Learning a Language Isn’t Easy

1999 > China

My first Chinese word, “mayo” is still the most important!

The place to go if ya really wanna learn
I should’ve gone here first
I always accept the fruits of young ladies
No language skills needed here
Now someone said something stupid to get HIMself in this mess
Just nod your head, fool!

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with one of my workmates. She
and I were talking about traveling and she was surprised that I’d traveled
in South America without knowing Spanish and that I was living
successfully in China without knowing Chinese. Ok, I do know a bit of
Chinese. I can say thanks, the name of my apartment complex, where I work,
and order a beer, but that’s it. She was amazed that I could fend for
myself with such a limited vocabulary.

I explained to her the concepts of hand gestures and pictograms to
describe anything I could possibly need (want is another matter). Taking
up the challenge, she asked me how I would order eggs in a restaurant.
Making sure I knew if she wanted them fried or boiled; I simply drew a
diagram of eggs whole, broken, then in a pan. Laughing at my ingenuity, she then understood how
easy it is to get around here.

Actually, sometimes it’s even easier than Russia. Russians expect
you to know Russian since they demanded all the satellite states of the
USSR teach Russian in the schools. When I arrived with my crappy Russian,
they were not surprised, thinking I was from one of the ex-USSR countries
(the Baltics mainly). Russians, dreaming that their nation is on par with
America, believe that Russian is an international language still, so
everyone should know it.

China has no such delusions. With a billion people living for
generations in little villages, they have more dialects than they can
count, all incomprehensible to each other. Therefore, Beijingers are used
to people not understanding what is said, or not speaking Beijing Chinese,
and are happy going with hand signals and pictograms. Luckily, the
language characters were standardized a few hundred years ago, so at least
every Chinese can understand the written language.

Me, I’m not so keen on investing the time and energy it would take me
to reach a level of fluency in Chinese that I have in Russian or in
English. I think you have to enjoy the culture, the people, and the
situation, to be ready to accept the pain learning a new language
involves. I love Russians, Russian culture, and the pure lawlessness that
is Russia today. The call to my wild side is almost irresistible. I
haven’t found the same love for Chinese yet, and their culture of
introvertness and lawfulness, exactly opposite of my outgoing and flexible
attitude, frustrates me.

So, until I am awakened to the mystery that is the Chinese people, I’m
gonna stick with my hand signals and pictograms, getting by with the odd
English-speaker thrown in. It will make for an interesting ride at least!