(Unedited version of my piece published by Global Times on 3 September 2017)
He shuffles along the street at the Zaoying community. His pajama bottoms are showing underneath the hem of his pants and he is carrying a small bird cage in his hand. He smiles at my gaping face and seems to be thinking “hit me with the questions, lǎowài!”. I want to ask him: “Where are you going with that bird in a cage?”. “Is it because it needs fresh air?”. “Do you ever let it out?”. “Does it have a name?”. “Do you go to a different park every day to hang it up in a tree?”. Yet the only thing that comes out of my mouth is “Wǒ kěyǐ pāizhào ma?” – may I take a picture? Once again, I fall flat on my face and hit the language barrier at full speed.
If I were a WeChat sticker, I would be the happy piglet in a convertible, waving toy windmills at a hundred miles an hour. I am enthusiastic about living in Beijing. My curiosity has no limits and I want to know what the Chinese think. Bombard them with questions. Mind their business in every possible way.
Thanks to the efforts of my fantastic Yu Laoshi and the progress my classmates and I have made in speaking mandarin and recognizing characters, I am now beyond the phase of “Nǐ yǒu L de ma?” (do you have it in large?) and “tài guì le” (too expensive) but alas, not even remotely capable of having a deep-ish conversation in Chinese. When I’m together with my Chinese friends, I tend to treat them as my walking-talking Chinese dictionary and they often hear me exclaim “wait, let me get a piece of paper and write that expression down”. But they are my friends because – well – they speak English so we are able to communicate. And sadly, I don’t always have them by my side when I feel the urge to let out an avalanche of nosy questions to the “real” Beijingers.
The man who sings beautiful arias by the lake at Tuanjiehu Park. Completely alone and lost in his own world. During my imaginary conversation with him, I ask him if he’s a trained opera singer. Whether he sings for his own joy or whether he secretly hopes to impress someone.
The beautiful raven-haired fashionista at Sanlitun Village. Perhaps she’s a popstar? Is that Prada handbag real? Hmm, I actually already know how to ask that (“zhēn de ma?”). But perhaps that’s too direct?
The elderly couple in the queue at the supermarket. Their grandchild is adorable. Despite their love and devotion to this boy who is most likely their only grandchild, do they sometimes wish they had more freedom?
One of my friends once said that “learning Chinese is nine kicks in the crotch for every one kiss on the cheek”. It’s an uphill struggle. But I can see the reward on the horizon. For every small improvement, every kiss on the cheek will, slowly but surely, tear down the language barrier, bring me closer to “the man in the street” and give me a broader understanding of the culture and the trends in China. Wait for me please. I am learning.