Language Woes

IMG_0262One of my goals this year, as I mentioned in my last post, is to really focus on my Mandarin skills. I’m planning to take the HSK before we leave next summer, and I’d really like to do well. The HSK is a Chinese proficiency test for foreigners learning the language. The highest score is a 6, which would demonstrate “a learner who can easily understand any information in Chinese and is capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form”. I’m aiming for a 3 (haha!), and since I’m likely going on this journey alone (Tucker really has no interest), I’d like to at least share a little bit about what makes Chinese such a difficult language to learn.

First off, there is no alphabet. For example, (meaning “not”) is pronounced méi, while (meaning “establish”) is pronounced shè. They look similar, but sound nothing alike. Similarly, 香蕉 “banana” and 相交“to intersect” are pronounced the exact same way (xiāngjiāo). There is clearly no “sounding it out”, which is what frustrates Tucker to no end! Okay, you think, that’s not such a big deal. You just have to remember the characters as if they were words. Unfortunately that means there are over 50,000 to memorize. Also, each word is not one character; they are some combination of characters, which means not only do you have to know the characters in a particular word, but you have to know the order: 蜜蜂 (mìfēng) means “bee”, but 蜂蜜 (fēngmì) means “honey”. No, I don’t want any bees on my toast, thanks.

43 strokes for 1 “biang”!

However, recognizing the characters and knowing their order isn’t enough either because if you want to learn how to say them or find more information about them, in, say, a dictionary, you must be able to write them. Chinese has a very particular stroke order, which refers to the order and direction in which you write the characters. This is how Chinese dictionaries are often organized (even online), and if you don’t obey the proper stroke order, most online translators can’t seem to figure out what you’re going for. If you’re someone who starts your English letters from the bottom up, good luck! Even if ignoring the correct stroke order wasn’t an issue, most Chinese characters an average of between 7 and 12 strokes. The most in any single English letter? 4. My characteristically neat handwriting has never been tested in such a way!

Luckily, a group of linguists realized just how difficult the Chinese characters were for people coming from languages with alphabets, so they created one of my favorite things in the world: pinyin. Pinyin is a system of phonetic representation of Mandarin. It utilizes the Latin script (like English), and allows us, alphabet freaks, to quickly (and more naturally) read the pronunciation of a word. Sometimes a word will be presented with both the characters and the pinyin, such as: “卫生间 wèishēngjiān” (which means “bathroom” by the way – very useful!). This double representation is why I often say learning Mandarin is like learning two languages, you really have to know the characters and the pinyin! It is super helpful for us when we see both pieces of information together though. Then we know both how to say the new word and how to write it. Unfortunately, we rarely get that; usually it’s one or the other, not both. Sometimes there is a translation instead of the pinyin, but I’m not sure that is always so helpful…

This one is actually pretty great!

IMG_0266Another problem we often encounter with pinyin is that it is more often than not missing the diacritic marks. Those marks represent the four tones of Mandarin, and are essential in its pronunciation. Unlike in English, changing the pitch of your voice while speaking Chinese can actually change the words you are saying. The pronunciation of mā (“mom”), má (“hemp”), mǎ (“horse”), and mà (“to scold”) only differs in tone. Unfortunately for lazy, toneless English speakers (like me), this makes it really hard for native Mandarin speakers to understand exactly what we’re saying. We try for “mom” and end up with “horse”, something which I hope has been more entertaining than irritating for them!

Ultimately, we struggle in reading, writing, speaking, and, with the various Chinese dialects, listening is a challenge as well. However, if you ask me whether I find Chinese or Polish more difficult to learn, I’ll say Polish every time. Chinese and English grammar actually have a lot in common. Our word order for example, is pretty similar. Chinese also has no articles or gender to worry about (two language features that I learned to despise very early on in French, and again with Polish). Perhaps most interestingly, unlike Polish and English, Mandarin is an isolating language, which means that the verbs are not inflected or changed for things like tense or aspect. So while in Polish I had to work really hard to conjugate and decline every word in a sentence before I could put them into a coherent thought, in Chinese I can just string them all together, adding new words when a change in tense or number is needed. For my brain, that is so much easier to do!

There is also something so intuitive about Chinese. Although my Chinese teachers tell me I should NEVER separate the characters of various words, it’s hard not to, and honestly that’s what helps me remember the vocabulary half the time in the first place! Here are some gems we’ve discovered (so far) in the Chinese lexicon:

IMG_0267Train = Fire + Car

Balloon = Air + Ball

Cellphone = Hand + Machine

Turkey = Fire + Chicken

Menu = Food + Sheet

Patriotism = Love + Country

Delicious = Good + Eat/Drink

ZhongWenAlright now! Who’s ready to learn this with me?! Chinese is definitely a language on the rise as far as power and prestige go. Much like what happened to English in the 1700s, increases in immigration, tourism, and business are spreading Chinese to all parts of the globe. In Australia, I was surprised and delighted to find Mandarin on most signage, and, even in Georgia/Florida (quite far away from China), maps and other tourist information can often be found in Mandarin. Some linguists refer to Chinese as the language of the future, and while right now it’s more painfully in my present, I hope to keep it around for my future as well! Wish me luck! 祝我好运!

Living in China: Daily Differences

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Temples in our backyard!

We’re almost three months into our move to China, and something that we’re asked pretty regularly is: what are the differences we notice in our daily lives. Most people are aware of the obvious differences like the language and the food, and, although most daily activities are pretty universal (shower, eat, work, play on your phone, etc.), there are definitely some things that we didn’t really have a need to think about before moving to China. In reality, these are rather small differences, but their regularity and new-found importance have kept them in our minds daily as we shift into a new way of living – the China way!


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“Noodles 22” – my favorite!

First is our struggle for food. Of course, as I mentioned, the food itself is obviously quite different. For example, most things are cooked in oil here rather than in butter, and almost everything (from drinking water to what some refer to as a “salad”) is served piping hot. However, something we didn’t think about is how difficult it would be to obtain our food, let alone the foods we actually prefer. Whether at a restaurant or a grocery store we have to put a lot of effort into translating food items. Even then, we’re often not sure what we’ve actually purchased. In the last week alone we’ve gotten translations like “sealed duck palm”, “saliva chicken”, and “fried enema” – I’m sorry, what?!

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“Fruit Parkway”

At the grocery store, things are not only hard for us to read, but they’re often packaged differently or organized in a way we would have never thought of; for example, milk is not refrigerated, but pasta is! On top of these difficulties, there is also a sense of lingering mistrust. We’ve all heard stories about China and the shortcuts they may have taken, so when we see something unfamiliar or “weird”, we’re conditioned to think it’s not healthy or good. The depth of these feelings really surprised me because, although I saw similar things in Poland, I never questioned the hygiene or motives there. This is something we’re really working on by constantly asking “why” and delving a little deeper into these differences. Our Chinese friends have been incredibly illuminating, and honestly, we’ve learned to look at our own way of doing things a little differently as well.

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If this doesn’t scream “weird”, I don’t know what does…
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Do I wear it well?

Another daily difference for us is the general environment that we’re living in. Typically when I wake up, the first thing I do is check the weather. However, in China, I must also check the AQI (air quality index). We live in a city of 8 million people; a city that still uses coal to heat some of its building and has farms just outside the city limits that burn their fields twice a year before replanting. These conditions mean that the air quality in Hefei can have an effect on my day. If the AQI is above 200, I need to wear a mask to ensure that I don’t get a sore throat the next day. Checking the AQI and occasionally wearing masks have become part of our routine. In our (almost) 90 days here, we’ve only had a handful of “bad days”, which we recently found out are about the equivalent of smoking a few cigarettes (and we all know that is not great for long term health).

An exciting acquisition!

Another environmental issue I was not at all looking forward to was the inability to drink the tap water. I remember last time we were in China, I had a really hard time making sure I had enough water bottles. Something about steaming hot water served in restaurants (even in summer) really just didn’t agree with me. Turns out, although this is a difference, it really isn’t a difficult one to handle. Now that we’re residents of China, it’s pretty easy to get water. We have a water cooler and a weekly delivery that ensures we have plenty of drinking water (hot OR cold)! Another environmental difference, for Tucker, would have to be the height of everything. Doorways, sinks, counters, they’re all much lower than we’re used to, and he (just about 6 feet tall) struggles with hitting his head and constantly bending over at an uncomfortable angle. I (at 5’3”) don’t really have this problem!

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Tucker’s Taobao fail

Finally, the way we use technology has also changed greatly. It seems that in some ways we’re using technology more efficiently, and in others it’s substantially slowed down or non-existent. For one thing, in China you are not allowed to have two people sharing one bank account. Therefore, Tucker and I “share” my card by handing it over whenever one of us needs it, which just feels so strange! Online banking is also not very popular here, and it’s only possible with a monthly fee. Needless to say, Tucker and I have become much more familiar with the “balance inquiry” function at the ATM. While those banking aspects feel less than modern to us, we’re also being ushered into the future by instead paying for everything with our phones and buying most of what we need from an online service that delivers to our door. The saying “there is an app for that” feels so true in China, as we now utilize our phones for everything! Even street vendors use QR codes for payment!

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Love seeing this!

However, possible is not the same as familiar. As westerners new to China, our most valued service is a VPN (virtual private network). As many people know, China is very particular about what shows up on their search engines (or even which search engines are available), and for this reason, we need to use a VPN to access YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and several other favorites. Of course, for nationals and people who have been here long enough, those services are no longer as important as YouKu, WeChat, and QQ (Chinese versions of the same services), but for now, we’re bogged down remembering to connect to the VPN for some things and at times, not having enough bandwidth to do so.

There are plenty of other differences in our daily lives, and some, as we’re beginning to see, are less China-specific and more like everywhere-but-in-the-US kind of things. We find ourselves walking so much more here, watching less TV, meeting with very different groups of people, and taking advantages of opportunities that we would’ve never had at home. There are so many reasons I enjoy my life abroad, but I think none are as great as these small differences that teach us so much!