Second Lesson

Saturday, October 15th, 27 days left

Got up at 10am. Called Mom & Dad at 10:30am. Rod called at 1:30pm. Left for my Mandarin lesson at 1:45pm.

Arrived at the building and the door was locked, not just “key” locked, but chains wrapped around the handles. Checked other doors, all locked, some with hardened steel motorcycle locks. It reminded me of the 70’s, when universities had learned how to keep students from occupying buildings. Looked inside the building, but nobody was there. Saw about 20 girls heading into the building on the right side. Followed them, until I realized it was an art class. Thinking back, I was lucky I wasn’t walking into the women’s locker room! An older woman came up to me and asked me something. “Elevator?” I said, pointing upstairs. She indicated I needed to go around. I turned and left, passing another 10-15 girls, some now running. Class must start at 2pm. Three girls go by. I hear a very quiet “hello” as they pass, then giggles.

I went around to the back entrance. I had mistakenly taken the elevator down to the first floor during my first visit, and knew it went to the parking garage. There was a guard. I had encountered guards before, when I wandered down small roads the became private parking lots. Sometimes they would stop me. Most often they were there to open the gate and keep unauthorized cars out of the lot. I was already late to my appointment and didn’t have time to try and explain. So I walked right by him, turning and smiling with a “ni hao” before he had time to ask me anything in Chinese. I pointed to the elevator, pointed “up”, walked over, pushed the button, turned, gave him my most respectful “namaste” (hands together as if in prayer, moving them from chin height to above my head). He nodded, never said anything, and I got into the elevator, took it to the third floor. The language center was open. I arrived for my lesson at 2:05pm.

Alica was my tutor today. Originally from the south, she had moved to Beijing and loved living there (more opportunities, she said). She moved to Chengdu to be closer to her parents and grandparents, but looked forward to moving back to Beijing. She loves to cook, so we spent the whole lesson talking about food, learning the Mandarin names of fruits and vegetables. She quickly discovered my poor pronunciation of ‘c’ and ‘ch’ sounds. She said I was good at the ‘x’ and ‘z’ sounds, too good, because I used them when I should be using the ‘c’ sound.

At one point, after telling me, for the 10th time, to put my tongue against my teeth, she decided to take a different tack. She pulled out several tissues, hung them across her mouth.

“For ‘z’, not move. For ‘c’, move,” she said, emphasizing the amount of breath and the hard start of the ‘c’ versus the ‘z’.

She demonstrated. It sounded and looked like she was spitting into the tissue, so when she asked me to repeat what she had done, holding the tissue in front of my mouth, when she said, ‘c’, I faked a good spit.

“Better!” she said, “but keep tongue against teeth, and smile.”

I still don’t understand the ‘smile’ bit. But smiling isn’t one of my fortes, so maybe I just didn’t like smiling. My current theory is that by ‘smile’ she means I have to tighten my cheeks and the muscles in my mouth, causing a higher-frequency sound. I struggled with this in French. The ‘i’ sound in French is tight, not loose..

“Americans have such lazy mouths,” my French teacher would say. “You need to do some work to speak French correctement.”

I tried tightening my cheek and throat muscles.

“Better,” she said.
“Better give up,” I thought, then silently chastised myself, remembering that this was fun.


I asked if there was a tongue-twister she could teach me so I could practice the more challenging sounds. She did not know of any. Instead, she searched for words beginning with the ‘c’ sound. Shu cai (vegetable), cao mei (strawberry), an cun dan (small egg). I mentioned that I struggled with bu cuo (not bad). She giggled. She wrote down what I had said.


Bu zuo, which either meant “don’t do it” or “don’t sit down”. I think if I the only thing that I learn to say properly in Mandarin is bu cuo, I will be happy!

At the break, she called home, to talk with her mother, who had called earlier during the lesson. Makes me wonder if asking me, “Do you want a break?” is really just a polite way of saying “I need a break.”

We talked some more about Sichuan cooking (she doesn’t like spicy food), about cell phone apps, WeChat, and my struggles with getting a cell phone in China. I showed her pictures of my meals, my ingredients, which triggered some more words to learn. When I mentioned how hard it was for me to read labels, especially when large brush strokes and “artistic license” was used, she didn’t understand. I showed her the image of a carved-in-stone marker for a statue near Wenshu Yuan monastery, she looked at me without understanding. To her, the characters obviously meant Chengdu.


Chinese “Prescription Font” on left, Textbook Font on right (or maybe the left characters are a Chinese Native  CAPTCHA Font 🙂 )

I had a conversation with my brother about this.

“It’s just the same in English,” he said. “Think of all the different fonts we use.”
“Yeah, but we don’t carve doctor’s handwritten prescriptions into stone.”

Well, I guess my brother has a point. What I am learning is that there are some things which I need to pay attention to, and others which I don’t. I’ll leave that up to my brain to figure out. I imagine my poor neurons frantically trying to discover the algorithm to discriminate between Chinese characters that are different, while NOT discriminating between variances within a character. I just haven’t found my “cat”, yet.

My lesson was over on schedule, 3:30pm, though I did hang around until 4pm talking about cell phone apps and cell phones.

On my walk home I made two observations:

  1. Just because a shopping mall is made for pedestrian traffic doesn’t mean it won’t be used by motorcycles! Every time I walk through the ground floor of my apartment building, which is a big wide plaza with stores on either side, a motorcycle (electric and running silently) drives through. I guess it does look kind of like a street?
  2. Even though I am watching for hazards as I walk along the sidewalk, like the coil of pneumatic tubing I had to carefully step over this afternoon, I am still subject to dangerous footfalls, like the large block of granite that teetered and wobbled when I walked on it. Never forget: Pedestrian, Beware!

I also realized for the first time just how many KTV’s there are.


When I first got here, I thought KTV’s were offices for the local TV station. They always had TV monitors running shows in the lobbies, so I just thought, “Wow, that’s a lot of local coverage.” On any given walk I would pass about four KTV offices per mile! Now I come to find out, KTV’s are Karaoke bars.

Me: “What does the KTV stand for? Why is it in Western letters?”
Native: “Isn’t that what karaoke bars are called in the U.S.?”
Me: “No.”
Native: “Oh. I have no idea. I thought you would know.”
Me: “We have KFC, and KTVU, but no KTV.”

My quick search of the internet yielded a possible explanation (it’s an often asked question, after all), but as with many things born overseas (like karaoke), labeling the invention with an English name gives it more status, even if the invented name has no meaning or use in English-speaking countries.

Or maybe:

In any case, I’m sure this is the club that booms out music on the weekends until after 4am. There are no noise restrictions in Chinese culture (as experienced by the drive-by merchants blasting repeated phrases advertising their wares). So I don’t restrain myself like I would in the States when I sing out my window. Nobody’s knocked on my door, yet, not even any record producers 😦


I don’t know how to use the plastic tool the chestnuts came with.

Had a nice afternoon snack of mango and roasted Chinese chestnuts. Was not terribly inspired for dinner, so made an egg and bean sheet dish with vegetables. I ran out of my first jar of red pepper paste, so the dish lacked some kick. To my surprise, the dried red peppers I bought had no heat!




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.


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