Thinking of Language -语言之想

Version 2
Just having the books makes you smarter!

After reading an article that claimed John Cena (WWE Wrestler) was a proficient Mandarin speaker, I had to find proof. And so I did. I saw that interview with Mark Zuckerburg where he did his Q&A in Mandarin. I’ve even heard one-time Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman speaking Mandarin. Apparently at some point in the recent past people up and started studying China’s official language like it was the crazy aunt’s dish she brought to a cookout that everyone swore they’d never try, but then did and loved it despite the strange smells and occasional indigestion. Too much? Anyway…

Whenever I hear someone who isn’t Chinese speaking Mandarin I immediately want to know their story. Why’d they study it? How and where did they learn? What tricks could they recommend for learning new vocabulary? Just picking it up is a pretty unrealistic sentiment when it comes to Mandarin, at least if you want to move beyond Survival Chinese, so to study means to put in serious man hours (are we saying people hours? Person hours?). When I hear non-Chinese people speaking Mandarin I also think of my first days learning it.

Probably Not the Best Way to Study…

Jayland Learning – the school that brought me to China – offered two one-hour classes a week. Every month one of the Chinese staff members taught the class, and this rotating teacher system created interesting incidents during lunch and dinner time. Mian Zi, or reputation, is highly regarded in Chinese culture, and even though there are about a million cultural gems that people pick and choose to follow in modern China, the influence and consideration of Mian Zi is one of the constants. There are all sorts of little intricacies to wielding and applying Mian Zi and I’m sure I still don’t know it all, but I do know a few things.

Make Your Teacher Look Good is one of the first tenets. So after about a week or two of classes the rest of the staff got it into their heads that starting a tradition of quizzing the lao wai would be in everyone’s best interest. From around the long wooden table questions in Mandarin flew toward me – Ni chi fan le ma? Ni dui zhongguo shenghuo xiguan ma? Zhe shi shenme (asked by pointing at random stuff)? Women de xuexiao you ji ge zhongjiaoshi? Waimian de tianqi zenmeyang? I could answer some, but not all. Getting one right brought a smile to my teacher’s face; wrong meant they sat a bit lower in their chair and got razzed a bit for their student’s mediocre performance.

Trying to simultaneously endear myself to my teacher and progress with my language study, I began translating super short stories and parables into Mandarin in order to recite them around the table. It was a big hit. Not only did the move literally get applause from time to time, my teachers quickly began to swell with pride. Even the school’s Ayi, a woman we all called Da Jie – big sister – took an interest in my story-telling. One short parable in particular made an impression. It was about a Dog who almost convinces a Wolf to give up his wild life to live with him and his master. The Wolf nearly goes for it until he realizes that to get the free food and shelter he’d have to give up his freedom and wear a leash. More than a month after I told it the first time, I heard Da Jie quoting the last line: “I’d rather die skinny and free than live fat and a slave.”

Notebooks full of words and grammar structures I’ve more or less forgotten and relearned over the years are stacked on my bookshelves. About a dozen titles like HSK Vocabulary Workbook, Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words, and Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide accompany the notebooks and suggest to anyone who ganders at them that I am completely fluent. I am not.

Because Language!

But I would consider myself a bilingual. Most would consider the term Bilingual to mean complete fluency in an additional language, but apparently there is a continuum. The field of study focused on Second or Additional Language Acquisition and Bilingualism has all sorts of words like additive and subtractive, coordinate, passive, balanced, and about a half dozen others to categorize those who use more than one language throughout their life. A big part of me – maybe the part that will push me to pursue a PhD in that area? – is fascinated by the different ways to analyze the role language plays in the lives of people, but another part of me just wants to be able to get a point across to my in-laws without them turning to my wife and asking “Ta shuo sha?” What did he say?

Living abroad, it’s no surprise that most of the people I talk with and work with speak more than one language. Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Tagalog, Dutch, Romanian, Korean, Mandarin, French – words from all of these languages crisscross and intertwine with English daily, and I love it. Maybe one day I’ll get to that stage some call Balanced Bilingualism, but until then I’ll just keep plugging away.


What language(s) do you speak? How and why’d you study?

Words of the Day

Illustration: Juan Leguizam/Wired


It’s been hard keeping up my Chinese study habits since I started at the International School. All my interactions with the staff are in English, except for when I chat with the Mandarin teachers or go to the copy room. In my ELL specialist position I try not to rely on my Chinese, but it has definitely come in handy in rough situations, and it’s helping me get a new student adjusted this week. However, I’m not improving.


I wish I were this studious...
I wish I were this studious… Credit:


The Learning Plateau is real, and anyone who has tried to master a skill that contains many levels will tell you that it is a leviathan that can lull the learner into languid complacency, making even the steadfast of students lethargic.

Last summer I had a great strategy. I talked with three different college students from different parts of China for an hour each, nearly every week. It helped with my listening, and strengthened my ear for dialect. I bought a great book (one of perhaps a few dozen now) with everyday situations and plenty of idioms and vocabulary. I always had it nearby and resorted to it many times a day, soaking in new phrases. Xiao Ming and I stressed Mandarin for longer periods of time, and she helped me with the correct wording constantly. Even my buddy, Matt, a guy who’s been here for 10 years, offered a few compliments. I was improving.


Yeah...I'm awesome...
Yeah…I’m awesome…

Then August rolled around and I was in a new position.

In an effort to break through this plateau, I have been learning a word or two a day for the last month. In my planner each week, on the weekdays, I’ve been jotting down words of the day. These words are terms that relate to my job or to something I’ve needed to know how to say while helping a student. This has been going on a month come St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve listed my words for the past month below, but I’m curious….anyone have any suggestions for learning a new language when you’ve already got a very busy schedule?

Um...It's either an unemployment sign or a Rorschach test.  credit:
Um…It’s either an unemployment sign or a Rorschach test.



Feb. 18—28

Influence  ying xiang 影响

I would rather…than…   Wo ning yuan…ye bu…

I’ve noticed…   Wo zhu yi dao… 注意到

Religion  zong jiao    宗教


Theory  yuan li   原理

Community    she qu   社区

Extinct    mie jue  灭绝

Consequences/Results   huo guo   后果

Compromise  zhe zhong / tuo xie   折中/ 妥协


March 3-18

To put ones head in the noose    jiang tai gong diao yu, yuan zhe shang gou (there’s a whole story that goes with this idom).

Simply, or to emphasize     jianzhi   简直

Instructions  shuo ming  说明

Example  li ti/zi   例子

Experiment  shi yan 实验

Never   cong lai bu…

Variables  bian liang  (bian hua wu chang= fickle) 变量


Eloquent   shan bian  善辩

Context yu jing / shang xia wen  语境   / 上下文

Background  bei jing   背景

Pride  jiao ao  (worth being proud of   zhi de jiao ao) 骄傲


Human rights   ren quan   人权


Improve/lengthen    jia qiang  加强




Just a Wednesday

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, my Business class was cancelled. The students all had meetings to attend, or at least that’s what they told me through e-mail. Either way, I was happy. That night I had planned to tell them I’d be canceling the following week’s class, too since I would be traveling to the Shaanxi and Henan provinces, so really, they had two weeks off.

I spent the day relaxing and writing, but in the late afternoon I went wandering around looking for a nicer traveling bag to take with me on the next week’s trip. I scoured a few local spots, but nothing stuck out. At the six-floor, maze-like Xin Ma Te (New Mart) I found a lot of chincey bags, but did see one style that I really liked. When I was looking at it I realized it was a much better quality than any of the others. I immediately realized where I should go to get a good bag: The Decathlon in downtown Dalian.

I hopped on the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) and took a trip downtown. The last time I was at Decathlon another friend went with me and we set up a membership card for me using my Chinese name. It’s pretty cool having a membership card with just “Li Zhuo Xuan” (Li-family name. Zhuo-Oustanding. Xuan-Tall, High-achieving. Everything I am, naturally. Hah). Anyway, I found the bags easily and spent the next fifteen minutes debating and comparing the merits of each one until I settled on a dark grayish green and black Quechua brand bag, the same brand as my jacket.

At the check-out I whipped out my card like a pro and threw out some Chinese and the woman in front of me spoke to me in English about how brave I was to walk around alone and use Chinese. I have no idea why she said that.

Back on the Qing Gui I read my Kindle and a few men began talking about the “Wai guo ren” (foreigner) using his computer, ignoring people. So I politely told them it was a gift and that it was a book, not a computer. They laughed and just continued on, this time laughing at my funny pronunciation. I continued reading.

I was tired, but felt like I wanted to sit and study some Chinese a bit, so I went to Starbucks. Lately I haven’t been drinking any coffee or consuming many dairy products at all for that matter. Every time I do I seem to get bad stomach aches and whatnot. I think I actually might be becoming Lactose Intolerant. Which kind of sucks since I love cereal, ice cream, and burgers…ok, I know that last one has no connection to Lactose Intolerance, but the beef is from the cow whose milk has now become my stomach’s nemesis. Anyway…I buy some subway and head to Starbucks (I swear I do live in China and eat Chinese food, but I wanted something different that night. Don’t judge me. Hah).

As soon as I step into Starbucks James, one of the workers I’ve befriended, yells my name. When I look at him his says, “Come here, please,” (qing, lai le) really loud. I tell him I’m coming and head to the counter, ignoring all the stares I’m getting. I’ve put a lot of face time in the joint, so now I don’t get stared at as much as I used to, but having my name yelled when it’s packed is like walking in there naked.

James asks me to translate for two friends of his. I have no idea why he thinks this task is something I can do, but I tell him I’ll try. Turns out his “friends” are a couple from Singapore who are an hour late trying to catch their Merchant Ship out of Kai Fa Qu’s port. He doesn’t know them at all, but is trying to help them get to where they need to go. Actually, all the guys on staff are helping.

I chat with the couple in English and find out that the husband is a sailor and his wife has joined him on part of his journey throughout this part of the world for a few months. They were supposed to meet their group at a certain spot an hour ago, but no one was there. They wandered around, trying to find help since they knew no Chinese or anything about the area until they came into Starbucks.

We all talked back and forth, James and the guys making some phone calls to local ports and me trying to ascertain the exact details of the predicament. The hang up seemed to stem from the fact that they weren’t sailing on a passenger ship but a container ship. This concept was incredibly difficult to convey, and I have almost no vocabulary for this particular area of the language. Eventually we got a lead and name of a port. With luck this would be the one they needed.

They asked me if I could help them, and since I had nothing really better to do and because I’d want someone to help me if I were in the same position, I said sure. I got them a taxi and directed the driver to where we needed to go (a part of Kai Fa Qu I’d never been to). Once we finally got to the port we drove around looking for the right gate or for anything, really, that showed some sign of being the right spot.

I directed the driver and even tried to talk with a police officer at the port, and in the end, we got to a gate and the couple was met by their people. The woman and man who pick them up are pissed, but I tell them about the mix up and how they got lost, hoping that I can smooth things over…I don’t know if I do.

The couple is really grateful and we exchange info to keep in touch later down the road. On the way back I laugh and the taxi driver asks me what I’m laughing about. I tell him that I think those two were in big trouble because the Chinese man and woman were yelling at them. He nods; no smile. Eventually I realize I haven’t eaten in a long time, so I pull out two cookies that I bought at Subway and offer one to the driver. He takes it and thanks me. We eat in silence for a moment and then he asks me if they were my friends. I tell him I’ve never met them before tonight. I don’t really know them. He laughs hard and repeatedly asks me if I really didn’t know them. He seems utterly flabbergasted that I’d help strangers like that. I tell him it just feels good, and we wash our cookies down with our drinks, me with my OJ and him with his tea.

Banking, Business Cards, and Babies

There’s a rooster somewhere nearby crowing, only it sounds more like someone gave a megaphone to a drunk sheep and convinced it to sing a Ray Charles song. It’s about 11:15 am and he’s been at it for a while now, so I can only imagine that whoever is using the thing as an alarm clock keeps hitting the snooze on the overgrown bird, or he’s trying to spice things up and set a new pace to the day. Either way, the rooster isn’t what woke me up; it was the fireworks blasting off somewhere down the road at 8:20 this morning. Probably some construction crew signaling the completion of the sixteenth floor of whatever building their workin’ on. Yes, yes, even as I’m crawling out of bed it’s apparent that I am, in fact, in China.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good old fashion explosion in the morning; I’m usually smiling when I realize it’s not an air raid. It’s all par for the course here in China, or so I’m slowly learning.

Ups and downs still abound, but I’m happy to report a nice up swing as of late. Our school has seen fit to give us our very own business cards, and I gotta be honest: I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit of puerile pleasure at seeing my name in bold with the position of Education Specialist next to it. We have a whole stack of them, and after placing one in my wallet and vainly staring at the others for a moment, it occurred to me that I don’t really have anyone else I need to give one to. So I’m thinking that everyone gets a free business card from Jordan in their Christmas cards for years to come!

Another positive note is that we’ve finally attained success with our banking qualms. For nearly two months we’ve been trying to send money back home, and this week it actually worked. While banking in China as a foreigner is a bit tricky, it still should not have been as difficult as our situation turned out to be. On the other hand, banking here has been the only time I’ve ever been considered a VIP client. As foreigners Noelle and I have always bypassed the grab-a-ticket-and-wait-in-line gamble on the first floor and gone to the second, apparently more affluent, floor. Again, cue the childish excitement. However, with the troubles we’ve had to overcome, I can only wonder how many blockades stand in the way of the multitudes that don’t get expedited service.

At the end of the day though, I still find even the inconveniences interesting hurdles that need to be jumped, not horrible pitfalls of a developing country. Through it all we keep learning. Everyday we get a chance to fail miserably with our limited Chinese, but with each exchange we make we correct a mistake.

Both of us are finding new areas of interest, too. Noelle has gone to a local orphanage with a few other teachers and her love of all things miniature has made that a passion of hers. Through her visit we’ve learned a little about the bizarre and overly complicated state of adoption here in China, and we’ve had our eyes opened to the common misconceptions of everyday health concerns that many Chinese seem to harbor. I don’t know if anyone in history ever said the condition of a nation can be reflected in the way it treats its poor, orphaned, and destitute, but I think it’s a damn good thought. It becomes clear that China is still a developing nation when you encounter and interact with the system that inundates and tangles those children in needless bureaucratic mazes. From what I’ve gathered, and it is supremely limited by my ignorance, the situation surrounding orphans can seriously be labeled a plight of some magnitude.

Our staff at the school, largely informed by another passionate Western Teacher, has gone several times to the orphanage since we’ve been here. It’s becoming a weekly venture that I haven’t had the opportunity to be a part of yet, but next week’s outing is coming up quickly and I have no excuse.

On a completely unrelated and slightly more selfish note, I’ve developed a fascination with the ancient travelers—Chinese and European—that made major discoveries of exploration in Asia and even parts of North America. Something about the unbridled sense of adventure and wonder in these men and their endeavors sticks with me, and I find myself thinking more and more about their legacies each day.

Someone recently mentioned to me that some of the young adults in China today feel as though they are, for lack of a better word, lost. Generations before have had battles to fight, injustices to right and changes to make. So many feel that their lives have gaps that can’t be filled because there are no causes to rally behind or quests to undertake. Sure, the countless stores catering to every sort of style and commercial fancy can distract the hordes of consumers, but even through it all people can feel the empty spaces. What I can’t seem to shake is the feeling that this is not just a Chinese dilemma. Even in the US the young people embody that rebel without a cause mindset without even knowing it. Rebels with no focus are simply agents of anarchy, and no one really wants to get behind that, right?

I guess it boils down to one thing, and it’s funny because this one thing is what I’ve been battling in my own life and within my writing for a long time now: we all want to find our voice and we want that voice to say something worth saying. I think my fascination with those voyagers of so long ago stems from a very universal appreciation for those that changed the world, or at least added to our understanding of it a little at a time. Maybe by diving into the past I can help elucidate an answer for the present, at least for me anyway. That’s all I can do, really–try to make sense of the world the way I see it.

We’re teaching, learning, and living in a place and time that has much to offer…

Heck, I’m even trying to learn how to play Chinese Chess!

More Chinglish: A blanket Noelle bought with puppies on it. I’m just curious about the contraction “into’a”….what is it contracting?
This one is up for all to see in the big shopping area…
This is the big Christmas tree in front of An Shang, the shopping mall. It’s actually very comforting to see them at least acknowledge the holiday with festive decorations and Christmas carols in the stores–even if the songs are in German, Chinese, and English.
I’m sure I don’t fully understand this, but I’ve been told that this is a common practice. They are burning paper money so that their ancestors or deceased loved ones can have money in the afterlife. They simply burn the paper right there on the corner of the streets and let the flames die down on their own.  I’ve witnessed this several times here and each time I’m struck with many conflicting thoughts. Even so, this is a very interesting practice. I call them Fires to Heaven.