Learn­ing Chi­nese: A Re­flec­tion from an Amer­i­can Born Chi­nese

Special Focus - - Contents - Grace Chen

Ire­cently found myself in a dilemma while edit­ing my re­sume in prepa­ra­tion for job in­ter­views and grad­u­ate school ap­pli­ca­tions: should I put Mandarin as one of the lan­guages that I speak? While part of me be­lieves that I un­der­stand about 96 per­cent of what peo­ple say to me, the other part knows that if some­one asked me to trans­late, it would be a com­plete dis­as­ter.

My speak­ing skills in Mandarin are equiv­a­lent to a third grader, and I can barely read sim­ple char­ac­ters. My pen­man­ship looks like some­body closed their eyes and tried to write with their non- dom­i­nant hand. How­ever, peo­ple are con­stantly im­pressed with my abil­ity to read and type pinyin al­most flu­ently— in fact, I find myself tex­ting im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion and se­crets to my fel­low ABC (Amer­i­can Born Chi­nese) friends in pinyin, like a se­cret code, or us­ing it when ask­ing my par­ents ques­tions that are not able to be trans­lated in English.

Pinyin, to me, is easy be­cause it uses the English al­pha­bet to help fa­cil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tion in Chi­nese and is pri­mar­ily used to help chil­dren and begin­ners learn lan­guages. Sim­i­larly, I am like pinyin; I have both Eastern and Western in­flu­ences, be­ing of Asian de­scent and hold­ing an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship. The cul­tural clash be­came most ev­i­dent as I was do­ing what many read­ers are do­ing, too—learn­ing a dif­fer­ent lan­guage.

My par­ents joke that I have been try­ing to learn Mandarin since birth. It is no se­cret that I am not com­fort­able speak­ing in Mandarin; this is per­haps a re­sult of be­ing sur­rounded by English ev­ery­where, whether at school, in the gro­cery store, or even on the tele­vi­sion. I nat­u­rally be­came ac­cus­tomed to speak­ing English be­cause every­body else was do­ing it.

be­cause it gets the point across— you can com­mu­ni­cate with any­one that speaks a lit­tle bit of both lan­guages, and it may even help with un­der­stand­ing verbs, ad­jec­tives, and sen­tence struc­tures. Per­son­ally, be­cause I am flu­ent and com­fort­able i n E n g l i s h , a m a j o r i t y o f my Chinglish sen­tences are in English. One can use ABC Chinglish when talk­ing to their par­ents, loved ones, or any­body ask­ing about the fol­low­ing ques­tions: their fu­ture ca­reers, how to use tech­nol­ogy, why they are still sin­gle, when they are get­ting mar­ried, or any other topic that is some­how deemed in­ter­est­ing by nosy aun­ties.

In all se­ri­ous­ness, prac­tic­ing us­ing both lan­guages may be a segue into be­com­ing fully bilin­gual, as long as one does not be­come too re­liant on it. Here are some funny ex­am­ples that I have over­heard my friends say to their par­ents on the phone: Chinglish Words Spo­ken: 我可以 get 一个­dog吗?

English Trans­la­tion: Can I get a dog?

Chinglish Words Spo­ken: 我drink too much 咖啡,整天在找­bath­room…

English Trans­la­tion: I drink too much cof­fee, I’m al­ways look­ing for a bath­room…

It also oc­curred to me that some read­ers may take classes to learn English. Sim­i­larly, a rite of pas­sage for ABCs is go­ing

to Chi­nese school as a child to take classes to pro­mote flu­ency in Mandarin, per­haps even join­ing the Chi­nese dance team or Chi­nese yo- yo team as well. With­out a doubt, ev­ery sin­gle ABC that I know has a hand­ful of hi­lar­i­ous me­mories re­gard­ing their dis­like for Chi­nese school. My own sto­ries in­volve se­cretly trad­ing cook­ies with other stu­dents while whis­per­ing in English in se­crecy al­most equiv­a­lent to un­der­ground trad­ing; this was a sure­fire way to be put in time- out and earn a long- winded phone call to the par­ents.

My room­mate once ran away from Chi­nese school by hiding in her mom’s car, spark­ing a city­wide search for her. She sim­ply rolled around in the trunk as her par­ents drove around town, search­ing fran­ti­cally for their miss­ing daugh­ter, who hid silently be­cause she did not want to at­tend Chi­nese class.

There were many nice teach­ers, but there were also strict teach­ers who scared stu­dents by say­ing that their ca­reers would be at their lo­cal McDon­ald’s if they could not speak Mandarin prop­erly. How­ever, the two things that al­most ev­ery ABC re­mem­bers are the awe­some snacks ( Amer­i­can junk food), and the friends that they made.

I be­lieve that a true bond of friend­ship is made when peo­ple suf­fer to­gether, and Chi­nese school is a prime ex­am­ple. Not only was it dif­fi­cult and stress­ful, it felt more tax­ing than our ac­tual school classes. The friend­ships formed made the hours of studying and stress worth it. These friends were easy to make be­cause they were all ABCs as well, and had sim­i­lar strug­gles in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and learn­ing.

Even though we were young, we would study vo­cab­u­lary to­gether, en­cour­age each other as we strug­gled to write in- class es­says, and cel­e­brate when our fi­nal ex­ams were over. There­fore, I en­cour­age peo­ple learn­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages to make new and sup­port­ive friends to bond with through­out the tri­als, to re­joice with in suc­cess, and to have fun with while learn­ing.

Learn­ing a new lan­guage is dif­fi­cult, but one of the best mo­ments is be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate with a new per­son. I found that my years of Chi­nese school and at­tempt­ing to speak Mandarin at home paid off when I be­came a camp coun­selor and met some girls from Taipei, who did not speak English. I man­aged to trans­late for them and be­came their friend, even jok­ing around and bond­ing with them over mu­sic and TV shows.

Even though we were from dif­fer­ent places and were dif­fer­ent ages, I saw the uni­ver­sal­ity and power of lan­guage by break­ing the bar­ri­ers be­tween us. While my Mandarin def­i­nitely wasn’t per­fect, and their English wasn’t strong, we man­aged to cre­ate a friend­ship sim­ply by try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate.

If you keep on work­ing hard, and get back up when there are mis­takes, dif­fi­cul­ties, or tri­als in com­mu­ni­ca­tion that you face, one day, you will be able to com­mu­ni­cate with new peo­ple, make con­nec­tions and friend­ships, and change the world. From TheWorldof

English , Jan­uary 2018)

Grace’s Tip of the Day for Learn­ing a New Lan­guage: Watch TV or lis­ten to some mu­sic with trans­la­tion, es­pe­cially some­thing that you en­joy!

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