Tag Archives: learning Chinese

Six months on…

1 May

and I’m still jobless (yekhk) but when I think about our state of mind six months ago, things are actually positively interesting. We’ve been around a lot of places in Shanghai and, although we still need to discover many more, we generally know what people talk about when they mention different spots around town or street names. Linguistically, not wanting to brag out too much, but my Mandarin is quite satisfactory. I manage fairly well on the street, in most shops or taxi situations and, most importantly, to negotiate prices. Script-wise, I may know less than 150 characters (I have to double that by July 22nd for my second exam), but six months ago, had anyone told me that within this short period of time I’d be able to have basic text message conversations in Chinese, I would’ve never thought it possible.

It’s interesting to look back. Five days after arriving to Shanghai in November, we were invited by one of J’s friends, a Lebanese who has been here seven years now. We had just moved into our flat, done a thousand things on that day and were really exhausted. That evening, we met what is probably the majority of the Lebanese community in Shanghai. Leaving the party, we felt a bit depressed seeing how comfortable these people were in this city, how well they spoke Chinese and all the things they knew and we didn’t. And, mostly, we thought they were kind of crazy anyway coming to China and settling here, some at a really young age… For about two weeks after getting here, when I walked on the street and spotted other foreigners, my eyes widened up as if I was looking for some sort of solidarity on their behalf just for being here too. Most of the time, they passed by without looking at me.

Today, after having had family and friends coming over and meeting two days ago with other Lebanese people visiting Shanghai, I feel I’m part of a sect. I can spot foreigners who have just arrived to China, their eyes open wide when they see me. I smile compassionately. With other lǎowàis*, we have the same codes, exchange tips on where to find this or that type of food we miss, are always amazed at the Avocado Lady’s stock, make sense of the lùs**, who employs an āyi***, who’s the best tailor at the fabric market, what VPN**** is better to access Facebook or You Tube or all normally censored websites and how many devices you can connect it to… and even mimic taxi drivers!

To top it all, we finally organised our overdue housewarming party yesterday. It also happens to be my birthday today and it’s heart-warming to be surrounded by about 15 people we didn’t know at all six months ago, some of whom I hope will stay lifelong friends.

* lǎowàis: respectful word for foreigner

** lù: road in Mandarin

*** āyi: aunt, auntie, but also meaning cleaning lady

**** VPN: virtual private network, usually accessible at a monthly or yearly fee. It’s basically as if you’re using the Internet from the US or another network from non-censored country. We use VPNExpress.

Conversations with my Chinese teacher

14 Mar

I get along very well with H., my Chinese teacher. Apart from teaching me Mandarin, we actually talk about lots of other things and ask each other questions about our respective countries and cultures. She’s been teaching foreigners for a long time and therefore is very exposed to Europeans and Americans. Less so to people from the Middle East, so she sometimes asks me what’s going on Syria these days. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the Chinese media convey very matter-of-factly information, such as: “there are some skirmishes between a faction of the population and the government.” We then had a whole conversation about the Arab spring and she didn’t know what the word “dictatorship” meant.

Other times, she gets really perplexed about some specific issues pertaining to western culture and asks me about them. I think she perceives me as somehow mid-way between a Westerner and non-Westerner, having lived in Europe for a long time and being familiar with it, whilst not being a European myself.

The other day, she told me in a very serious way: “Lì Yà, I need to ask you something. Can you tell me what’s the difference between cheese, butter and mayonnaise?” So I explained to her that mayonnaise, even though it is white, is not a dairy product, how you could derive different products out of milk through either fermentation or concentrating fat. Likewise, the sequence of a “western” meal was very alien to her. She didn’t fancy butter and bread (Chinese eat neither). Aside from the fact that she thinks there are too many dishes, what she finds the least logical is the alternation of hot and cold dishes. “But how can I eat ice cream after eating a warm dish?” From what I’ve understood so far about the Chinese conception of the body and philosophy of eating is that you have to maintain the balance of your guts (and by extension of your whole body). So you shouldn’t brutalise it by eating really warm food and then iced food or the other way around.

She also doesn’t mind me asking questions about China. I also enquired about the sequence of Chinese meals (tea, cold (room temperature) appetizers, hot appetizers, main course, rice to make sure you’re full if you haven’t eaten enough of the rest, and I think desert is more of a western influence), about Chinese manners and other things derived from our lessons. I refrain from asking anything directly relating to politics, periods of Chinese history or other sensitive issues. I let her do the talking and every now and then she expresses quite strong opinions about some policy and other governance issues, but without ever elaborating too much. However I do get to tease her sometimes and she’s always taken it well, even on Mao, who apparently comes from her hometown in the province of Hunan. She was once explaining to me how the hometowns of various presidents became really wealthier or experienced economic booms due to the guānxi (i.e. almighty personal relationships or networks – good luck doing business in China without the guānxi) with the government of the time. So I told her, with unambiguous extra sarcastic enthusiasm: “Yeah well this guy may come from this town and this other one from that town, but surely no one beats Mao Zedong!” And it made her laugh!

Zhōng wén*

30 Nov

The frustrating thing about learning to write Chinese characters is that you have no sense of any alphabet, at least not in the way that H. has asked me to do it. Sure, I can recognise a few strokes but they don’t mean anything at all to me, either phonetically or in terms of associating the stroke to any general or specific semantic concept… If I understood correctly, strokes are not letters and if they are, it’s only for some words which don’t have a graphic concept. Also, you don’t know how flexible the strokes are, meaning when does your writing becomes wrong? Is it ok if this rectangle becomes more squarish or not?

It’s not that I’m not enjoying writing ten times each of the 29 words she asked me to write. It is actually quite relaxing to replicate each character and overall I find something quite aesthetic in the two pages I’ve just filled. However, I do doubt my ability to recognise, let alone write again, most of these words in the future and therefore my capacity to read or write (not replicate) to ever develop…

* i.e. written Chinese. There are different words for written Chinese (Zhōng wén), spoken Chinese (Hàn yǔ) and Mandarin (Putòng huǎ i.e. common dialect).

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