessons so much, because it is geared towards speaking at my level (or at my level +1 as Stephen Krashen would say for all my fellow linguistic students).  Also, people always assume I am Russian here, so sometimes they will just ignore me until they learn I am American.  Image

–A bilingual Chinese-Russian sign.  Usually signs are bilingual in English and Chinese here but this was a nice exception.  It seems really funny to me that I can read the top part but the bottom part is complete gibberish to me.  It means something like “river flower street”.–

Last week was probably my favorite day for speaking Chinese.  After having lessons on Friday, I went to my 6-8 o’clock VIP class at New Oriental School.  There are only four students and they all speak really good English, and so it is a walk in the park compared to my middle school classes of 60 students or my private school classes of 20.  Perhaps because I had been immersed in Chinese for about two hours, I actually felt like I could follow the children’s conversation with the Chinese assistant!  After the class, I thought what the hell and spoke Chinese to the assistant while heading for the bus station.  She not only responded in Chinese but we had a conversation in Chinese for almost 5 minutes without me saying “dui bu qi, ting bu dong” (sorry i dont understand).  I actually felt like I was improving and it was great.  (Disclaimer: Her major is in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, but still!)  

The day afterward, I got a ride home from one of my student’s parents, because she lived close and people are extremely generous here.  We chatted for the whole ride, with her daughter doing some interpreting between us.  (It’s amazing here that 10 year olds can speak really excellent English, while wealthy upper-class adults usually can’t say anything, even when they have travelled all over the place.)  It was a kind of weird conversation because it was mostly about what countries she doesn’t like (Japan, of course but also the U.S. (不太喜欢 -don’t like very much) and countries in Southeast Asia (真的不喜欢 -really dislike) and which ones she did (she had been to Holland and said that she really likes Dutch people! She said they are so tall and she likes the way the language sounds!)

The moral of the story is that one of the main reasons I am over here is because I really want to learn Chinese fluently.  The first month and a half, I was resigned to the fact that that was not going to happen within a year’s time.  Now, I am looking up.  If I can only get my boss to stop giving me so much overtime, maybe I can make November a month where my Chinese improves exponentially! (very theoretically)

Btw, I spend a lot of my time sitting on buses reading from my Lonely Planet phrasebook, so I ever need to say “This drug is for personal use” or “Can I have a lawyer who speaks English?” or “I won’t do it without protection”, I’ve got it covered.  Thanks for reading, further posts will talk about some of the more crazy aspects of working and living here, I promise!

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