Four or five days ago, I probably wouldn’t have remembered what the subject header means, or have been able to read it in Chinese. Today, though, as I sit waiting to return my rented bike before heading to the airport to go back to NYC, I absolutely can. I studied Mandarin for a year in high school, and then majored in it in college, but that was unfortunately a good little while ago, and somewhat more unfortunately, I haven’t been back to mainland China very much since graduation. I have spent time in Singapore and Taiwan, both of which are Mandarin-speaking countries to a certain degree, but for the real good mainline Zhong.wen you need to be in Beijing, I think.
My Chinese was okay back in the day. I could read about three out of four character on most signs, although that doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to read 3/4 of a given sign – many Chinese words are made up of two or more characters, and unless you know what the characters mean when combined, it doesn’t mean you can read the word, even though you can recognize the characters making it up. Sort of like “butterfly.” You could know what butter is, and know what a fly is, but the image you get when you put them together isn’t much like what a butterfly actually is. My speaking was better than my reading – I was confident, even if I wasn’t always fluent, and could understand a lot of what was said to me and get by with the basics. I wasn’t having philosophical discussions, but I was pretty good at getting around in a Chinese-speaking place.
After more than ten years where my Chinese use was restricted to occasional, at best, a lot had faded. I was supposed to possibly go to the Beijing Olympics, and I had planned to bone up (I still have my thousands of Chinese flashcards waiting to be picked up off my desk at home) but when that fell through, I sort of felt that my years of prior work had gone down the drain. Kind of a shame, but nothing I was actively regretting. Life’s too short.
I was interested to see how much I would remember when I got here, though. When I first rolled in, not much – more like little flashes of remembering here and there, but nothing concrete. The people I am staying with are both pretty avid Sinophiles, and both speak decent Chinese. They’re both Western, and while I get the impression that their respective vocabularies aren’t quite as big as they would like, they have a very impressive fluency and confidence when they speak. So, they were able to answer my questions, act as sounding boards, correct my errors and generally help me get back into fighting trim. By the end of my first full day here, Mandarin was FLOODING back into my head. Every word I remembered seemed to trigger another, or a grammatical structure (just yesterday I remember that yi.qian means “before” and yi.hou means “after”). I was recognizing characters I hadn’t thought about in ten years. I’ve never felt anything like it that I can recall – it was almost a physical sensation, and it was pretty kickass. It also made me feel good that the foundation I originally had is still there. The accumulated detritus of more than a decade since regular study just needed to be cleared away.
I think that if I could be here for longer, maybe six months instead of six days, I could be pretty solid again. That’s impossible for me right now, but it doesn’t mean I can’t still practice at home. I hope real life doesn’t intrude too quickly, because being able to speak Mandarin is a skill I would love to have in a big way. It’s actually a very beautiful, elegant language, with all sorts of cute things built into it, almost like a code you unlock as a reward for putting in the effort to learn the language. We’ll see how things go.
But right now, I have a bike to return, and then I have to return myself to NYC. More on Beijing in an upcoming post, hopefully – I have lots of great photos, as well as some truly amazing Chinese comics I’d like to scan, at least in part.