Thanks to my friend Alexandra at Wild Eyed and Wandering, who gave me an idea for a post about 学习汉语 （xuéxí hànyǔ）- learning Chinese! It has been something I’ve grappled with since touching down here in September 2015. Is my Chinese any better? It depends. I think I can use it more often in more places – I feel a little more comfortable speaking it, but my listening is quite weak, and remembering all the different characters is difficult. Plus I have lessons to plan and teach, which sometimes gets in the way. I come home on a Tuesday or Friday after class and fall asleep occasionally, waking some time later, realising I have Chinese homework due the next day, I end up working until late finishing it. Then I’m tired the next day, and the cycle starts again…!
Mandarin Chinese is notoriously difficult to master, and my priorities and desires have changed somewhat since I came here. I have two different types of classes a week – both have their pluses and minuses. The first, which I only started in September, are free – classes held at the university where I work. There are different types of classes – listening, speaking, reading & writing (which I don’t attend because that class is on the day I teach) – and comprehension, which we have every day. The classes run from 08:00-08：50 & 09:-09：50 for the first class, and from 10:10-11:00 & 11:10-12:00 for the second). We usually have the afternoon free, although sometimes we have a test in the afternoon. The listening and speaking teachers are very nice, as is the comprehension teacher, although they are a little old-school. They stand at the front and talk and we listen, try to understand, and write. The comprehension teacher is sympathetic and kind to me, as I miss lessons twice a week because I have classes, and I’ve also missed other lessons due to lesson planning and so on. The class also moves a little fast, and so sometimes if I haven’t been to the previous one, I am lost. A couple of weeks ago, the teacher saw the blank expression on my face, and knew that, for the most part, I had not understood what he was saying. He told me after class why we move so fast (he wants to finish the textbook by the end of the semester) – which I understand, but he said the next class he could go a little slower. Not every class, but just for the next class, which he did.
He also gives us a lot of homework. Usually, we have to write out the new words we’ve learnt, ten times, and write a sentence for each new word, then write the text we have done in class three times, answer the questions in the textbook, based on the text, and do two recordings of us reading the text and one of us reading the vocabulary. Every day. This is a lot of work, especially if I have not had an afternoon free. One of the Mongolian girls in the class is 18, and told me she spends so much time doing her homework that she doesn’t have enough time to do anything else, or go out and see Beijing.
My other class, on a Saturday evening, is a two hour (two 50-minute classes with ten minute break in-between) speaking class. I have been going to this school for about 18 months. It costs a lot but I think it does help too. It is a 1-2-1 class, and usually we start by me telling my teacher, in Chinese, about my week. We then review the previous class. Usually, that takes us up to break time, after which we watch a video and I have to describe what is happening. The teacher will write down some new words or grammar points, which I will then have to practice and give more examples of, before continuing. At the end of class, I get a print out of all the notes from the class, which I can also access online. I enjoy this class – it’s usually fun and it challenges me to think about how to use Chinese and what to say. Also it’s practical – more so, than some of the topics in my other class (one story in the textbook was about someone trying to steal a doorbell).
A disadvantage of this class is that we do move quite slowly through things, and perhaps I am not being exposed to as many Chinese characters or phrases as I am in the university classes. But these give large amounts of homework which, whilst helpful, also end up dominating everything, and you end up doing it because you have to do it, rather than pleasure. 1-2-1 classes are also useful for me as we can go at my own pace, instead of flying through things, with a look of confusion on my face.
I still sometimes get a brain freeze, too. When I was returning from Xi’an in May, for example, I had a pot of instant noodles, but no chopsticks to eat them with. So I went to the dining car on the train and asked the waitress for some. Except I didn’t. Instead of saying ‘我要筷子’ (wǒ yào kuàizi) – I want chopsticks, I am so used to telling the canteen staff and 7-11 staff here that I don’t want them, that I told the waitress, ‘我不要筷子’ (wǒ bù yào kuàizi) – I don’t want them. She understood what I meant, but I just get so used to saying one thing that when I have to change, it feels a little odd!
The next few weeks and months will be interesting, but sometimes it is just a case of learning one character at a time!
Sometimes it is the small things that matters. As I said in an earlier post, I’m not very technologically savvy. Banking in China is not the easiest of things, and recently, one of my bank cards stopped working. So I thought I should go to the bank to find out. Usually I’d take a Chinese friend with me, but the one person I was going to ask, was not available this morning. So I decided – somewhat apprehensively – to go myself. I went in with the translation of what I wanted to say on my phone, and got to see a bank assistant. I explained (via translation) what was wrong. Then there was a little back-and-forth before she called an English-speaking colleague who came over and explained that it was simply a case of the chip on the card being a little dirty so it wouldn’t read it. I left, a little embarrassed, but satisfied and pleased that this little problem has been fixed. Sometimes, in China, it is the little things that can be the most difficult to solve, and banking in China is difficult to do at the best of times, for a foreigner.