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Teacher Joe Tries to Learn Chinese

Learning Chinese has been such a struggle for me! I heard a story recently that reminded me of myself as I have tried to learn Chinese. The story was about an American man who always wanted to visit China but was too busy with his work. It wasn't until he retired from his job that he had time to travel. Retirement in the United States is at the age of 65, but this man, let's call him Sam, was still very energetic.

When Sam arrived in China, he took some Chinese classes to help him fit in. On his first day of class, he learned all kinds of greetings such as "Ni hao ma?", "Ni chi fan le ma?", "Ming tian jian.", and many more. He left the class that first day ready to practice what he had learned. He didn't have to wait long for his chance. After leaving class, he found himself on an elevator with a young woman, so he turned to her and practiced his greetings. He said, "Ni ma hao?". The young woman looked at him as though he had three heads!

Sam didn't feel too good at that moment, but he refused to give up. He got up his courage and tried again. This time, he turned to the woman and said, "Hao ni ma?". The woman shot him an angry glance. When the elevator arrived on the ground floor, the woman bolted off the elevator and into the crowded street. Just as she left the elevator, Sam remembered what he should say. He ran out into the street, found the woman, and shouted enthusiastically, "Ma, ni hao!".

My mistakes in Chinese probably have not been as dramatic as Sam's. One of the first words I learned in Chinese was "bread" (mian bao). I used this word often because I really like to eat bread! Unfortunately, I sometimes got a little bit confused. Someone once asked me if I had enough to eat, and instead of saying "I'm full" (wo chi bao le), I said "I'm bread"! (wo mian bao le). Another time I tried to say something difficult, but when I tried to ask if the other person understood me, I didn't say "Do you understand?" (Ni ming bai le ma?) I asked him "Are you bread?" (Ni mian bao le ma?)!! I have no idea what that person thought of me, but at least he didn't run out into the street!

As a beginner in Chinese, I learned many useful words with the word "electricity" (dian) included. There are lots of important items in my apartment that use "dian" - telephone (dian hua), TV (dian shi), computer (dian nao) and movie (dian ying) among others. Well, I got these words a bit mixed up sometimes. For example, when I wanted to buy a battery for my MP3 player, I accidentally told the shopkeeper that I wanted to buy an elevator! She looked at me strangely, perhaps wondering how I would carry an elevator back to my home. Fortunately, I saw a battery in the shop and pointed to it. My Chinese may not be so good, but at least I am fluent in "body language"!

Besides words, numbers are also difficult in another language. For example, I have often been confused by someone saying four or ten in Chinese. Ten thousand (yi wan) is also difficult. After a lot of effort, I now know not to say "ten wan" (shi wan) when I really mean ten thousand! But one time in a restaurant, the waitress asked me if I wanted a bowl of rice. When she used the expression "yi wan mifan", I wondered how I could eat so much rice! I knew she couldn't be saying "ten thousand rices", but I didn't know what she really meant at that time. Of course, now I know that "yi wan mifan" actually means "perfect rice". Doesn't it?

As I have progressed, I am sure that I have made many mistakes while speaking Chinese. Usually, I have no way of knowing if I have said something funny. I just know that when I speak, I often get funny looks from the people I speak to. I have discovered that it's not enough to learn individual words, I have to use whole phrases and sentences. Then people can understand me even if I mispronounce one word.

Now I try to learn more and more sentences, but this brings up a whole new problem. People think I can speak Chinese well when I say a long sentence smoothly. Unfortunately, I can't understand the long responses that come in reply! I am sure people's responses are very logical, very reasonable answers to whatever I said. However, what I hear is something like this: "Ni ... blah blah blah ... blah blah blah ... huo zhe ... bla blah blah ... ma?". I get a few words, but it's not enough. All I can do is smile at the person and say "Yes", then hope they weren't asking me for money.

During my time in China, though, I have been fortunate to have many good teachers. My first Chinese "teachers" were some students I played basketball with. From these "teachers", I learned useful expressions such as "Good shot!" (Hao qiu!) and "Almost!" (Cha yi dian!) I'm not sure why, but when I played basketball, I seemed to hear "cha yi dian!" much more often than "hao qiu"! Another useful expression I learned from basketball players is "wo lei si le". This is a very useful kind of expression. I now can say things like "I'm dying to sleep" (wo kun si le) and "the heat is killing me" (wo ri si le). Maybe I use this expression too much, though. Sometimes I say things like "I'm dying of overwork" (wo tai gong zuo si le) or "I'm dying of not being able to remember all these Chinese words" (Wo bu hui jide name duo zhong wen danci si le). I guess that sounds even stranger in Chinese than it does in English!

I also have many "teachers" who work most of the time as taxi drivers. Beijing taxi drivers are excellent teachers because they will talk about anything - the weather, the economy, sports, politics. They seem to speak as fast as they drive, or as we might say in the United States, they "talk a mile a minute". I like that, not only because it is good listening practice, but also because they don't make me feel like a stupid child! The best thing about taxi drivers is that they don't care if I don't understand them. They just keep on talking and talking and talking.

My very best teacher of Chinese, believe it or not, is not Chinese. In fact, he's not even human! My best teacher of Chinese is a big, green monster named "Shrek". In case you don't know, "Shrek" is the name of a movie, about a monster who is quite appropriately named "Shrek"! I watched this DVD first in English so that I could understand the story, but then I watched in Chinese, over and over and over again. I must admit that many words I learned from Shrek are not very useful. How often will I talk about ogres (yao guai) or princesses (gong zhu) or fire-breathing dragons (peng huo long) in my everyday life in Beijing? Not too often, I guess, unless I meet my former girlfriend some day in the future. (She is really like a fire-breathing dragon!) Still, there are many other words AND expressions AND sentences from Shrek that are very useful.

For me to speak Chinese well, I still have a long way to go, but I will keep on moving forward, studying a little bit at a time, just as my students continue learning English. The more Chinese I learn, the better my life in Beijing will be. Someday, maybe, I can be an interpreter or translator, or maybe I'll work in the business world, doing negotiations in Chinese, or perhaps I'll be a Professor of Chinese at Beijing University. Well, maybe not! But I know in the future I'll be somewhere... and I'll be speaking Chinese.

This article first appeared in English Salon, a magazine for students of English in China, in June, 2005. If you can read Chinese, visit their web site here for more interesting articles.

"Professor" Joe

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