I have always felt a bit uncomfortable about the fact that taiji and qigong are Chinese, and I am so very not Chinese.
When I’m doing taiji in a public park and see people who might possibly be Chinese looking my way, I always wonder what they’re thinking. Are they critiquing my form? Do they find me laughable or skilled? Are they pleased that I value an aspect of their culture, or do they feel I have stolen something that is theirs?
If I’m walking down the street and pass someone who might be Chinese, I feel a certain connection, and I’m more likely to nod or smile than if they look Anglo, like me. However, I may know that I do the Chinese arts of taiji and qigong but they don’t, so they probably just think I’m weird: “Who is this over-friendly woman, anyway?”
Shortly before I started writing this book, I found myself with an opportunity to visit China and actually step into Chinese culture, if only for a couple of weeks. I decided I needed to learn Chinese.
Some people said, “Don’t bother. These days, lots of Chinese people speak more English than the little bit of Chinese you’ll be able to learn.” A Chinese friend said I should just learn to say “hello,” “thank you” and “leave me alone.” But a non-Chinese friend who recently traveled throughout China told me she’d had difficulties because she couldn’t speak the language, and I did not want to have the difficulties she described.
Besides, it seemed like the least I could do. I would be going to a country to whose culture I owe quite a lot. I ought to at least try to speak a bit of that country’s language.
And so I bought a set of Pimsleur-method conversational Mandarin Chinese CDs.
My plan was simple: I would learn Chinese in my car. Some people sing along with the radio; I would talk along with my CD player.
This seems to be working, although I just signed up for a class at a local college to have a go at learning Chinese from a different angle.
Friends have asked whether learning Chinese in my car is safe. Perhaps not, although I always turn off the CD player when traffic gets intense, and I wouldn’t be able to push a knob and turn off Miss Wang and Mr. Li if they were actually in my car. Plus, how is it different from listening to books on tape or a good interview on NPR?
Chinese is not like the other languages I have tried learning in ways both challenging and nice.
I was relieved to learn that the Chinese do not assign gender to hapless inanimate objects like pencils and desks. Nor do they require that verbs be conjugated or that adjectives be adjusted for the sex of the noun they modify and the role that noun is playing in the sentence. Hallelujah!
However, there is that issue of rising and falling tones: For example, if the pitch of your voice doesn’t fall ever so slightly when you say the word for “am/are” and rise ever so slightly when you say the word for “10,” the two words will sound exactly the same.
Then, too, some Chinese language sounds just don’t have precise English equivalents. I’ve got the volume of my CD player cranked way up, and even at that, I find myself straining over the steering wheel, trying to figure out exactly what Mr. Li and Miss Wang are saying. I’ll think I’ve got it and then two days later I’ll listen to the same CD again and decide I heard them wrong.
At times I’ve wondered how bad my pronunciation is, and I’ve speculated about how bad it could be, and in what ways, before no Chinese person would be able to understand me. I’ve wished I could turn Chinese-fractured English inside-out to get a better understanding of Barbara-fractured Chinese. Of course, none of this helps.
The introduction on the first of the Pimsleur CDs suggests that one might want to replay a lesson a time or two before moving on to the next one. Hah! I must have replayed some of those lessons a dozen times. The first time the words are incomprehensible, unrepeatable sounds that roll off the surface of my brain as if it were greased. I despair of ever figuring out what I am hearing, let alone remembering it. So I play the lesson over and over again, until the words manage to grab a toehold and sink in.
I tell myself that my glacial learning speed is OK—that it’s not a reflection on my intelligence, just on my age. I’ve heard that the ideal time, really the only good time to learn a language, is before the age of 5. (Or maybe it’s 7—at 70, I’m not quibbling over two years.) So, yes, it’s going to be harder for me than for someone younger to learn Chinese. But in six months I should be able to learn how to say “hello” and “goodbye,” and “please” and “thank you,” and “where can I go for beer?” (Beer is “pee-geeoh,” with the “pee” high and the “geeoh” sinking in pitch. It is one of my favorite Chinese words. I only hope that I like Chinese beer.)
Sometimes I find, when I’m not even in my car, that Chinese words and phrases from the CDs drift unbidden across my mind. “It’s three o’clock.” “I don’t know.” “Do you speak English?” I like it when that happens.
I wasn’t certain that I’d actually go to China until quite recently. I’d worry about spending money I should be saving for when I’m really, really old and living is very expensive. I’d get cold feet thinking about finding my way around a country whose language I barely knew. When I was in Washington, D.C., trying to figure out how to put my credit card into a vending machine to buy a Metrorail ticket, I thought, “What if I were trying to do this in Chinese instead of English?”
If I decided not to go to China, would I regret all the time and effort I’d spent learning Chinese in my car? I concluded, rather to my surprise, that I wouldn’t.
I’ve found the process of discovering a very different language to be more interesting than I’d expected. I like learning the structure and sounds of Chinese. And I enjoy my fantasy conversations with Chinese people who somehow only use the words I happen to know.
Besides, it just feels right that I learn at least a little Chinese. It is another connection to a culture with which I already have some strong bonds. Perhaps, it is even a way to say thank you.