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China, November 10, 1999

Learning a Language Isn't Easy

My first Chinese word, "mayo" is still the most important!

The place to go if ya really wanna learn
I should've gone here first
I always accept the fruits of young ladies
No language skills needed here
Now someone said something stupid to get HIMself in this mess
Just nod your head, fool!
Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with one of my workmates. She and I were talking about traveling and she was surprised that I'd traveled in South America without knowing Spanish and that I was living successfully in China without knowing Chinese. Ok, I do know a bit of Chinese. I can say thanks, the name of my apartment complex, where I work, and order a beer, but that's it. She was amazed that I could fend for myself with such a limited vocabulary.

I explained to her the concepts of hand gestures and pictograms to describe anything I could possibly need (want is another matter). Taking up the challenge, she asked me how I would order eggs in a restaurant. Making sure I knew if she wanted them fried or boiled; I simply drew a diagram of eggs whole, broken, then in a pan. Laughing at my ingenuity, she then understood how easy it is to get around here.

Actually, sometimes it's even easier than Russia. Russians expect you to know Russian since they demanded all the satellite states of the USSR teach Russian in the schools. When I arrived with my crappy Russian, they were not surprised, thinking I was from one of the ex-USSR countries (the Baltics mainly). Russians, dreaming that their nation is on par with America, believe that Russian is an international language still, so everyone should know it.

China has no such delusions. With a billion people living for generations in little villages, they have more dialects than they can count, all incomprehensible to each other. Therefore, Beijingers are used to people not understanding what is said, or not speaking Beijing Chinese, and are happy going with hand signals and pictograms. Luckily, the language characters were standardized a few hundred years ago, so at least every Chinese can understand the written language.

Me, I'm not so keen on investing the time and energy it would take me to reach a level of fluency in Chinese that I have in Russian or in English. I think you have to enjoy the culture, the people, and the situation, to be ready to accept the pain learning a new language involves. I love Russians, Russian culture, and the pure lawlessness that is Russia today. The call to my wild side is almost irresistible. I haven't found the same love for Chinese yet, and their culture of introvertness and lawfulness, exactly opposite of my outgoing and flexible attitude, frustrates me.

So, until I am awakened to the mystery that is the Chinese people, I'm gonna stick with my hand signals and pictograms, getting by with the odd English-speaker thrown in. It will make for an interesting ride at least!

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