I have recently started Chinese language lessons with a Zhejiang University graduate student in journalism. His name is Ji. He is a nice guy and quite generous, buying me a textbook, dictionary, and writing pad. He is eager to polish his English skills, which he deems a fair trade. We meet in a nearby café two mornings a week. It is a pleasant setting.
The Chinese language is 4,000 years old. Perhaps coincidentally, there are also about 4,000 Chinese characters, I think. This is a lot.
Especially because I mainly want to learn the following:
How are you today? My name is Tim. How much does this cost? That is too expensive. Do you have a menu, and a bathroom? Do you speak English? I speak only a little Chinese. I am a history teacher. I am a Christian.
But Ji is scientific, or at least insistent. I must start with the basics, which means learning how to pronounce the Chinese alphabet. Perfectly.
All this means that our first three lessons have been spent mainly talking about Chinese history and politics, which is fascinating and wide-ranging, and practicing Chinese sounds, which is almost as fascinating but also very embarrassing.
This is because there are several Chinese characters that sound very similar. Incredibly similar. So similar that often when I do my best to pronounce them correctly, Ji just grimaces and says, “No. You are saying this.” And he says something that seems very much like what I said. Then he is likely to say, “You need to move your tongue forward in your mouth, and lower.” I do this and try again. He says, “No, lower.” Somehow he can see my tongue inside my mouth.
The other exercise we do, which I call “time to draw attention to the foreigner,” is that I pronounce a certain character, like “j,” which is pronounced, I think, “dg.”
I say “djij.”
Ji says, “no. Say “dg.”
I say “djj.”
The reason I capitalize this is because we get louder during the exercise, and move toward each other, rising a little from our seats. This makes others in the café look at us.
This also happens in practicing “q,” whose sound, says Ji, is “tschee.” I try it. He corrects. Back and forth we go. The lesson for this winds up like two snakes doing a hiss-off.
Perhaps the most humbling exercise of all is, “draw the lines the right way.” Ji thinks I should and can learn to write a few Chinese characters. Actually, now that I’m finishing this blog after the fourth lesson, I have learned Chinese characters for one, two, eight, horse, wood, fire, woman, and door. I should be able to string these together in a sentence. Again, Ji is a tough taskmaster. He tells me to draw the character for “one,” which is “一.” I draw it. “No,” he says. “You need to start on the left. Try again.” I draw the same line, more carefully this time, and in the reverse direction. “Good!” he says. Now “two.” Or, “二.” Seriously. I look at him the way others in the café looked at me, during “draw attention to the foreigner.”
I ask myself, momentarily, “By what right am I trying this?”
The very last lesson introduced Chinese cases: I, you, he/she/it, etc. At “you all” I made Ji stop so I could explain that he could guess where any Americans he might meet are from by listening to whether they say, “y’all,” or, instead, “you guys.” He was delighted with these regionalisms.
I would ask if there are any Chinese equivalents of “y’all” and “you guys.” But I need to get my “dg” down first.
八匹马？女人 – 防火门！(Eight horses? Woman – fire the door!)