Day 136: A Brave New (Chinese) World

05 Jan

Xia wu hao (good afternoon)!

I suppose this is a few days late, considering we’re now on the fifth day of 2014, but I have now confidently dedicated myself to a terrifying New Year’s resolution – to be brave. I was content with the usual resolutions to be healthier, to become a better person somehow, to try to be less of a cynic, etc., until I had an experience today that made me reevaluate.

After four months of living in China, I am quite proud of my language progress. I arrived in China with the ability to say “nihao” (hello), “zaijian” (goodbye), simple numbers, and a few choice words such as “jidan (egg)”, “pingguo” (apple, and definitely one of my favorite sounding words), and “shui” (water), among a few others. Now, I think I have a pretty good grasp on what could be considered survival Chinese along with some phrases I will most likely never have to use in any Chinese language situation outside of an oral English classroom setting – such as “gan en jie” (Thanksgiving Day) and “huoji” (turkey).

But today when we went out for lunch I had an embarrassing situation that made me question my progress. We went to the He Da alley to get some bread and a different variety of jampinguozi and stopped by the couple who called us their favorite laowai (foreigners). We’ve seen them at least weekly for the past couple of months and when we walk up to their stand the man always smiles really big and waves while the lady laughs and says “nimen hui lai” (you’ve come back)! We normally order our six kuai worth of bread they make, and as she chops it up eyeing the weight precisely every time, I stick the money in the jar, and after handing us the bags, we all wave and smile and the lady says “zaijian! Zaijian!” It’s a highlight of my day every time we visit them. Today, I was feeling extra confident, did the ordering for the both of us (even got fancy and mixed it up by getting three kuai of one kind of bread and three kuai of another) while Duncan went to a nearby stand to buy some water. And lo and behold, right as I’m feeling my most confident and considering telling them the new phrase I learned “shang xing qi women qu xi’an” (last week we went to Xi’an), the man leans over to me and just starts talking and I am left hopelessly staring back, not understanding a word of what he is saying, while Duncan is no where to be seen to rescue me with his higher level of understanding. The man, so kindly, repeated himself a couple more times, slower each time, but all I could do was smile helplessly and mutter “bu zhi dao, dui bu qi” (I don’t know, I’m sorry). The man gave up, the lady gave me the bags, and I wandered off to find Duncan with my tail between my legs feeling remarkably embarrassed and upset that I wasn’t able to communicate with some of my favorite people. (From the sounds my brain did recognize and were able to relate to Duncan later, the guy was either talking about seeing underwater with books or telling me that Duncan is handsome.)

After I recovered a bit, I decided this was a situation I should come away from motivated rather than upset. I’ve done quite well, I think, adjusting to life in a foreign country, especially one of which I’ve had very little interest in or knowledge of up until recently, and the past four months have been filled with many adjustments from getting used to teaching for the first time to learning how to live in a country often much different from the world I’ve grown up in. Getting better at Mandarin Chinese has just been one of those many adjustments and, when other aspects seem more immediately pressing, has frequently been pushed to the back burner for a temporary simmer. But, now that I am feeling much more comfortable with life, the routine, and the world I find myself in here on Planet China, and considering six months of 2014 will spent here, it’s time to dedicate a lot more time and energy to conversational Mandarin. By the end of June, I hope that I cannot only order my food but I can go up to the vendors and say, “hey, remember that time you tried to talk to me and I utterly failed at comprehension? I’m so sorry about that. Let’s try again!”

So my New Year’s resolution is to be brave, and to be brave enough to put myself out there, risk embarrassment and misunderstanding, and to be brave enough to learn from those mistakes. My resolution to be braver includes more than my greater grasp of Mandarin Chinese, but that seems as good and practical a place to start as any.

I hope all of your resolutions are working out splendidly so far.

Thank you for reading,


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Posted by on January 5, 2014 in Baoding


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