Inspiration comes from what I don’t know about the language
Mandarin Chinese intrigued me since I was a kid living in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, which is adjacent to Chinatown. I fondly remember visiting with family on a couple of occasions. We sipped Jasmine tea, ate almond cookies, and I convinced my mom to buy some incense.
Back then, I never imagined that I would actually learn some of the language one day. The characters, speed, and tones felt very distant from the English and Spanish that I spoke at home.
In college at the University of Southern California, I got my first chance to try a few Mandarin words and phrases myself. I made friends with a couple Chinese international students, and the topic of language came up in one of our long conversations.
I tried my best to match my tone to theirs. Some words I was more successful at. We all joked about miscommunications, since Mandarin words can take on a whole different meaning based on tone.
“You sound like you’re from Beijing!” Nina said. I felt myself shimmer and smile.
It was lovely to see my friends’ faces light up as they took on the role of teacher. I imagined that the homesickness I felt was even more compounded for my friends. Like me, they were far from home. Unlike me, they were in a whole different country.
I gained an appreciation for learning about Mandarin and Chinese culture from my friends. I will admit, it was also nice to hear their compliments on some of my own pronunciations.
Today, I study Mandarin for about five minutes every day with an app. I use Mango Languages because I have a free account, which I’m eligible for with a card (also free) from the Chicago Public Libraries.
After studying for a whole year, there is still a lot that I do not know.
I have no idea how to read Chinese characters, for example. Beyond exchanging phone numbers, I have almost no vocabulary for some of the technology that I use every day. I certainly cannot yet understand a full blown conversation between native speakers.
The infinite list of things that I cannot do or say in Mandarin does not make me want to give up. It pushes me to keep going because these unknowns provide an opportunity to connect and learn more. If you are also a language enthusiast, like me, then you know that the learning is the real gift.
In terms of day-to-day communication, the little Mandarin I do know has helped me already, actually. Earlier this year, I experienced food insecurity and went to the St James Catholic Church food pantry to stock up.
Even before the pandemic hit in the U.S., there was a long line at St James to receive food. The pantry does not restrict services based on income or religion at all. It just so happened that a lot of older Chinese women were out to get assistance, too.
I was able to speak a sentence in Mandarin to an elderly woman who was too tired to stand in line. I practiced a couple times in my head and blurted out in Mandarin, “Can we speak English?” I think I surprised her, and may have accidentally addressed her as a young lady. She smiled at me regardless and I pushed her shopping cart forward while she sat nearby.
The memory lives fondly in my mind. It’s one of the many reasons why I will not give up studying Mandarin.