I’m not a huge fan of new year’s resolutions because I can’t keep them anyway – but I know that this year I have to make an effort when it comes to studying Chinese. The number of hours I physically spend in the classroom every week (currently 9) is not the issue. But reviewing, doing all my homework and memorising the characters need to start happening.
It’s been a year full of changes. There were 4 of us for about a year, then Amanda joined. Then Elisabete moved to Indonesia and Amanda moved to the States. Then Jesper Joined, Nadine stopped, DaXie moved up to level 5, Egle took a break and Henrique went onto study in Germany. There are only 3 of us left in class now. Jesper, Rebecca and I. Of the 3, I am by far the least studious and the most distracted by other activities. As a result of my poor preparation, I failed the last exam (HSK 3).
Where are we at?
We follow the HSK system. "The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试 translated as the Chinese Proficiency Test or the Chinese Standard Exam, is the standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency of China for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese". There are 6 levels in total and and we’re about halfway through level 4 – meaning that we’re likely to take the Level 4 exam this summer if everything goes well. On this level, pinyin is a thing of the past and we only read characters. When it comes to spoken Chinese, there are some days where I feel I’m not able to say anything and some days where I’m quite proud of the progress we've made. I’m able to get by in Beijing. I can speak to our Ayi (housekeeper) – and when I can’t, we use WeChat translate. I can introduce myself and say how long I’ve been in China, why we’re here and so on – and I can explain to taxi drivers where I need to go and ask for directions. However, when it comes to “deeper” conversations, I simply don’t have the necessary vocabulary yet. And I don’t practise enough!
Hopes for the future
I’ve been in China 3 years now and I came here with the intention of making learning Chinese one of my top priorities. If it hadn't been for my amazing classmates and our wonderful teacher Xin, I would most likely have given up ages ago. I hope 2019 will be the year where I give myself a kick up the backside and dedicate more time to learning Chinese. I am a linguist after all. 加油！
(no big drama - I'm just talking about learning Chinese)
Yesterday was our last Chinese class before the Christmas break and it's safe to say that I wasn't in a studying mood. As a matter of fact, I childishly begged my class mates to distract our teacher as much as possible with conversations in English and questions about next semester. But alas. It's kind of hard to keep the smalltalk going for 3 hours. Especially not with our Laoshi Xin. So there was no way out of finishing chapter 27.
All of chapter 27 is based on the grammatical structure ba (把). I wouldn't really know how to explain this structure in English but if we imagine for a moment that we use ba in English, a sentence would sound like this:
I ba bicycle put downstairs bicycle shed inside (Wǒ bǎ zìxíngchē fàng zài lóu xià de chēpéng lǐ le -我把自行车放在楼下的车棚里了) - Or please ba cup put table upon (Qǐng nǐ bǎ bēizi fàng zài zhuōzi shàng 请你把杯子放在桌子上). In other words, it clarifies what happened to the object.
The ba structure has been following (or should I say haunting?) us for over a year now. It is a commonly and frequently used structure and I do not doubt its usefulness - just like I don't doubt the frustration it is causing me. But last week I felt that I had finally cracked the code. Even the more complicated ba structures were starting to make sense to me. Like when you use it for "I mistook something for something else" or "I'm changing that into that" and so on. Towards the end of yesterday's lesson, while I still had an ounce of confidence left in my ability to read and comprehend sentences, it was time to read the transcript of chapter 27's listening exercises. On page 181, I lost my confidence again.
The first 3-4 sentences were rather easy. An old man goes to visit his son in Paris and bla bla bla. Then it was my turn to read - just when it all went grammatically pear shaped. The old man (who went to see his son in Paris) wrote down the street name where his son lived on a piece of paper so he could find his way home. Then gave the piece of paper to a taxi driver but when the taxi driver read it, it said "no way through". Get it? The street signs were in French and he mistook the name of the street for "No way through". But nono. Of course it was not the mistook I had already mastered (kan chéng). I must have read the sentence 7-8 times. Huílái shí, tā bǎ zhè zhāng zhǐ jiāo gěi sījī, sījī kàn dào shàngbian xiězhe cǐ lù bùtōng. I read it in a robotic way. As only someone who doesn't have a clue what she's reading would read. All I could think was "teacher, please put me out of my misery". Or someone ring the non-existing bell so we can be dismissed. A classic example of a Chinese learning curve; flying high one day and falling low the next.
I've described the language barrier in China before - and the linguistic babysteps we're making in an attempt to hopefully conquer it one day.
If I haven't given up on learning Chinese yet, I owe it to my amazing 同学们 - classmates. And to our one-of-a-kind teacher Xīn. My class mates and I spend six hours a week in the class room at Qiáo xuéxiào (the Bridge School) together - and a whole lot of time outside the classroom.
We laugh, share our frustrations, go out together, make fun of ourselves and talk about whatever life throws at us.
What's the secret to such a well-functioning group? I believe it comes down to what we have in common. To mention but a few, we are all mothers, we originally came to China as accompanying spouses (although some of us now work either full-time, part-time or freelance) and we all thought that learning Chinese would be beneficial to our stay in China or to our lives in general.
Want to meet my classmates and teacher and see what we're up to together?
Here we go...
(from left to right in the first picture):
Egle (Lithuania) : Our no-nonsense funny Baltic beauty.
Rebecca (UK): Super smart and lifts us up with her great sense of humor.
Elisabete (Portugal): Has a heart of gold and is super disciplined.
Lăoshī Xin: A truly special Beijing ren who is doing her very best to motivate us and transmit her love for Mandarin.
Amanda (US): Learns characters at an incredible pace and has been amazing at settling in with us crazy ladies as the latest addition to the group.
Cooking has always been one of my least favourite chores and since we moved to China I have really tried to find the passion for cooking by buying new cook books, strapping recipes from magazines and watching cooking channels - including my friend Jens's genius youtube channel peking papa. But alas. Ask me to host a dinner party and I'll be quite happy but everyday cooking, not so much.
But I have a solution for that. An incredibly privileged solution! Like 99% of expat families in Beijing, we have an Ayi. A maid. She comes a whopping 5 times a week for 4 hours. She tidies up, washes and irons our clothes, cleans and...cooks. I still have to get used to having a maid so I am still as disorganised as when we lived in Belgium. I would like her to cook but I forget to plan ahead, buy the necessary groceries or ask her to pass by the market so she can pick up what she needs. But all that is going to change now thanks to my new purchase! A cookbook of everyday French dishes with all the recipes written in English AND Chinese! Ladies and gentlemen I give you "Cuisine mei wenti!"! Mei wenti means "no problem" in Mandarin. The book is divided into sections with starters, main dishes, side dishes and desserts and includes useful information about the differences between Western cuisine and Chinese cuisine. For example, point 6 is "MSG is not usually used" [in Western cuisine]. Yes this book is the kind of idea I wish I had had! Just like other great ideas that cater for expats and tackle the language barrier here in China. But the woman who DID have the idea is called Olivia Guinebault and I am very happy that my neighbour Anna passed me her contact. However, I am very curious to see if the book lives up to its promise on the front page: "Daily cooking becomes a pleasure". Well if not for me then for the Ayi :-)
About linguistic baby steps, pinyin, changing schools and how Chinese characters are opening a whole new world to me.
Now where were we? Back in February I wrote about the language barrier. Something which cannot be ignored when living in China! I concluded that learning mandarin is extremely useful and that I was still determined to do my best to learn it. So how have I been getting on?
Timeline of classes, change of schools and change of teachers
From February to June 2016: Just over a month after I arrived in Beijing, I started taking classes at the School for diplomatic missions. The name is fancier than the facilities but I loved my teacher Zoe!! I took group lessons with 3 lovely ladies. We were all absolute beginners. We started with the pronunciation of vowels and consonants, combinations of the two and the four tones in Chinese language. I remember thinking "can we just move on to vocabulary now" but I've later realised just how important it is to pronounce syllables correctly and that it's FUNDAMENTAL to know which tones to use! As a beginner, you normally start with learning pinyin. Pinyin is basically Chinese written in the latin alphabet. It was only invented in the 1950's (published by the Chinese government in 1958) hence people who went to school before the 60's have never learnt it. So pinyin is really only useful to a certain extent and as you advance on the levels of Chinese learning, you completely stop using pinyin! What's very useful, on the other hand, is conversational Chinese! A lot of our lessons were spent on learning really useful everyday Chinese. Time, negotiating prices, directions, colours and even "Ayi vocabulary", Simply because most families in Beijing have an Ayi (house help) and they rarely speak any English, Ours is no exception!
August 2016: I'm back in Beijing after 2 months of break from studying Chinese. And yes I did bring my books on holiday in Europe and no I did not open them at all.
So a lot was forgotten but I wanted to pick up again and continue, Unfortunately, due to different plans, interests etc., we could not start up as a group again and since I was keen to be in a group class, I decided to change schools.
Mid September 2016: On my friend Alessia's recommendation, I contacted "the Bridge school" and luckily there was a group class for level two starting just a week later. A total of 6 lessons per week (2 times 3 hours) Perfect! The group consisted of 5 women including myself and we clicked from the first moment we met. And more importantly, although I definitely feel like the weakest link, we were more or less on the same level. But the enthusiasm didn't last long. Despite her being a very sweet person, we had to agree that the teacher was not living up to our expectations. The school took our complaint well and promised to find someone with much more teaching experience for groups.
Mid October 2016: And that's when Yǔ Laoshi walked through the classroom door. I was blown away by her energy from the first lesson. 3 hours of high pace and of speaking Chinese around 80 percent of the time. She gives (and checks) homework, is friendly and funny but firm. No mercy, no messing about, picks up immediately if we try to check our wechat messages in class. Exactly what I needed :-)
Learning the characters: I almost get emotional
Starting to learn the Chinese characters, was a moment I had dreaded and looked forward to at the same time! On the one hand, it seemed like an unmanageable task and on the other hand, it felt like a natural (and unavoidable step) if you really want to learn mandarin.
There are tens of thousands of characters but, according to Wikipedia, with "only" 3000-4000 you can obtain "functional literacy" in Chinese. Piece of cake, right?
A character corresponds to a word or a syllable, Not to a letter. For example; 马 (mǎ) means horse and 门 (mén) means door.
The way some characters are written makes sense! For example 人 (rén) which means person. Can you see how it's a little man walking?
Learning characters is both fascinating and useful! I would even say that it's the part of the lesson I now look most forward to! My aim is to learn enough characters to be able to read public signs and possibly "decode" a simple newspaper article in the very far future! Now I've said it. No turning back!
I am blessed to have quite a few Chinese friends and acquaintances so a linguistic exchange with someone who was keen to learn English, seemed like a perfect idea.
I met Lǐ Lìn at rehearsals with the International Festival Chorus, and we decided to meet up to chat partly in Chinese, partly in English. I casually brought my unfinished homework to our first meeting and luckily she didn't mind helping me. We drilled Chinese vocabulary and characters and she talked to me in English about her passion for travelling. We'll hopefully manage to meet again next week after she's back from 伦敦 (Lúndūn) - European capital - have a guess :-)
I'm very excited as I've just received confirmation that I will start my Chinese course on 23 February. For absolute beginners.
And I know why I'm so excited about it: I have never visited (or lived in) a place where knowing the local language would be more useful!
You notice the language barrier as soon as you get out of the airport and need a taxi to the city centre. In general, taxi drivers here do not speak a word of English! So you THINK that you can just say "Sheraton Hotel" or "the Hilton" or where ever you're going but no! Taxi drivers know places by their Chinese names - not by how we pronounce them in English. A good example is IKEA. You can try as hard as you want, but if you don't know that IKEA is pronounced "Yi Jia Jia Ju" in Chinese, you won't get anywhere! It is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to always have a piece of paper for the taxi driver with the place you're going to written down in Chinese. There are also a number of small practical books and apps available to expats and tourists in Beijing with a list of hotels, sights, restaurants, compounds etc. translated into Chinese. Also, almost all hotels have a card you can always carry with you and show to taxi drivers. You can see some examples in the pictures below.
Then there are the shops and services. I have surrendered to pointing, indicating, drawing...whatever. I often have to leave the supermarket without what I was looking for because I'm not able to explain what I need. A recent example was hair removal cream :-)
Both Rebecca and I have been to the hairdresser's here. That's an experience! They are extremely kind and helpful and somehow love to deal with western costumers. We communicate via an app! I will type in for example "how much for a haircut" in English and it will be translated into Chinese for them. They will then type in the reply in Chinese and it's translated into English (-ish) for me. It's just part of the fun.
Of course we also come across Chinese people who speak English very well! Without knowing English, they wouldn't have been able to do the jobs they're doing. Examples are: the front desk staff at the hotel, the lovely Nicole from the real estate agency, the staff at "SOS international" hospital, some staff at restaurants in tourist areas and of course local staff at the kids' international school.
I'm motivated to learn Chinese. Not only because the kids are learning it so fast that I feel they're breathing down my neck :-) - but I strongly believe that you can get closer to a country and its people by making an effort to learn the language. Now I've said it so let's get started!