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My relationship with Mandarin Chinese is similar to a twisted love affair that is often the subject of books and films, and if like me, you’ve also embarked on this sometimes masochistic journey, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the language because it’s so complex, rich in history and best of all, when I’m back home and shopping around Chinatown my friends have complete admiration that I can pull out a few words of “pu tong hua” when ordering at a restaurant. I’m currently living in Hangzhou, have just married a Chinese girl and we’ve decided to open a language school together. So, for better or worse it seems like I’m past the point of no return with this language of strokes and tones.

Starting out

Mandarin TeacherLike many foreigners living in China, I started learning Mandarin more out of necessity than anything else.  It was 2010 and I had moved to Taiwan to take on a job teaching English to kids.  8 months had gone by with me learning about 5 words (and not pronouncing any of them properly).  A fellow teacher, who had incredible Mandarin was watching me order dinner by flapping my arms like a chicken and started laughing uncontrollably.  He made the comment that they call it “survival Mandarin” because it was the basic amount needed to survive literally.  Since it seemed that an expanded vocabulary was the only way I was going to eat that night, his words took on a deeper significance!

The next day I signed up for Mandarin classes with my friend, the two of us were the only two students in the class, and I felt so sorry for our poor Mandarin teacher who had to listen to us laugh each time we made a sentence with “给” (gei = to give).  This word is in 3rd tone, which means you really have to emphasize the vowel “ay” sound to pronounce it correctly. To practice, after class we’d make jokes to each other: “Tim, you are so gaaaaaay”.

Present day

Chinese FriendsThat was 3 years ago and today my Mandarin is “还好”(hai hao = ok, not great) at best.  What I’ve found interesting is that there are certain areas of the language that I’m really good at.  I know all the relevant vocabulary, I can speak with confidence and I can even muster adequate tones without getting the “WTF are you saying?” look from the Chinese listener.

Other areas of the language are still a complete mystery to me, not to mention having to decipher all the local dialects and vocabulary.   They say that you’ll learn the areas of the language that either you like the most or need to use the most.  Something about people’s brains needing to know that this information is important to remember it.   So after 3 years I can confidently say that I have developed a real good working knowledge in the following areas:

1)       Eating

2)       Talking to girls

3)       Telling a taxi where to go

4)       Swearing

I’m not sure what that says about me as a person and my values?

On the flipside, areas that I still have no idea about:

1)       Anything to do with the government or paperwork

2)       Anything to do with the government

3)       Government paperwork

Perhaps I’m using some selective ignorance here.  Once in Taiwan I was riding home on my “摩托车 (mo tuo che = motorike) and was stopped by a police officer, I was freaking out in because I had left my license at home.   The officer spoke in perfect English and asked “May I see your driver’s license please?”  Not sure what to do, I figured I’d give them that same “WTF?” look they always give me when I speak Mandarin.

Saying nothing, I picked a spot on his forehead and stared at it like it was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.  He repeated himself and I countered by intensifying my stare and keeping my silence.  Then a laughter broke out, his fellow officer was bantering at him in Chinese saying “你不会说英文” (ni bu hui shuo ying wen – you can’t speak English).  Totally embarrassed, the officer motioned at me to go ahead and I was able to drive home.

Road to improvement

West Lake 2All kidding aside, in my 3 years here, I have realized that learning Mandarin is probably the single biggest thing foreigners can do to adjust to life in China.  All the doors seem to open up once you can speak even a little.  Making friends is easier, finding places and just understanding all those weird Chinese culturalisms.  This is part of the reason our school also wants to offer Chinese classes for foreigners as well as English for Chinese people.  Having gone through those experiences with the language and wanting to help other foreigners learn as well I think is a great way to give back.  We’re making sure that our Mandarin classes are suited to people with different levels and abilities, that the teachers and well qualified and also have a good command of English to explain concepts when needed, and most importantly, just being patient, as patient as possible.

Our office is in Bingjiang (并将) which is in Hangzhou (south of the river).  If you’re in the area and would like to join us for our Mandarin classes, we’d be happy to have you.  If you don’t live in Hangzhou, we do also offer online classes either one-on-one or in groups.

For more information feel free to visit our website or contact me directly, and if you find me in your class, please don’t laugh at my tones, I’m doing my best.

Happy studying and 加油!!

Paul Shantz has lived and taught in South Korea, Taiwan and most recently China. He is now CEO and director of Shantz Language Services, which provides face to face and online Mandarin Chinese classes.

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