My marriage to the Chinese language

This year I’ve suspended all other forms of my life and devoted it solely to learning Mandarin. I realized my relationship to learning Chinese has taken the shape of a marriage: a volatile combination of patience, commitment, frustration, despair, elation, and overcoming.

What I mean simply is: I need to keep re-freshing my own commitment to the language. At multiple points during the day, I lose heart. I want to throw in the towel. However, those points are delicately balanced with moments of pure joy when I understand what is going on around me, and can participate in entirely new worlds, which open up because I am learning a new language.

Here are some of my daily frustrations:

Simple English sentences come to mind, sentences that I could say with such ease, swiftness, and lucidity (or one would hope) in my mother-tongue that I have no idea how to say in Chinese. When I draw this kind of a blank, I can feel a heavy ache, a sense of failure weigh down my tongue. But then, I remind myself that learning a language or doing anything worthwhile requires patience and practice, and being the son of two Americans with an Italian heritage, Chinese is not something that will come natural to me. Thus, I persist.

There is also the god awful feeling of regression, learning so much vocabulary and grammar, only when the time comes and I want to articulate a phrase I am sure I’ve learned, my mind draws a blank (different from the above mentioned experience of not knowing certain words to begin with). I’ve got nothing. Nada. Just like the irritating feeling of trying to remember the name of an actress or song title, and coming up empty, but-multiply that feeling of frustration by a thousand.

And, finally, there is the daily experience of clumsiness. Trying to attune my ear and my tongue to the living rhythms of the language, what people actually say as opposed to the grammar of the text book, or words looked up in the dictionary. I dread using the dictionary because I never know if what I look up is actually a phrase that is commonly used, or some dusty old relic from the language’s past forms. Every time someone tells me what I just said is 书面 or too bookish and literary, I realize I am out of touch with the normal flow of daily conversation. And the only way to become integrated is to repeat the process, again and again.

Besides, as a person who cannot sing to save his own life, learning a tonal language, has been tremendously difficult. In the middle of the conversation, I stand there, like a clumsy child attempting to juggle: needing to organize my thoughts; listen to what the other person is saying to me, make sure I understand correctly; and, pay attention to my tones, the materiality of my words, the uncomfortable sounds my mouth makes; as I try to make myself understood, and pray, in a very real sense of prayer, that at least a portion of the meaning will be delivered. (we are so misunderstood even in our native languages, that at best, when speaking a foreign language, we are traders in fragments and images).

But the moments when it comes together, the moments when I hear a short story being read aloud, a dialogue in a movie, or the confessions of a friend, and I understand it…. The moments when I am flowing with the language, anxiety-less, dissolving into what I knew all along, becoming part of the conversation… The moments when I am researching the history of the characters, or various proverbs, and a different, entirely new perspective comes into view, that would be lost in the English translation…. Those moments are so damn sweet, I savor them dearly.

A friend of mine recently wrote in a personal e-mail to me, in disagreement with my last post on love that: “the places where one feels most vitalized are places where you confront the boundaries of your self most forcefully.” I agree entirely with her statement because it precisely defines my marriage to learning Chinese as a constant confrontation, sliding backward, and pushing across the boundaries of my self. For me, learning Chinese is a labor of love, a life-time commitment.

Damn that was cathartic. Too bad it was in English.

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