Big Breakthrough

Tuesday, October 11th, Day 26

James · Christopher

詹 姆 斯 · 克 里 斯 多 夫 ·
詹 姆 斯 · 克 来 斯 多 夫 · (alternative)

Zhān mǔ sī · Kè lái sī duō fū ·


I finally got how Chinese characters are built up, parts on parts. When I saw this, I was so excited I looked at a bunch of characters and pulled them apart. When I see a character, its made up of all these other characters, and each character can be remembered by the characters it’s made up from.

I know it sounds complicated, but it’s not. Here’s an example:

蔬食 (shū shí) means vegetarian meal, vegetarian diet

Let me make those characters a little bigger so I can even see them:


There are two sets of squiggly lines, right? Well, if you know what to look for, there are two characters here, but each character is made up of other characters. For example, the first character, shū, which means vegetables, is made up of two characters:


The top character is cao, which means grass. The bottom character is another shū, but this one, without the grass on top, means neglect, careless, lax. Now cao is a “radical”, meaning it isn’t broken down any further. But the bottom character has more to tell us:


The left side, pǐ, means roll, bolt of cloth; foot. It is a radical, so no more breakdown. The right side is liú, which means a cup with pendants, a pennant, wild, barren, uncultivated. Finally, liú can be broken down into four characters, all of them radicals:


The top one on the right is tóu = head. Next one down is sī = private, secret. The bottom two (the first one includes both the left- and right-curling lines) are r (or ér, rén) = son, child and gǔn has no meaning, is just a vertical line (radical 2).

So, you see? Very simple! A vegetarian diet is made up of grass, cloth (or foot), a cup of pendants, head, private (secret), child.

I can see why they’d want to make it a secret that vegetarians eat children, but a whole cup of pendants? Is that once a day? Once a year? Over a lifetime. I better get started if I’m going to catch these Chinese vegetarians 😉

Well, it might not make all that much sense in the definition of the word, though it often does help one remember the character. My big breakthrough is that I now have a subset (the radicals) of characters that will let me build characters and words.

It’s about time I knew some Chinese radicals!

Pause, take a deep breath, exhale…

So off I went to Sichuan University, looking at all the Chinese characters around me with new eyes. There was a character with radical number 9 (man), another with radical number 38 (woman), radical number 72 (sun). I didn’t know what these characters meant, but I was able to remember them, distinguish them. I felt like Helen Keller… “Water? Water? Water!”

We’ll see how much this helps, but I’ve already memorized more characters today than I had in the previous four weeks! I’m very excited! And it makes the language incredibly rich, ambiguous, subject to many interpretations! My dad would love it! I can’t wait to read my first Chinese character joke!

To get to the language office I knew exactly where to find the Sichuan University West Gate. From there, 100 meters, into the building, up to the third floor,  and left for the room. I got to the office within 15 minutes of leaving my apartment! Gotta love my choice of location!

“Nǐ hǎo. I’m here to sign up for the free Chinese lessons I saw in your advertisement?”
“Have a seat.”
“Hello, my name is Oliana. Take a look around and when you’re ready, I’ll register you.”
“I’m here for the six free lessons. I don’t have to look around. Sign me up!”

I filled in a couple pages of information. It was all pretty straight-forward, until I came to a box with the question, “Hobbies?”

“You want to know my hobbies?”
“Yes, please.”
“It will help the teacher to find topics that keep you interested in doing a good job.”

For several seconds, I couldn’t think of anything to put in the box. But once I got started, I ran out of space. I marked a couple of my “hobbies” as good candidates: Chinese cooking and computer interfaces.

“What do you mean, computer interfaces?”
“Like, how to read the menu for the Baidu web site, or the menu for Firefox in Chinese; how to use a Chinese phone; how to figure out addresses and use map programs. Things like that.”

I showed them the materials I had, said they could use whatever worked for them, and explained some of my frustrations with my need to learn “everyday” language, not “tourist” language. (I already KNOW where my bathroom is!)

Oliana looked over the forms, saw I was willing to have lessons any day of the week, any time.

“I can schedule to meet your needs,” I said.
“How long do you want your lessons?” she asked.
“I’m here for the six free lessons,” I repeated.
“How long do you want each lesson?” she repeated.

Okay, if she’s asking…

“Eight hours,” I said.
“That would be too long for you,” she said. “How about two hours?”

I started to tell her it wasn’t too long for me, but got feeling a little guilty for asking for 8-hour lessons in the first place. I wonder if they would have given them to me if I had insisted. Instead, I backed off.

“What do you recommend?” I asked.
“I think an hour and a half would be good, three times a week.”

Was I going to argue? I think something about this negotiation speaks volumes about Chinese culture. Just not sure what it is.

“Pick times that work for you,” I added.

She gave me a schedule for Tuesday, Thursday from 10am to 11:30am, and Saturday from 2pm to 3:30, starting Thursday and going for two weeks.

“Until Thursday?”
“Until Thursday!”
“How do you say ‘goodbye’ in Chinese?”
“Easy. Bye-bye,” she said with a smile.
“No, in Mandarin.”
“Zài jiàn,” she said.
“Zài jiàn,” I repeated as best I could.
“Oh, your accent is good!”

I like this already!

I went shopping. Still didn’t find red bean paste, but I did find black sesame paste! That’s good inside steamed buns, too. (I hope!)


So, the jar on the left is another jar of hoisin sauce (sweet, so I’ve already finished one jar). The other jar is black sesame paste (ground up black sesame seeds) for my next batch of steamed buns. I got another golden cake (sweet). I don’t know what that fruit is. Some sort of papaya or mango? I’ll find out.Those funny golden straw-like strands are dried bean curd skin. I’ll soak them, cut them smaller, then stir-fry them with something. Two young onions (really like the taste which is somewhere between onion and scallion), lotus root (the big bulb), and young fresh ginger (deliciously mild and tender). Oh, I forgot the green plant on the far left. It’s kind of like bok choy, only little baby size. It’s very tender and tasty, a good balance to oil and stronger flavors. The stalks have a good crunch, too.


I have to look this spice up. They’ve got lots and lots of it. I was looking for the spices that are most popular, and making sure that I tried them. Some that I found, like the red hot peppers, are so popular the store has them in big open bins. But the most popular spices are not ground up (so I would have to buy whole flowers, whole peppercorns, whole anise seed, etc.) I’m adding a mortar and pestle (or equivalent) to my shopping list so I can try all these common Sichuan ingredients.

For dinner, I made a stir-fry hodge-podge of vegetables that needed to get eaten. I even chopped up my last steam bun and threw it in. Roasted some more Cali-Sino-style peanuts to snack on (note: I ate too many peanuts so eat less next time).


PS: As I wrote this blog, I ate a couple more of my “graze” snacks. Thank you, Sarah 🙂


About jamescmarch

A child of the '50's in rural Pennsylvania, an adolescent of the '60's in southern California, and a political activist of the 1970's in northern California, I have been a husband, a college graduate, an expert witness, a banker, a father, a software entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. Today, I follow my heart by writing.
This entry was posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Big Breakthrough

  1. Ken Piotrowski says:

    Good job Jim it’s nice to see how excited you are about this !

    • jamescmarch says:

      It is exciting! I have learned over the years to wait patiently for my brain to grow accustomed to change. I can’t learn faster than my senses can perceive, and my little gray cells are always working hard to find new patterns to recognize. But it takes some time. Here’s how I think I best learn a new language:

      1. Look at and try to distinguish the new language. Don’t try to understand what I’m reading, just expose my eyes to the new shapes. Let my brain automatically start to classify and categorize these new images.

      2. Wear ear phones and listen to the new language. Don’t try to understand anything. Just let the sounds hit my eardrums. I don’t even have to pay attention to it. My little brain will start paying attention to and “hearing” new sounds, new phonemes. Before my brain has the time to do this fundamental work, my conscious efforts to “hear” and pronounce new sounds will be frustrating and not very successful.

      3. Find something that is really interesting about the new language, something that will capture my interest and make me want to explore all the newness. I did this in China by realizing that I was fascinated with painting the characters using a traditional brush and ink set (rice paper, brush holder, ink sticks, the whole banana). Then just play, have fun, keep my positive attitude and excitement about what I was doing to provide positive reinforcement to the very difficult task of learning Chinese.

      Thanks for the encouragement! I’ll keep you “posted” 😉


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