The Chinese have a saying: “Ears deaf to the outside world, they do nothing but pore over the sages’ texts” (两耳不闻窗外事，一心只读圣贤书。or Liǎng ěr bù wén chuāngwài shì, yī zhǐ dú shèng xián shū.)
In other words, get out there and use what you’ve learned from your books!
That’s been my mantra for the past three weeks in Beijing.
I bought a guitar during my second week here. It’s a decent practice guitar and only cost me US$45. The store I bought it from was located in a cluster of music stores along a major road in Beijing. From what I could tell, business wasn’t booming. When I entered the store, the owner, who couldn’t have been more than 30 years old, was chatting with three of his friends. As soon as I told him I wanted to buy a guitar, all four leapt up to assist me.
The lesson in our textbook for that day had focused on haggling in Chinese. However, in-class practice with my teachers did little to prepare me for what came next.
I asked the owner if he could lower the price a little bit. The torrent of language that followed made me feel as though I’d ruptured a major pipe beneath a sink; I definitely didn’t have enough plumbing experience to fix the problem.
This accelerating stream of words, spoken with increasing volume and accompanied by frenzied gestures to highlight the guitar’s various features was overwhelming. The owner’s thick Beijing accent also meant that many of these words had pirate-style “arr’s” attached to the end.
Although our instructors have taught us to use the “arr” sound, that doesn’t make it any easier to understand its use in conversation. I flashed my best foreigner smile and said the Chinese equivalent of “never mind.”
When I finally chose a guitar, the shopkeeper decided to give me a demonstration. His English may have been lacking, but he knows his Eric Clapton. He played the first half of “Layla” without skipping a beat. And although every “Layla” sounded like the Chinese word “lei le” (to become tired), his voice did was reminiscent of Clapton’s.
After the impromptu concert, I headed out with my new guitar. A few stores down, a greeter yelled to me in English with a heavy Chinese accent, “Ah, American!” and gestured for me to come in. I responded that I wasn’t American and laughed at her shocked expression when she realized that I could speak Chinese.
Experiences like this remind me how few Westerners can speak Chinese. I also realize why: The language is very difficult. I can sympathize with native Mandarin speakers trying to learn English.
While walking to dinner with two of my classmates later that evening, we spotted a street vendor selling her handmade jewelry. She and a friend were both making earrings as we approached. Although the stand’s owner only spoke Chinese, her friend, who told us she had lived in San Diego for 10 years, proudly filled in the gaps in English when our Chinese failed.
She recounted a time she went to a restaurant in California and tried to order french fries by saying “potato.” After a great deal of confusion, the restaurant worker finally asked if she meant french fries.
We related to her story completely. I know how to say “beef” in Chinese, but not how to say “bountiful harvest sautéed mustard leaf with shredded beef.” So when I’m in a restaurant, all I can do is point to a dish that says “beef” and pray. It’s either that or spend five or more minutes using my dictionary for each menu item.
Even after 10 years in San Diego, the jewelry maker still spoke English haltingly. It’s not intuitive for English speakers to learn a tonal language like Mandarin–and it’s certainly not intuitive for Mandarin speakers to learn a non-tonal language like English. That’s why Westerners learning Chinese often have terrible pronunciation (greatly distorting their meaning), while Chinese people learning English often have an exaggerated musical quality to their English.
It’s very possible that I bought my mom some jewelry from them. Handmade jewelry at a fraction of the cost in the states? It was hard to pass up.
That night, my roommate and I headed to WuDaoKou, which is a very popular hangout spot for Beijing college students. We went to a second-story bar, and each ordered a beer. Two Chinese guys were playing a dice game at the table across from us.
There were also eight or so very beautiful French women at a table to our left. I learned some French in elementary school, but had forgotten almost everything. At that moment, I cursed myself for choosing Chinese over French.
I decided to make the best of the situation and get some conversation practice. I asked the two Chinese guys playing dice if they’d teach me the game.
My classes have taught me how to discuss health care privatization, gender equality and Chinese-US relations–high-level stuff, but not very helpful when you’re trying to learn a simple dice game. Nevertheless, an hour later, we were laughing and carrying on as though we’d been longtime friends.
Although many Beijingers I’ve met have been a bit standoffish at first, they warm up quickly and move beyond polite small talk before you know it. My new friends treated us to a few beers and chatted with us for close to three hours. One had grown up in Beijing; the other came from Southern China. They were both upperclassmen at Beijing Jiaotong University, one of China’s oldest universities.
At one point, they asked us if we were Americans. When we responded that we were, they asked if we were rich. I told them that since I haven’t yet started using my dad’s publication for my investment decisions, my portfolio isn’t doing too well. (That’s my one plug for my dad’s newsletters, I promise.)
They said that most American they encounter in China are wealthy, which made me wonder how many times I’ve been swindled when shopping in China. I really need to hone my bargain skills.
This weekend, three classmates and I are going to the mountainous coastal city of QingDao, home of the popular beer TsingTao. Beer tasting and mountain climbing await!
下个星期见！(See you next week!)