Tuesday, October 18th, 24 days left
Got up at 8:30am after a bad night’s sleep (including dreams about learning the wrong words in Chinese!). Got ready for my language lesson and left at 9:45am.
Not a good class. I am paying attention to the wrong variance in spoken Mandarin. The three teachers I have had (it’s a different one every lesson) have all pronounced sounds differently. I’m sure they are all correct, it’s just that I don’t yet know what to listen for and what not to listen for.
Pinyin is good in some ways, but bad in others. It doesn’t explain pronunciation and tones that change when combined. It also uses letters to represent sounds that are significantly different from the sounds those same letters produce in English.
Today, my teacher today was having me pronounce the “c” closer to a “t”. At least that’s what I heard, because I know the sounds of “c” and “t”. But she hears something I don’t, something in how the letter starts.
“It’s like spitting,” a Chinese friend of Jeremy’s had said, when I struggled with the “c” sound.
And then there are the facial expressions. I am realizing that when speaking Chinese, my teacher’s face is being used to create the sound. I saw this today when she would show lots of teeth to pronounce “c”. I got more and more frustrated, and when I get frustrated, little things start to bother me. Like how she won’t tell me that I’m not pronouncing the sound right. She never says, “No, not like that.” Instead, she just repeats the sound after I try to make the sound. She will do this over and over again, until I feel like giving up.
“You have to smile when you say it,” she said.
“I don’t have to smile for anybody,” I thought.
I clenched my jaw and spit another “c”.
“Good,” she encouraged.
I spit another “c”.
“Smile,” she said, pointing at the corner of her own toothy smile.
I didn’t feel like smiling. I felt like punching her in the face, that smiley face.
“Nobody can make me smile,” I thought, grinding my teeth.
Then it hit me. It was something in the way she was smiling, or not smiling, really. I suddenly saw her face not as an expression of some artificial expression of emotion, but as an instrument, a tool, used to make sounds. I remembered what I had already thought at a previous class, that the use of facial expressions were not to convey emotion. I pulled the corners of my mouth back, showed my teeth, tightened my cheeks, and made another “c” attempt. But I forgot to spit it, so she quickly repeated the sound. I focused: corners of mouth back, show teeth, tighten cheeks, spit…
“Good! Very good!”
Her smile was genuine now. I felt myself blush with pride, which prompted me to make another “c” sound, but my pride was too much of a distraction and I knew I had failed, even before she repeated the sound.
“Takes practice,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said, letting my frustration and disappointment ring in my voice.
“Takes time,” she said, “practice.”
But it’s not just my struggles with the language that has me down. As I talk to more people, I am learning about the Chinese culture. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to talk about things they don’t like, that are annoying to them at that moment. My teacher was a prime example. As I asked her about China, where she was from, what brought her to Chengdu, she was quick to complain about how she was unhappy. She started talking about “the young people.” She complained how “the young people have only one goal in life: make lots of money”. Later in the class, I asked for help with when to say “xie xie”, which mean “thank you”. I told her I don’t hear people saying it. My teacher went on and on about how people should say “thank you” more often, but that, especially “the young people”, were not interested in other people. By the end of class she was complaining that the general quality of foods and other products was going downhill because people were adding filler and finding ways to sell less for more money.
I don’t know about the changes in product quality, but I do know that what she said about young people isn’t true, based on the young people I’ve talked to. It was difficult to hear my teacher talk like that.
By the end of the class I felt I had learned very little, maybe even going backwards. The worst thing that can happen is for my confidence to erode, because then I just start mumbling and whispering when I try to speak Chinese. Today’s language class hit me hard.
After my lesson I went back to my apartment, trying to keep myself positive. I played my guitar, posted a new blog (very frustrating because the internet is barely working), and made a delicious dinner.