Learning Chinese: a process as much as a challenge

[Bŭ lěi nà is my Chinese name for those who are wondering.]

It is with a good reason that the phrase, “[He] might as well have been speaking Chinese”, is employed in instances where the listener is truly and utterly perplexed. This is a phrase that I have come to hold in a whole new light in the past three months.

Before embarking upon my travels to Taiwan I never actually put much thought into the reality of learning Chinese. This was down to pure laziness because, had I been even slightly bothered, I could have harnessed all the many resources offered by the world wide web and tried my hand at some self-teaching.

But I didn’t.

Instead I languished in my blissful ignorance. So ignorant was my bliss I decided to enrol in the intensive learning class.

I lasted two days before switching to the regular version.

Before Starting Class

This period of “blissful ignorance” enjoyed its short-lived existence before Chinese classes begun. Unbeknownst to me at the time, for that two week span I had the best of both worlds: although locals were burdened with speaking to me entirely through my native tongue, because I had come to Taiwan to learn Chinese I couldn’t be categorised as a haughty, uncultivated foreigner. Should someone misguidedly attempt conversation with me through Chinese, I would simply smile a simpering smile, cock my head to the side, shrug my shoulders and sigh, saying, “Sorry I don’t speak Chinese, I start classes soon.”

On December 1st 2015 this period of bliss came to a shuddering, coughing halt. It was replaced by a daunting realisation of the immensity of the challenge I faced. I knew learning Chinese was going to be difficult, I’d be an idiot not to, but having never attempted to learn it I didn’t have a concrete grasp of the practical difficulties that awaited me. It remained a remained a fanciful idea not quite existing yet in my reality, vague enough not to perturb me so I could easily swat away the frequent comments alluding to my recklessness, politely referred to as bravery.

During the first two weeks of class I sat with a perplexed expression fixed on my face. It was an accurate depiction of what was going on inside my head. Alien words and characters were being thrown and me left, right and centre. Where one word began and the next one ended was a mystery. Characters that I had spent all night scrawling all over my notebook like a love struck teenager in an attempt to memorize them eluded me the following day. I felt hopeless, and honestly, a bit thick.

Three months in I can thankfully say my Chinese has improved. I no longer constantly look nor feel like at total dunce in class (or if I do, I cannot altogether blame it on my lack of Chinese). With hindsight, I can reduce my difficulties to two overarching problems: The first is the difficulty in itself of learning Chinese; the second is the difficulty learning Chinese in an Asian culture. Their combined effect means that my experiences learning Chinese over the past three months have been as much a process that needed to run its course, as a challenge that needed to be overcome. Unexpectedly, I learnt a lot about myself.

The Challenge of Learning Chinese

Initially there is a steep, steep learning curve, the immensity of which I wasn’t prepared for. Just like every other language you need to learn vocabulary and grammar, but learning Chinese also involves learning pingin (the Chinese characters written using alphabetical letters as you would sound them out), memorizing the characters, as well as paying attention to the tones. There are four tones in the Chinese language (mā má mǎ mà), which dictate how the tone of your voice should rise and fall as your pronounce each word. Employing the incorrect tone could be fatal because many of the same words take on an entirely different meaning, depending on what tone accompanies them.

The other major challenge is learning the characters. Each week I am required to learn a list of 40-45 words or phrases. In addition to our weekly end of chapter test, I also have two dictation tests based on the new vocabulary. Considering each word involves learning the pingin, the character and the tones on top of the meaning, this is no mean feat. It requires diligent study, which admittedly was a shock to my system. Having only recently graduated from college, I had grown accustomed to working according to my own schedule towards one major, looming deadline as opposed to a constant, daily grind of work according to the teacher’s plan.

Slacking off is more pain than it’s worth. As each lesson is taught using the new vocabulary, unless you’ve learnt the characters by heart you’ll be lost, something I found out the hard way.

Learning Chinese the Asian Way

It was in the classroom that I experienced the culture shock of moving to a different continent most severely. And the stereotypes are more true than they are false.

The less independent thought the better. Questions are not encouraged. The commonly Western used phrase, “There are no stupid questions,” most definitely does not apply. “Most questions are stupid” would be more accurate. You’ll know by the teacher’s expression how she rates your question. If she finds it exasperating, she won’t conceal the fact.

Another difficulty my classmates and I experienced was the linear quality of the teaching style. Our teacher endeavoured to teach us using as little English as possible, so new vocabulary was often taught through gestures, imitations, and sometimes sound effects. At times it felt like we were in play school or playing a never ending game of charades. Sometimes these attempts just didn’t land, because what was obvious and singular in meaning to her simply wasn’t for us. Our Western trained minds considered things from various angles, leaving room for speculation, so we failed to arrive at the “foolproof” answer she had intended.

Countless times I would sit in class feeling the frustration rise within me because I felt as though I had been propelled back in time to primary school. Despite the low number of people in the class and given we were all adults, there lacked the sense of informality that usually resulted when similar situations arose in college. We were all very aware that she was the teacher and we were the student. This sense of authority was projected through her teaching style, which from what I have gathered, is particular to the school rather than her own personal preference. Obediently we would listen to her reading out sentences in an exaggerated style, and then on command chant them back, our voices colliding in a jumble of incorrect tones.

I remember during my second day of the intensive class (which, by the way, was also my second day learning Chinese ever) the teacher simply listed out a flurry of words, which it turns out were the numbers 1-10 in Chinese. She then turned to us expectantly, awaiting us to recite them back, which somehow everyone but I managed. This was followed by an exercise where we called out our phone numbers out in Chinese and wrote one another’s down. As each word raced past me I desperately tried to connect it to a number, but my brain churned too slowly to keep up with the rapid pace. Luckily I wasn’t desperate to get the number of anyone there, because my efforts were utterly futile and I sat there wearing a dazed expression. Confusion then turned to mild indignation at how much was expected from us mere beginners, and I glanced around the classroom hoping to register similar expressions on the faces of my classmates, but to my dismay I was the only one.

The range of emotions flashing across my face was apparently comical because it caught the teacher’s attention. Not to help me, God forbid, but to launch her career as a comedian. Much to her and everyone’s amusement, she proceeded to mimic my facial expressions, eliciting laughs from my fellow classmates. Luckily I have thick skin and by that stage my fate was sealed: I was switching to the easier class. Having succumbed to the hopelessness of my future in that class I managed to see the funny side.

I talked to one of my classmates after class, wondering how on earth he had managed to keep up with the accelerated pace. It transpired that he and most of the other students had already undertaken Chinese in some shape or form, so I was the only real beginner in the beginner class. To give you an idea of how fast we were working through the material, he said that what we covered in a three-hour class was equivalent to what he had covered in half a semester of college. I left that conversation feeling better, me ego somewhat assuaged.

What I learnt about myself

Anyone who has spent even just five minutes in my company knows I like to ask a lot of questions. Pointless questions, random questions, intuitive questions – they cover a broad range. Similar to an irritating child, it comes from my desire to understand why. I spent four years studying philosophy so it’s understandable. When it comes to studying in a Taiwanese classroom “why” doesn’t often enter the equation. You are presented with information within a specific context, you learn said information within the confines of that context, and then when prompted, regurgitate it back. Compared to my experience learning other languages, there is much less emphasis on learning the mechanics of the language and instead much more is placed upon learning phrases off by heart. I, on the other hand, want to strip a phrase down and understand why those particular words were used and why in that particular order. Memory having never been my strong suit, I find it much easier to learn by understanding the underlying logic.

During the first couple of weeks I could see the teacher getting visibly frustrated by some of our questions, perhaps mine in particular. One day she wanted to talk to me after class, like a naughty child being reprimanded after school. The conversation went like this: she told me she could tell that I was a perfectionist (ding ding full marks there), that I want to understand everything, but in fact this is the wrong approach when it comes to learning Chinese. Instead I should learn as a child would, not worrying about making mistakes. Rather than tripping myself up because I don’t understand one part of a sentence, I should conceive of it it as a whole and elicit from that its’ general meaning. I took her advice on-board, and with good spirit too. In fact, I was grateful. It allowed me to free myself from the questions that had been weighing me down.

Her words echoed in my mind the following days. They brought with them the realisation that my approach to learning Chinese reflected the manner in which I approached tasks, and life in general. Unbeknownst to her during our three-minute conversation she had provided me with life advice. I guess I’m not that mysterious after all.

In some ways learning Chinese is like taking one of those personality tests you find online, revealing the inner workings of you mind. For example, when learning characters some people remember the simple ones easily but forget the complex ones, while others are the opposite. No surprises, the complex characters sit much longer in my head.

The next week I came to class with a totally different approach. Keep it simple. Unless I actually didn’t understand something I would keep my meandering questions to myself. The rest I would find out in due time. That’s not to say I’ve preformed a lobotomy and removed my inquisitive nature. The questions still bubble up inside, but I’ve learnt to recognise that in certain instances they can act as an impediment. While in most situations curiosity should be encouraged, for those two hours each day where my world consisted of Chinese characters in a classroom in Taiwan, it was making my life harder than it needed to be.

It also instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that learning 20 characters in one night was beyond my ability, but realising that the dictation tests were going to come twice a week whether I liked it or not, I would have to find a way. So instead I turned my attention to figuring out what specifically was causing me problems and adapted my study method to tackle this. It lead to a noticeable improvement.

The objective of this article was not to vent (well, maybe a little), nor moan about having to learn Chinese, nor criticise my teacher. Actually, once I came to terms with everything I’ve mentioned, mainly embracing that I was learning a hard language in an alien culture, things became much easier. I no longer went to class grudgingly, dread oozing out of every pore, but I began to enjoy it. So I guess finally, and maybe most importantly, I learnt the virtue of patience. Rather than working towards an unrealistic and self-imposed deadline, which only adds unnecessary angst, give yourself the time and the space to improve. Things didn’t get better straight away and it still is arduous at the best of times, but eventually they did. I’m not sure at what point it happened exactly, but gradually people started commenting that my Chinese had improved. I reached a turning point.

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First Impressions of Taipei

27 degrees Celsius. Six o’clock on a mid-November evening. I expected it to be hot, but not that hot. As I wrestled with my suitcase, my extra large backpack and my handbag, I made my way from Tayouan airport to Taipei City. Fighting my weariness having left my house over an entire day beforehand I succumbed to the nagging exhaustion that had been trailing me all day and fell asleep on the bus. What felt like only moments later, the welcoming, shining lights of Taipei city awakened me. With my face pressed to the glass like a child I watched the city unfold before my eyes. This was my first time ever in Asia and I was a blank slate, ready to be impressed upon.

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The first thing I noticed is that Taipei has a sense of immediacy about it that I have yet to experience to a similar extent in any European city. Neon lights are ubiquitous, lining every street and elbowing one another in an effort to grab your attention. In my first few days I visited the Shilin night market, which to my untrained eye appeared unstructured and chaotic. With no purpose besides exploration I allowed myself to get lost as I ducked into side streets and passages, indulging every whim that struck me and using my instincts and senses as my guide. I can only describe it as an acid trip for your senses, with the dizzying lights reminding me of the merry-go-round scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Products were overflowing from the shops and almost spilling onto the footpath, which is commonplace for the shops in Taipei. The relationship between retailer and consumer begins on the street, and in far more proactive and overt manner than is customary in Ireland.

It has struck me that Taipei is a city that embodies numerous traits, simultaneously straddling rich and poor, old and new, ancient and modern. Situated alongside modern motorways are structures constructed from metal corrugated sheets or metal crates stacked upon one another, which would not appear out of place in a shantytown. Modern, sleek shops, departments and restaurants coexist with simple, no frill traditional Taiwanese restaurants that are comparable to rudimentary school canteens. The food is often cooked in front of you, there is no décor and the no frills service is reduced to the bones of its intention: they provide food and you in return provide money. It is a tendency of Irish consumers to use the branding or aesthetic representation of a product or service as a measure of its quality, but that is not always the case here. In Taipei, eating out is often predominantly for the practical purpose of absolving you of your hunger and accordingly Taiwanese restaurants have dispensed with the usual embellishments required to attract customers that are standard, necessary almost, in Ireland.

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Geographically, there does not exist a clear divide between wealth and austerity that exists in most European cities that I have visited. Opulence and simplicity, high-end and low-end are curiously inter-dispersed amongst one another. When walking along one of the busy shopping streets one evening I saw a woman who worked for a food vendor washing her dishes in a basin on the pavement, while only a few shops down there were multiple high-end sports outlets, shiny and lustrous.

Car and motorbike repair shops are located like shop fronts along the street with the doors wide open, their workspace, tools and equipment totally on view. From an outsider’s perspective, this transparency of work practises is prevalent in Taiwanese society. Food is often visibly prepared in the front of a restaurant, and as I write this, situated one table away from me two workers are preparing dumplings, sitting amongst customers in full display. There is a sense of informality amongst the interaction between customer and retailer, which is also characteristic of the fluid business purpose. On multiple occasions I saw food vendors active inside the doorways of retail shops. Although a strategic partnership it would never occur in Ireland or certainly not as informally, due to the rigid and fixed business model that prevents utility from transcending formality.

Similarly, there exists an interesting juxtaposition between luxury and modernity on one hand, and simplicity and tradition on the other. Some aspects of the city are extremely advanced such as their primary method of transport the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) metro service. Each station has a gleaming, shining, spacious bathroom that would rival most restaurants in Dublin, as well as multiple electrical socket outlets in order for people to charge their phones. Yet many apartments, such as the apartment of my first host, don’t have kitchens, something that is not uncommon I found out once I embarked upon my search for a flat. In its place there was a sink, a washing machine, and a water dispenser that delivered hot and warm water. My host had a fridge in her room (mostly empty), her delph comprised of two mugs, a plate, a bowl and some cutlery. She ate all three meals a day out, which appears far more economical that renting a flat with a kitchen and paying for groceries. To me it seems strange that a metro station provides expendable facilities while many apartments lack what I have been accustomed to regard as fundamental equipment.

While researching Taiwan prior to coming here many people emphasised the hosting and helpful nature of the Taiwanese people, claiming that as a guest I would be revered within Asian culture. I can certainly say this expectation has been met. The majority of times during which I have found myself hopelessly staring at street signs or Google maps (full disclosure – it has happened quite a few times) people have offered help without being prompting. In fact I experienced this welcoming nature even before arriving while organising a place to stay via the couchsurfing website (a website which links travellers with residents willing to act as a host). My first host said she was honoured that I chose her as a host, and seemed genuinely pleased to open her home for me. Considering she was doing me such a huge favour, her graciousness really took me aback.

People are definitely curious as to why I am here. As a “Westerner” (a term I have yet to grow accustomed to use when referring to myself) I stick out. People stare a lot. And they stare boldly too. Living in Berlin for a year prepared me for this so I’ve grown accustomed to the staring. Sometimes if I’m not flustered or rushed and find myself bothered enough to react, I will stare back self-assuredly. But even this doesn’t always deter them, and suddenly I find myself taking part in a childish staring match.

The stereotypical impression of Asians (yes, I’m aware this is a naïve umbrella term that doesn’t account for the difference between various Asian cultures) is that they are reticent and keep to themselves. That is something I have experienced in various degrees here, and is a stereotype with which I cannot fully concur, nor dispel either. From a foreigners perspective I feel people’s lack of English is a source of embarrassment, which in turn fuels their timidity. Fortunately for me, due to my white privilege, English is the language everyone is expected to know, so often when abroad I automatically speak English to the locals, presumptuously and arrogantly anticipating that they would have the ability to speak my language in their country.

I can most definitely relate to the self-consciousness that overcomes Taiwanese people due to the language barrier. When I was still new to Berlin, although having proficient German I struggled to say the word “Entschuldigung” fluidly or on short notice. It translates to “excuse me” but it is quite a mouthful for a word that one needs to utilise abruptly. So if I bumped into someone I sometimes found myself stumped silent, resulting in uncharacteristically rude behaviour (I’m the kind of person who apologises when I bang into a chair) because I simply couldn’t form the word quickly enough. It used to get stuck in my throat and just stay there.

Similarly, during the early days of college in Berlin I primarily stuck with my Irish friend. Talking to a stranger requires a certain amount of confidence that I can usually muster with ease. Yet combine this with the very realistic possibility that I will falter when speaking and suddenly I found myself meeker than usual. So I get it. Being unable to express yourself clearly impacts a person’s forwardness, and talking to strangers is hard enough as it is.

While in Ireland, I didn’t I come across many Asians that had moved there having had an Asian upbringing, so any opinion elucidated in this article is derived primarily from vague impressions. Nonetheless, impressions count for something and most people with whom I discussed the matter shared my sentiments, both Asians and Europeans alike. One of my Taiwanese couchsurfing hosts had an Irish boyfriend and had travelled extensively in Europe, resulting in a self-confessed mentality that aligned itself more with a European, rather than a Taiwanese mind-set. I broached the topic of my pre-conceived notions of Asians, specifically mentioning that it seemed that when abroad they always stuck to their own. From our conversation I learned that this tendency exists because they are apparently advised by their elderlies not to talk to strangers. This suggests that rather than being an inherent trait, their reticence is rooted in circumstance and my experiences here for the most part serve to further reinforce that.

Said advice was also imparted to me by older relatives every time I’ve moved abroad, but which I largely have chosen to ignore (Sorry Pauline). I always talk to strangers and have met some incredible people and some of my dear friends by doing so. That’s not to say it always ends well. During my first week while starting at the Metro map trying to figure out where I needed to go (a recurring theme during my first few days here) a Taiwanese man, in his early twenties at a guess, struck up a conversation with me. I use the term conversation lightly because it was more like a one-sided game of twenty questions. Being virtually brand new in this city and having no friends apart from my host, I figured I was not in a position to be picky. I let my friendly nature get the better of me and I answered his questions without elaborating too much on the details. This continued until he commented that I looked more like a dancer than a person with a law degree because of my “sexy body”. He then noticed a ring on my wedding finger, a happy coincidence, and perhaps an explanation for why I’ve been single for over two year. When he remarked that I was quite young to be married aged 23, I decided not to correct him. We soon lost each other in the crowd.