When I arrived in Wuxi it was very strange to not understand anything. I really mean ANYTHING. I can’t read most things, understand anyone in public, and also can’t communicate to anyone when I’m out shopping or ordering food. If you know me well enough, the last one is crucial in my life. To try and attempt to fix this I asked Rachel if I could be set up with Chinese lessons. At the school the teachers are required a certain number of hours every week to work on their Chinese, so I knew the resource was available to me. She was able to work something out with the art teacher who was nice enough to give up one of his lesson times for me. I am still very thankful for his offer since learning Chinese has become very useful to me.
Our first lesson was over pinyin and the four Chinese tones.
Pinyin is a way for non-native speakers to learn Chinese without involving the characters right away. Chinese characters are what you normally think of when you think of the Chinese language, or on Mulan when she writes on her arm in the beginning of the movie. Yes, those are characters. So pinyin actually spells out the characters in letters similar to English letters so we can pronounce them and communicate to people verbally, which is really nice.
Along with pinyin comes the four Chinese Tones.
If you are not familiar with them they look similar to this:
— / v \
Each one will be above a specific vowel sound in a word, and that determines what that word is. The first tone is what I think of a monotone sound. The second tone means your voice will go up on a vowel, like when you ask a question. The third tone is my favorite, you go down then up with your pitch on a vowel. You also speak that tone slower than the other three. The fourth tone is the opposite of the second tone, so just down in pitch. There is also a neutral tone which means you don’t use any of the tones. I actually struggle with the fourth one the most. Very different, right? In my Chinese lessons my teacher’s voice is a much higher pitch than mine, and when she asks me to repeat her on the first tone I end up making my voice higher to sound just like her. It’s actually kind of funny because I don’t have to do that all. So if you ever learn Chinese remember that so you don’t strain yourself like I have.
(Off topic: My lessons are on Thursdays which is the day we have donuts at school. I asked my teacher how to say Happy Donut Day in Chinese so I can say it to her when I see her that day. I can’t wait to learn how to say it. J)
You also have to be careful with the tones because sometimes different tones on the same letters in pinyin will mean different things. Remember when I talked about the words “four” and “death?” They have similar pinyin, but the tones are different so you don’t want to accidentally say, “I want to go to floor death.” That would not be good. Although I noticed that most Chinese people will appreciate the fact that you attempt Chinese. They also seem understanding when I say something without tones, and usually know what I’m attempting to say depending on the context of the situation.
In my first lesson I mainly practiced the MANY different words and not words with the four different tones to help adjust my voice and mind on how to use them. It was much harder than I ever anticipated because in English we don’t talk that way at all. In fact our language is based on tone in a completely different way. Our tone is very dependent on how we feel and express ourselves rather than how it affects each individual word. It is something I still struggle with. When I use my Chinese in public I try to use the tones as much as I can, but since most words have them it’s hard to remember which tone goes with each word.
While practicing we would come across actual words, and she would tell me what they translated to in English, and we put sentences together so I could use them if I needed to. I also realized that they call their consonants “initials,” for the initial sound. Most of them are the same as English except z=dz, q=ch, c=ts, x= ch, and zh=j. I know, very confusing. I have to admit I practiced quite a bit and have become a little better at pronouncing them, but when I read it’s not my first instinct to pronounce those sounds. It usually takes me a few seconds to realize what I am trying to read.
In later lessons we started to learn numbers which for some reason was my favorite part (probably because I was actually good at them) because there is a pattern which was also very helpful. I learned how to ask people how old they are…which if I practiced that would probably not always be the best thing. I really enjoy learning the new language. It is so different that it gives me a new perspective to the world, which is what I wanted when I came here.
Now, I can’t forget the crazy translations I see everywhere and I bring up in my lessons. The very first one I saw said “Caution, wet fool.” Yes, it is currently a wet floor sign in our building and also some surrounding buildings in our area. I think that one may be more a spelling error, but it’s still hilarious because there is person falling for the picture. Another interesting one I saw was the back of girls jacket said “Super Moshino,” and had a picture of Mario…close, but not quite there. Not only are the translations funny, but the English wording and sentence structure on clothing usually doesn’t make sense. Jenna and I saw a shirt in an athletic store that said “What an Agile Tub” with a picture of water splashing all around it. I don’t get it. I really could go on with all the funny stories, but I thought I would share a few while I had the chance!
The best part about my lessons are when we trail off into talking about the culture here in China.
Chinese culture is so different and it truly amazes me. I have expressed some of the differences to you, like the whole standing in line thing (or lack of). I feel like most of you won’t believe me, but it really does happen more often than not. I actually pushed a person the other day because they were trying to get in front of me in line. A line that I had already been waiting a very long time in! I can’t remember exactly what I was doing, but he looked about my age and shoulder checked me to get in front me. So I stared at him and of course that did nothing. I stepped in front of him, and he did it AGAIN. At this point it was personal so I put my hands on his arm and pushed him out the way, and he walked away. I still don’t really understand.
Group gatherings or parties are another cultural difference that stood out to me. In American culture we like to stay with the people we know and only communicate in small groups. At a Chinese gathering it would be exactly the opposite. They prefer everyone to be involved and a part of the party as a whole. The slide show she showed me had two different sides on every slide. One side was blue (standing for Western Cultures), and had a bunch of black dots in small groups. The other side was red (for Eastern Cultures), and had a circle of black dots. The Power Point was helpful and very eye opening to me. I think before I knew that a few things would be different, but I didn’t expect THAT much to be different.
I also asked my teacher why Chinese people like to stare at foreigners and take their picture. I mean I honestly am stared at all day when I’m not at school. I have been asked a couple times to have my picture taken and I’ve only been here for four weeks. My teacher told me that most Chinese people feel lucky when they see a foreign face. I learned that in this country people tend to not travel because being close to family is very important. There is a lot of pressure for women to be married when they are in their twenties and early thirties, and normally the grandparents raise the children because the parents have to work. Family is a very important aspect in this culture unlike in the U.S. where most everyone is independent with their own lifestyle. Anyway, since they don’t travel overseas much it is different to see people who don’t look like them. My favorite part about it is when a little kid sees me they usually say “Hello,” and practice their English with me. Every morning I run into a father and his daughter and they always tell me that it’s nice to see me again, and we talk about small things like his daughter’s school or his work. Then we walk separate ways out of the gate to start our day.
I also learned something even more interesting than mannerisms and it was actually brought up by Rachel first, and then brought up in my Chinese lesson. In China there are different minority groups. Most people think that Chinese people are all one race, and that’s not entirely true. There is one majority group called the Han. This group makes up about 90% of China, and as of 2010 90% would have been 1,220,844,520. Now, that’s a lot of people. Then there are about 56 minority groups that are officially recognized by the government and make up the rest of China. I found this link that shows the different minority groups and describes what makes each minority different from one another.
This culture amazes me every single day. Yes, sometimes it can be frustrating, but living in the U.S. can be frustrating at times too. I think the amazing things that make me smile on a day to day basis definitely outshine the negatives. I learn little by little every day to become more independent which is such a great thing. China is growing on me, and I always wish there was more time in a day to get as much of the experience as I can!