When I started my master’s in Paris I already knew that I would be jetting off to Shanghai for the second year. I convinced myself that since the degree was in two parts, I should spend the entire first year focusing on the European part of the course. I therefore decided to polish my French language skills in the first semester (as you can imagine, they had become a little rusty during my time in Japan) rather than taking beginner’s Chinese, much to the displeasure of my course director (I promised her I’d take it in second semester). Unfortunately, the only beginner’s course in the second semester was at the same time as one of my mandatory classes, and I had to hang my head in shame and send her an email to explain myself… Again… To which she bluntly replied that it was a real pity that I couldn’t better prepare for my life in China. Oh, the awful sense of dread – I would surely arrive in Shanghai, lost and confused, unable to express myself.
I therefore made it my mission to learn the basics of Mandarin before moving here. I found myself a tutor through an agency (who charged me the earth and paid her very little). She was the same age as me, from North East China, living in Paris studying for a master’s in History of Art. Every week for around two months she swept into my apartment, a tornado of excitement and enthusiasm, explaining to me in incredible detail the basics of the Chinese language. Every week she made me sweat through character memorisation, rapid-fire questions, dialogues… She made me work, but the best thing was that she made me truly eager to learn Chinese. Back in England in the summer, I sat down and tried to get my head around the grammar and vocabulary she’d thrown at me in that short time.
Despite my efforts, I didn’t expect to be able to communicate when I got here. After all, when I arrived in Japan I confidently reeled off the self-introduction I had learned, only to find that as soon as someone asked me a follow-up question I had NO IDEA what they were asking. One problem in Japan was that when I couldn’t understand something, rather than repeating it, people shied away. In contrast, here in China they seem to just repeat what they’ve said, louder (though not necessarily more slowly). And actually, it generally helps.
[Of course there have been exceptions: on my first day here, the shop assistant at Walmart told me I needed to pay an extra 6 kuai, which I didn’t understand. The lady behind me in the queue started to shout “6 kuai! 6 kuai! 6 kuaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiii!” in my face. My friends thankfully rushed back to help me, although by that point I had pretty much figured out that I needed to pay more but was stuck in a state of shock from the shouting. That was not so helpful.]
In general, I’ve been enjoying using the very basic vocabulary I have to just get by. It’s surprising how much you can say with very few words. I’m generally lucky to have at least one talented friend with me to help with any real requests or issues (thank goodness), however I’ve so far managed to buy two bikes by myself (at different times, I didn’t accidentally buy two), order milk tea without sugar (I’m proud of that one, and glad that I can finally slightly improve my diet and still enjoy the milk tea) and sometimes even ask for things without pointing. I have two examples from today: at the shop this morning I wanted a shopping bag, but couldn’t remember the word for bag. The shopping bags were red, so I decided to be creative and try saying: ‘I’d like one of the … red… ones…?’. By some miracle, the shop assistant understood. Then, this evening, I walked into the kitchen to find boiling water pouring out of the boiler onto the kitchen floor and out into the hallway. I marched downstairs to the front desk, took a deep, calming breath, and said ‘Please. 9th floor. Water.’ The two men furrowed their brows, so I repeated myself. They looked startled and then shouted ‘WATER?! 9th floor?!’ ‘Yes, 9th floor’. One of them leapt out of his chair and ran to the lift. In retrospect, to speed things up, I could perhaps have injected a little more urgency into my voice. I’ll try that next time, but for now I’m quite pleased with my efforts.
Language learning is like a game – it never ceases to entertain me, whether I’m grappling with French poetry or asking ‘…is this beef?’ in Chinese. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself learning a little Chinese each day and the language classes haven’t even started yet! More to come, I suppose.