Language Lessons

Posted: August 7, 2011 in Life, Travel
Tags: , ,

My Chinese has been getting a lot of exercise. Coming to 西安, my speaking command of the language was somewhat adequate, though much could be improved with my reading and writing. Having to practice every second of the day has helped my fluency in Mandarin; hopefully it will be a noticeable difference to my Chinese speaking friends and family when I return home.

Ordering food in a restaurant has never been that difficult, you simply point at the pretty picture, and say “I want this”. At Dairy Queen, I can never remember the words for vanilla soft-serve, so I always just go to the counter and ask for “the ice cream that costs 7 RMB”. That usually gets my point across. The local drinks than I enjoy – 酸梅汤 (plum juice), 蓝马课 (Landmark, a fermented pineapple soda), and 白开水 (room temperature water, not the boiling hot water that Chinese normally drink) have all made their way into my regular vocabulary, and I’m normally able to get what I want.

Taking the bus is a little trickier. Each bus stop has a name, and the signboard at each stop lists the various destinations that a certain route will take you in tabular form. Even with a map in hand, the names can be very cryptic. The same street can have multiple names, depending on whether it’s north, within, or south of the old city wall. I’ve learned to read the names of all the stops that I frequent, though many times it’s been easier just to ask for help from a local.

I’d say that I probably understand about 80-85% of the Mandarin that’s being spoken around me. However, there’s always that 15-20% that I just don’t quite pick up, whether it’s vocabulary that I’m not familiar with, or the distinct northwestern accent that people have here, as opposed to the southern accented Mandarin that I grew up with. The funny thing is, if I approach someone, tell them I’m an American and speak only in English, they’re usually more than happy to help me. Foreigners are exciting, and helping one discover China seems to be a guilty pleasure for a lot of them. However, if I converse with them in Chinese, when they say something I don’t understand I’ll have to stop them and ask them to explain what they mean. At this point, they just look at me like an idiot, trying to understand how someone can reach 21 years of age without a working knowledge of the language that I supposedly grew up with.

Other times, people take meeting me as an opportunity to practice their own English. Most of the time it’s taxi drivers. Over my previous two weeks, I’ve spoken to taxi drivers about everything from weather and food in China, to philosophy and the education system in the USA. I once had a driver hand me a pen and paper, asking my to transcribe the words he told me into English, so that he could practice them when he got home. We got through “mid-Autumn festival”, “girlfriend”, and “break-up”. Apparently he was planning something, I’m glad I could help.

  1. interesting, drinking boiling hot water is considered normal?! is this to like remove contamination from water?

  2. Jenny says:

    I am so impressed! I have to admit that most of my time in Beijing has been me just “getting by” with minimal Chinese, and I am glad to hear that I am not the only one that has done that. Also, you shouldn’t be too worried about those words that you don’t catch- I’ve learned that a lot of people in Xi’an speak in a local dialect. Keep up the good work!

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