Zhongwen: A beautiful struggle

Travel | by James Weir
Posted: September 15th, 2011 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
Learning Chinese Fresh Fish! Fresh Fish! Fresh Fish! The chants have died down, the beat-downs administered and now the Vermont /Michigan reared James Weir is a member of the gang. A junior member (get me my coffee, punk!), but a true member with a great pen, skills on the guitar and piano and the determination and grit to sit through hours of Chinese tutelage. Here he drops a little insight into the ball-pit of Chinese language learning and how it's not the spiraling descent into misery that it seems. Check it out >>> I spent the better part of the last three months studying Chinese. Four hours of class each morning, followed by wrist-wrenching exercises in character memorization that doubled as an exploration into how much boredom my simultaneously overtaxed and under-stimulated brain could put up with. Writing the characters out again and again for hours required patience, but, more importantly, a sort of concentration I have never before utilized. In college, I took English courses, history courses, sociology courses, philosophy courses.  I read books. I wrote papers, took essay exams. I discussed words, ideas, patterns in history, patterns in human behavior. I argued, often passionately, about incredibly esoteric topics simply because I could. What I did not do was memorize large swaths of abstract data. So naturally my degree (now a few years behind me) was of no help. Chinese was to me an interest, a skill I knew I needed to learn. For the first time in my life, the amount of value I could bleed from a class didn't come with a gold star, a grade or a BA from a University. The only motivation for paying attention in class, for doing the homework, for writing out my characters, was the knowledge itself. Learning Chinese Luckily, I was given this test of internal motivation in a Chinese course, and not Accounting 101 or Advanced Studies in 15th Century Scottish Plaids or even—god forbid—Canadian Military History. Chinese is engrossing. It is fascinating, different and incredibly difficult. And it takes time. So I studied (most days) and learned, slowly. I began to accrue a vocabulary of words centered around specific topics, subjects like "Going to a party," "Giving your friend a ride to the airport," "Inviting your best friend's sister out to dinner" and "My tummy hurts!" The work focused mostly on writing and reading, the exception being the daily lesson-based dialogues we were required to read aloud with a partner in front of the class. We learned the most basic sentence structures and all verbal communications were funneled through the very limited grammatical framework we were familiar with. We made the same jokes again and again 昨天晚上我请你的妈妈吃晚饭. I bought your mom dinner last night. 我觉得你的姐姐很漂亮. I think your sister is pretty hot. and laughed every time, simply because we were speaking Chinese. A bi-lingual burn is the best kind of burn. So I came back to China with a renewed sense of confidence, a linguistic framework to build off of and a desire to put my hard work to use. I wouldn't say that I had unrealistic expectations about how much I knew, or would be able to absorb, but I will say that the experience of putting classroom Chinese to use in real life is jarring. The beautiful pain in the ass of all language is that there is an infinite amount of ways to say any given thing, and what we forget when we study is that those who have a natural command of a language rarely say the same thing over and over. For someone like me, schooled in Chinese in the comfortable confines of a University classroom many thousands of miles from China, the effect is completely baffling. You realize that your teacher was phrasing everything to you in not only the simplest manner, but also within the same three or four sentence structures you are familiar with. All of a sudden, you realize that Chinese is not the formulaic, decipherable thing you thought it was, but a jumble of words, some of which you understand and some of which you don't. And the words come at an incredible speed. An INCREDIBLE speed. Learning Chinese So I panic. I feel like I'm frantically searching through a ball-pit full of 3-D Chinese characters. I know the word is there. But I grab the wrong one, say the wrong thing. I get confused. I forget words. I mumble. I stop making eye contact. I cannot string the words together, even though I have the tools necessary. I fall, ceaselessly, into a swirling void of all the words and characters I know, hoping they will begin to work together and form a net to catch me. But I get there. I always do. It is not unlike having the mind of a small child. I walk along unfamiliar streets, hear unfamiliar sounds, take things in, process them. Periodically, my brain abruptly springs to life, and in moments of recognition (a feeling I imagine is akin to how a cell phone feels as it flashes to life with new text messages, emails and telephone calls before silently descending back into standby) I exclaim to myself: 袜子! Socks! 公共汽车! Bus! 网球场! Tennis Court!
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