Two Months of Chinese Language - Stories of Its Usefulness

Saturday, January 28, 2012

In my last post, I explained my recent shift in priorities, which resulted in one of my hobbies, Chinese language learning, moving to number one position. I spent ~2 months studying Chinese in preparation for my vacation to Taiwan by myself, to test myself by seeing how much of a language one can learn in two months.

How did I score on my self-test? Not as good as I hoped, but still successful. While I was only able to understand a few words of each sentence, I wasn't able to grasp much meaning. I *was* successful in communicating on a few occasions. I was city-walking, trying to find the hiking path to the top of a large hill. I stopped a guy walking on the street with a "dui bu qi" (excuse me) and explained that "wo xiang qu zhe li" (I want to go here) and pointed to my map. Success! He spoke some fast Chinese that I didn't understand, but he also used hand motions! Straight ahead and left! Alright! I found the mountain, but got couldn't find the hiking trail to go up.

I saw another bored-looking guy, so I asked him "wo xiang qu shang" (I want to go up). I hoped my language didn't sound like a caveman with such simple sentences. I guess my tones were right, because he didn't look offended as if I had insulted his mother. He also used hand motions! Success!

I spent some time in Japan, and made a good friend who is from central Taiwan. I took the opportunity to meet up with her again, and I spent a few days with her family. Her family was very welcoming toward me. They had a car! This was so nice to see after city-walking in Taipei for 5 days. They took me to a few of their favorite restaurants. Real chinese food is not street food? Trip-changing experience! Home-made food is what? Noodles, rice, and veggies! So interesting! They drove me to a mountain where some of the best Oolong tea is made. How educational! I didn't know Oolong tea could be so delicious! And I didn't know what tea fields look like. Rows of bushes on hillsides in the clouds! Beautiful, educational!

I felt so bad about not being able to make fulfilling meal-time conversation. I wish I could have told them what my life was like, and what I found interesting about their lives. I wish I could have thanked them in better Chinese. I hope my gestures and thoughts of thanks were picked up by their sense of empathy. If I say "xie xie" (thank you) five times in a row, does that properly mean "Thanks! I owe you so much, and your home and family is so awesome! I had so much fun!"? I sure hope they got the message.

The one part of the language that I totally failed at? Ordering food. At most of the restaurants I visited in Taiwan, there are no pictures of food you can use to decide what to order. There's a sheet of paper with a grid on it. One column of the grid is filled with Chinese words for foods. The other column is for you to place checkmarks. This is broken up into categories. So, if McDonald's used this concept (they totally should), to order a burger, you need to take a sheet of paper, and put a checkmark next to 'hamburger', 'cheese', 'pickles', 'bacon', and 'lettuce', and don't forget to put a checkmark next to 'fries'. This is a very efficient way to order, I think, but if you can read *none* of the words, you just put checkmarks next random words that you like - Maybe a word has a simple letter or it's one that you recognize. More than once, I was surprised by what I got, and I still have no idea how to order it again. I need to learn more food words next time I travel to Taiwan or China.

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