Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I speak Chinese, and that's not amazing

Dear fellow non-Asian Americans,

No, it’s not amazing.  It’s one day after another of awkward introductions and overly-enthusiastic requests that acquaintances please help me practice.  It’s tabbing over to Google Translate again and again and again in order to decode characters and navigate a website, then discovering “This video can only be streamed in Mainland China.”  It’s that uncertainty of how to switch from English to Mandarin in the middle of a conversation.  It’s hours of listening to Jay Chou, not sure if I understand the words or I’ve just gotten used to what the music sounds like.  It’s flashcards and textbooks and pages and pages I’ve completely covered with Chinese characters.  It’s a list of grammar questions I keep in my head, ready to ask when I meet one of my Chinese friends.  It’s the excitement of being able to email someone in Chinese, then massive confusion when I can’t figure out what they meant in their reply.  It’s a fight and a hobby and a lifestyle, and it’s irreversibly changing who I am and it’s wonderful.

Because when you say “that’s amazing,” I hear “I believe you, but I’m astounded and baffled- I can’t comprehend how a person like you can speak Chinese.”  Because, you know, people who can speak more than one language… wow, they are on another plane of existence- a normal person can’t do that.  Americans don’t learn languages.  The rest of the world is expected to speak English.

And everyone knows Chinese is like, the hardest language to learn!

No, I think at my university, Chinese is the easiest language to learn.  Because every day I can walk down the hall near my lab and hear people speaking Chinese.

And how can anyone ever remember all those characters!

It’s really not that hard.  It’s not like every English word is a different Chinese character- you actually need way fewer than that.  And the different parts mean things- there is logic behind it, though it’s not rigid rules or anything.  This is something you can learn, not something you marvel at because there’s obviously no chance you’ll ever be able to understand it.  (Everyone thinks Chinese characters are pretty, “我是学生”, so pretty, right?  Until I tell them, “yeah this says ‘I am a student’” and then hopefully it loses that mystical feel and looks appropriately boring.)

But at the beginning, I believed that.  I believed the characters were too hard for white people.  So thankful that at Chinese class we were expected to write things- like that was an obvious part of learning a vocabulary word.

And the sounds!  In English we don’t have those sounds!  And everyone knows that if, as a baby, you didn’t hear anyone speaking Mandarin then there’s no chance that your brain will ever be able to distinguish certain sounds, for the rest of your life.

Okay, I can disprove this.  I did not know ANY Chinese before.  I learned “ni hao” in April 2010, when I was 20 years old.  Yes, at the beginning I genuinely could not tell the difference between the pronunciation of “shang” and “xiang” but GUESS WHAT, after hearing it a bunch of times, I figured it out.

I’m writing this because I take offense to this American attitude that “Americans don’t learn languages” and Chinese is so bizarre and incomprehensible that it’s clearly impossible to learn.  From now on, I’m challenging it.  Every time I hear someone say “I could never do that,” I’m going to challenge it.  “Actually, I believe you could do that.  I believe the average American can learn Chinese or whatever language they want.  It’s just that you have to work at it a lot, put in a lot of time, but you totally could if you wanted.”

(This is just what I have to say to people from my own culture.  I also have a lot of feelings about the Chinese response, “好厉害” but I don’t understand what that means enough to write about it publicly.)

So no, I’m not amazing.  When I mention I’m going to China, and that yes, I can speak Chinese, don’t tell me I’m amazing.  Ask me how it’s different from English.  Ask me to tell you about how to write some character and what the different radicals within the character mean.  Ask me how I learned it- what is the most effective method?  Ask me what it’s done to my brain, ask me how it feels to be able to watch tv in Chinese and understand it.  Ask me if I think in English or Chinese.  Ask me to tell you some interesting fact about the grammar.  Ask me which parts were easy and which parts were hard.  Ask me if studying French in high school has any relation/similarities to studying Chinese.  Ask me about the 4 tones and if that was hard to learn.  Ask me about how now I totally understand the common grammar/ word choice mistakes Chinese people make when speaking English.  (If you really want to give a compliment, tell me “oh, you must have worked really hard” or “wow, it’s because you were really really motivated and had a passion to learn the language.”)

Because every day I speak Chinese and I love it, and I am discovering things about how my mind works and it’s so interesting.  I just don’t know if you want to hear how I ACTUALLY feel about it, or if you’re content to classify me as having some unknowable superhuman ability that you can’t relate to.

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