Learning Mandarin

Learning Mandarin Chinese is hard. I’ve read it. I’ve heard it. I’ve experienced it.

Learning another language is always difficult, but Mandarin takes it to a whole new level. For one thing, the characters look different. They sound different. Then throw in tones, and it’s on, baby. The same word can have different meanings depending on how you pronounce it – and some of the sounds are nothing like the sounds we use in English!

Needless to say, I’ve lived in Taiwan for two years where the primary language is Mandarin Chinese, and I’ve barely gotten past a few words and phrases. The only thing I consistently order in Chinese is coffee. The rest I point and motion to explain what I need.

I’ve been lucky living here in Taiwan because enough people speak English or, at least, have enough English skills to help me that I haven’t had to learn Mandarin. I’ve tried. I’ve half-heartedly tried. When it started making me feel stupid, I quit. Then I would try again a few months later and so on.

I haven’t made much progress.

However, I got a job in China.

Yes! I got a job!

And it’s in Shenzhen, China.

From what I’ve read about China, English is not as readily spoken. So I’ve started trying to learn Mandarin. Again.

It’s still hard. But this time I’m more motivated because I have a feeling I’m going to need it. I feel like I’m picking it up faster than before because of my past sporadic studying. It’s somewhat familiar. I’m trying to study at least once a day.

After my lesson today, I was feeling really good about it.

Until I went to a restaurant I go to a lot and tried to order my usual salad in a different way. *sigh* I had no idea how to explain it in Chinese and resorted to lots of pointing and hand gestures until the owner figured it out. I immediately felt like a failure.

But this is what learning something new is like. The progress is slow. And you may feel stupid at times. But you can’t quit. If you quit, you definitely won’t learn it, but, if you keep trying, you will eventually get better.

I mean, how else will you spend your time? If the choice is between watching television and learning something new, pick the learning something new option. Ask yourself: at the end of the day, which one is going to be more memorable, not to mention more useful and, quite frankly, more interesting?

So what skill have you been putting off learning?

Maybe now is a good time to start.


The Gift of Giving

Last night I helped a woman throw her trash bags into the garbage truck.

Garbage trucks show up at a designated time on street corners five nights a week. Everyone goes out and is responsible for putting their trash bags in one truck, recyclables in different bags in another, and food waste in buckets. It’s busy and hectic and over in about 10 minutes.

Last night, as I was throwing my trash bag away, I saw a woman struggling with two big bags. She couldn’t lift her arms very high and get them into the truck. I easily reached over and threw them both in the back of the truck, and her smile made me feel like I had given her a tremendous gift. And it had taken all of a minute and a half.

But it felt really good. So good that, as she walked away, I wanted to call out to her and ask if I could do anything else. I felt a mix of gratitude both that I could help and that I don’t need that kind of help today.

That may sound silly, but I don’t have the opportunity to help many people here. As a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, I am constantly having to ask for help myself. Add that to the natural generosity of the Taiwanese and living in another country has been a humbling experience.

I come from a privileged background, and I enjoy helping others. By privileged, I mean, that I have always had enough money to give a little to charity or occasionally pick up the bill for a friend at dinner.  I was often asked for help by co-workers and able to give assistance. Being the giver is a powerful and positive feeling, and I’ve never had to accept a lot of help from people.

Since living in Taiwan, however, I am often dependent upon others for even the simplest of tasks: on their kindness and patience in interpreting my butchery of their language to order coffee, in making a doctor’s appointment, in ordering lunch for pick-up, and so on. Even in class, even though I am the lead teacher, I am dependent upon my co-teacher to help students who need more of an explanation than I can give in English.

The most humbling and difficult time was when I was in the hospital last year. I had co-workers who came to the hospital and helped translate the finer points necessary with nurses and doctors as well as explain the healthcare system to me. In addition, my co-workers took up a collection to pay for my hospital bill. I did not ask for this and many teachers who gave money were people I’d never talked to due to the language barrier. I can never repay their kindness – for the gesture meant far more to me than the money.

But the kindness, the assistance, is a daily thing. Getting lost and having someone stop and ask if they can help, not understanding how to get train tickets out a machine with Chinese instructions and having someone literally stand there and walk me through it, ordering at a restaurant where another customer will step in and help if the employee doesn’t speak any English: it’s everywhere. So being able to help one woman with her garbage last night was such a small thing but the grateful smile I received was the best smile I’ve seen a long time.

I was reading about the drought in Somalia and donations people have raised to send food and other necessities over to help people. There was a picture someone took of a crowd of people with desperately raised hands waiting to get anything offered. My heart broke. I thought about how difficult it would be to be in that position, the desperation, the feeling of always having to rely on the kindness and generosity of others, a feeling beyond the hunger and the need.

Being in a position to give to others is such a privilege. And there is nothing else that feels as good. I am so fortunate to be able to give in any capacity – and fortunate to have so many people willing to help me. These experiences have taught me to be a more humble, more generous, and more aware giver because I have learned that you never know when you may be in a position to need help yourself.