Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Don't be afraid, you are in China!"

A view of the Great Wall of China
When our laoshi delivered to the class the odd statement "Don't be afraid: you are in China!", the first thing that crossed my mind was to imagine this sentence out of its context.

Admittedly, out of nowhere, it does make China look like some kind of shelter, and said by a Chinese person, you will inevitably think "Wow, Chinese people have a really great concept of their country!"

I am slowly appreciating the fact that Chinese people truly love their country, and every time a foreigner mentions Zhong Guo (China), the face of the local shines with a smirk, let alone when foreigners confess their own love for the Red Dragon.

However, the sudden burst of vigor didn't belong to such a patriotic context, but was simply a way to reassure the class that by living in China we naturally have all tools we need to learn the language properly and quickly.

Our teacher insists, and rightly so, that we need to go out and speak to as many people as possible.

After having overcome the initial shock of moving to such a different culture, I'm starting to getting to grips with Chinese mentality and outlandish lifestyle, so I took my teacher's advice and started talking to people in shops, streets or wherever I had the occasion.

The result so far hasn't been very remarkable as most people don't understand what I'm saying. Did I think learning Chinese was like learning any other language? Not quite.

Last week the government was conducting a population census in Shanghai and when the officer came to my place in order to "count me", I took it as a great occasion to sport the sentences I had just learnt and introduce myself. Wrong guess, little did I know that it was going to be source of greater frustration.

The man only understood I was from Italy, he didn't understand I was here to "study", and when I showed him the character and told him I was studying Chinese, he looked at me puzzled: "Are you studying Korean?!"

I get it: I need to look after my pronunciation.

The trick is to understand the difference between tones, they are four, and the same word can have four (or more) different meanings, according to the tone. Admittedly, to me the tones sound all pretty much the same, but our teacher promised us that they are completely different. It must be, otherwise people would understand at least some of the words I say.

I'm not even starting mentioning how hard learning the characters is, and now we are talking about a "simplified" Chinese, courtesy of Mao who thought the traditional characters were too difficult and imposed to make them "easier".

We learn about ten characters per class, and at the beginning (the very beginning, let's say the first ten characters), I was thrilled: "It's not that difficult after all!" I kept repeating to myself. After thirty characters (I know, just three classes) I had already changed my mind.

Not only the difference between tones is almost undetectable to foreign ears, but many characters are hopelessly similar, with only a couple of strokes marking the distinction between them.

While I'm increasingly less afraid of Shanghai life, I'm starting getting worried about communicating with locals. But I guess, like everything, it's only a matter of time.


Fida said...

Gosh, I admire you. I'd probably insult everyone in the process. I tried "my mouth" on Thai - I got nothing but puzzled faces. I will always do my my best to learn at least a few words and phrases. To help me out with this I carry translations with me so I can show them what I mean ;)

Ayngelina said...

I imagine China must evoke the most intense culture shock, I cannot imagine a society more different.

Good luck learning the language, looks like I got off easy needing to learn Spanish

AngelaCorrias said...

Fida, it's challenging indeed. I don't know Thai, but being an Asian language it's probably as challenging as Mandarin. The pronunciation changes completely from ours, they have no similar words that we can rely on, it's a massive memory exercise! I carry a little notebook with phrases and especially the most important places (such as my house!) so I can show them to taxi drivers, because needless to say, they don't understand me even if I tell them my own street!

Ayngelina, Spanish, at least for me that I'm Italian, is certainly much easier than Chinese. First of all the same characters and then the pronunciation is not difficult. Moreover, since I'm from Sardinia, I naturally understand it as our native language is more similar to Spanish than Italian, due to past colonisations. It's still a challenge though, as it has a complex grammar. And I believe for Chinese people must be as difficult as Mandarin is for me!
Good luck to you learning Spanish, it's such a sensual language :)

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Danny said...

China is very natural country and oldest continuous existing civilization in the old yet today. It has momy more thing for the travelers and tourists like The great wall of china and forbidden city.
This country is visiting worth.

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China is a wonderful and a great primitive and an ancient as well as the historical wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China was built over 2000 years ago. This beautiful and scenic ascending wall is a masterpiece of true love, affection, emotions and a historical landscape of traditional architecture and an archaeological wonder of the world.

This wall was laid into foundation by famous Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and made all the efforts and endeavors which tend to create this tremendous and marvelous and gigantic Chinese fortification which is lasting forever.

Kyle Greggory said...

Hey Angela,

You're studying in China right now? That's awesome. I'm studying in Japan :P. The two don't seem to be the best of friends of the moment, but perhaps we can be lol.

Anyway, I know you already know it'll get easier, but I'll say it again just to reinforce it: it'll get easier :P. I've studied Thai (tonal), and Japanese (with the characters, haha). I feel like you have to study the hardest of each with Chinese! Everybody goes through these stages, though, especially when learning Eastern languages from a Western language base, I think.

This is what I keep telling myself, at least, whenever people don't understand my Japanese x.x hahaha.

Good luck! I hope you're having fun!


AngelaCorrias said...

Hi Kyle, thanks for your comment and welcome to my blog!

Yes, I'm studying Mandarin in Shanghai, have started less than two months ago, and I'm slowly collecting small defining moments! It is hard indeed, but as my teacher says, I have to take advantage of the fact that everything I learn I can immediately put it into practice in real life!

So you're studying Japanese in Japan? There are many students from Japan in my university and they learn very quickly, I think Japanese characters are about the same than Chinese, just it's a different language. I guess it's like an Italian studying Spanish!

Interesting site you have about life in Japan. Good luck with Japanese and keep enjoying East Asia!

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