Learning Chinese in China feels a little like constantly unlocking previously inaccessible doors and entering new rooms that lead us deeper into a cultural labyrinth. Each day, we feel a little less stupid — we can understand more of what’s being said around us, we can piece together a food order or taxi directions, we can respond to questions our teachers ask us without going slack-jawed with panic. This gives us new access to life here; as we learn more, we see Beijing a little differently. That means this city feels like it changes a bit every day, often in fairly revealing ways. For instance, we realized even native speakers are lost when they look at menus here — they’re usually as puzzled by Chinese descriptions as we are by the Chinglish translations (what, exactly, is fried hairtail?). Your waiter hovers over you while you look at the menu because you’re supposed to have questions, and they’re supposed to answer them.
This stands in contrast with my experience with learning Spanish — that was more like an academic pursuit, and I treated my semester in Argentina as a means to solidify my skills. Learning Chinese like this has shown us how language is inextricably linked to culture and society — language really frames everyday life in a way that’s hard to think about when you’re operating in your native tongue. Beijing’s rhythm and feel comes, in large part, from the way people talk to each other.
As a bonus, learning THIS language is doubly rewarding: In addition to spoken Chinese, we’re learning a whole new alphabet, or, more accurately, system of writing, for written Chinese is actually a series of glyphs. Signs are slowly becoming less cryptic — we still can’t understand those things, but we can usually pick out a character or two, and we’re beginning to understand how written Chinese is organized.
Though reading seemed like a necessity, I didn’t have a lot of interest in learning to write Chinese before I came here. But today, one of my Chinese teachers did a calligraphy lesson with me, and I gained a new perspective on these little works of art. See, each character corresponds with one syllable, and often, one character represents a whole word. Some characters look like the words they represent. Mouth, for instance, looks like this: 囗 Not impossible to imagine that’s a mouth, right? Right. Others have little connection. This is the character for good or well: 好 The bits of that character break down into woman and child. A tenuous connection at best.
Anyway, when you see those characters printed in some blocky font, or even scribbled with a pen, they don’t seem all that special. Or at least, they didn’t seem all that special to me — more like a means to an end. Once I can decipher these characters, I’ll be able to figure out what the heck that sign says, I thought. But calligraphy really beautifies those suckers, and I suddenly had an intense appreciation for the characters themselves. This writing system was standardized more than 2,000 years ago, and its roots probably go back three millenia. Sure, it’s evolved a bit since then — in an effort to improve literacy and make the script easier to understand, for instance, mainland China simplified the glyphs in the 20th century, so characters are stripped down from their traditional forms (Taiwan still uses traditional characters).
I learned to write my Chinese name today, which is Shàng yi lán (尚伊兰). Shàng is a transliteration of my last name. My teacher says yi means “pretty girl,” but my dictionary translates it as a formal pronoun for “she.” Lán means lily magnolia, but really, this is a house plant we know as a spider plant. My teacher says it’s one of four symbolic plants in China; it represents a person who always does nice things. Nice AND pretty! It’s like I paid her!
I also learned to write mín yǐ shí wéi tiān 民以食为天, which is a saying that loosely translates to “food is the most important thing in the world.” Yes. Yes it is.
Here’s a photo of my handiwork, my teacher, and her handiwork. Her (much more beautiful) banner has the characters of those four aforementioned plants (plum blossom, magnolia lily, bamboo, and chrysanthemum). She gave it to me as a gift because she is the nicest.