Friday, October 23, 2009


Chinese lessons have begun. For want of a classroom, my tutor and I meet in the security guard vestibule by the main gate of China West Normal University. When the pseudo-police come in for smokes and tea, they gather round the desk to watch me prattle along in rudimentary Mandarin. My efforts seem to perplex them: this full-grown man can bullshit 'til the maos come home but he can't even pronounce the word "mama." In America, we are used to having our language butchered by foreigners and Americans alike. Here, the illiterate are so few and far between that I imagine the general population lumps me in with the hopelessly poor and mentally retarded.

And yet the people I meet are delighted that I have bothered to learn their language - the most widely spoken in the world - at all. Only the surliest of cabbies will take my money without telling me how bang my Chinese is. Whether it really is all that bang is an open question. I possess a knack for language, but for the moment I have the vocabulary of a Chinese fruit fly. And the Chinese will compliment just about any foreigner on his language skills, whether they exist or not. But even in Chongqing, the Starbucks baristas are stunned by a westerner who can order a small black coffee without choking on his tongue.

I have the unfortunate reputation of being a polyglot. But I am not. If anything, I am a schizoglot. I am functionally illiterate in five foreign languages and a bluthering idiot in my native tongue. I know the word for "whore" in all five of those languages, but I'm not sure I could find a bathroom if my life depended on it. I do not believe I am fluent in anything.

My attempts at learning language have been mostly frustrating and wholly unsuccessful. It is hard to find anyone, for one, who doesn't speak better English than your piddling amount of whatever language it is you hope to learn. So you wind up speaking English with your language tutors. Plus, at least for me, the gumption to learn a language evaporates once I am surrounded by it. In Germany, I studied Polish. In Poland, I studied German. In Korea, I studied everything but Korean.

Wendy is my Mandarin tutor. She is a graduate student majoring in Teaching Mandarin as a Foreign Language - TMFL? She has as much gumption to teach me as I have to learn. When we first met, I cautiously posed six hours a week, fearing that I'd jumped the gun, that it was too much for her hectic schedule. "Why not eight?" she asked. "Or more? Any time you're bored, call me and we'll have class."

Well, then. After my first month in Nanchong, I feared that I would leave China with less Chinese than I had when I came, that I would curl up in a ball on my pleather sofa watching 2001: A Space Odyssey until every muscle and brain cell in my body atrophied and expired. But now it seems I will leave this place fluent in Mandarin, all because I bothered to answer a phone call from an unknown number on a rainy Thursday evening as I was walking back to my apartment with a bowl of ramen.

I have never gotten to the point with a language where I felt the flaps go up and the whole mother start to lift off into the fluent air. Perhaps I came close with Spanish, at 3 AM on some wild night a few days before I left Mexico. It is hard to tell with Chinese. Mandarin is an abyss of a language, a tongue so different from our own that you could lose a lifetime in studying it. But there are moments - when I've slept well and I've slurped down just the right amount of coffee - when I can feel the vertical lift pulling me skyward.

There are good days and better days. On the better days, I wake up and can barely lift my head because it is so heavy with fresh neural connections. Forgive me for referencing There Will Be Blood two posts in a row, but it's a bit like the scene where H.W. is learning sign language: I bitch to my tutor about what's chapping my ass. She listens and, every so often, corrects me.

On the good days, I feel like I'm making no progress at all and I can see myself frozen lizardlike on the side of a plateau covered in Chinese hieroglyphs that stretches up into the heavens and beyond.

There is the added difficulty that the people around me are not speaking Mandarin, but Sichuanese. As far as dialects go, Mandarin and Sichuanese are fairly similar. But in essence, I am learning Queen's English in a place that speaks Creole. The more Mandarin I learn, the less I understand the cab driver. I would like to master both tongues, but I am uncertain as to whether I should learn to speak like an anchorman before I go out and get myself dirty, or whether I should go the Pygmalion route and learn to be a Cockney first.

Like China itself, Chinese grew overcrowded with words, so they started stacking them vertically into tones. Ma, depending on your intonation, can mean horse, mom, morphine, numb, grasshopper, ant, dragonfly, toad, or leprosy. Liang kuai can mean two bucks, or nice and cool. And so on. This is the main distinction between Mandarin and Sichuanese: two of the four tones are reversed and the other two are completely different. On top of that, the Sichuanese pronounce things strangely. The numbers four and ten, as well as the verbs to be, to eat, and to die sound exactly the same to the untrained ear. So the sentence "It's not fourteen, it's forty-four," easily parsable in Mandarin, sounds something like "Bu suh suh suh, suh suh suh suh."

But for now, I focus on the basics. Today I broke down giggling after I asked Wendy the words for number one and number two. On Chinese toilets, I have seen them represented by the symbol for small and the symbol for big.

"So you want to know pee and poop?" she asked. I bit my tongue and nodded. Then I lost it again. Then I recovered.
"Sorry," I told her. "I am a child."
"We say xiao hao for take a pee and da hao for take a poop."
"Little number and big number. We say the same thing in English, sort of," I said. "Thank you. I'll never forget them."

And I won't. To your tutor's chagrin, though you may forget the words for Christmas and autumn and environment, you will never forget pee and poop and an endless litany of other crudities that you might recite on your deathbed, should you so happen to expire in China.

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