Monday, August 29, 2011

"Mā, Má, Mă, Mà"

Chinese lessons are going well.  I've had three lessons so far, and I really like my teacher.  Jackie is so sweet, and she's an excellent instructor.  She and the other teachers say that my pronunciation is excellent and that I'm a fast learner, which is not at all what I expected!  I was certain that I would be absolutely horrible, as Mandarin is such a difficult language to learn.  How nice to be surprised!

Despite my unexpected skill, Mandarin is definitely a lot of work.  I move my head up or down in order to get my tones right (remember, each vowel sound has four possible tones), with the result that I sometimes get a sore neck after a lesson!  My head usually feels tightly crammed as well, since the teachers teach us through immersion.  Jackie conducts most of my lesson in Chinese, which means I have to think fast to figure out what she's telling me to do!  Most of what we've done in my three lessons so far has been to go over pinyin pronunciations.  It feels a bit silly, since in English these are just meaningless syllables.  Some of them, like bīng and sān, I already recognize as words.  Others, I have yet to learn.

In today's lesson, I discovered a word that I am certain could lead to an amusing mishap.  Apparently, if I use the wrong tone when saying the word "soup", I could accidentally ask for sugar or candy!  (Tāng is soup; táng is sugar or candy.)  Beth reassures me that most Chinese people should be able to figure out from context what I actually mean.  Whew!

I had my first big Chinese breakthrough on August 17, when I managed to call the water company and order a new bottle of water for our apartment (tap water is not safe to drink in China), in Chinese.  You cannot possibly know the euphoria I felt when the water actually arrived!  That's one of the things I love about living overseas: minuscule achievements are worthy of celebration.  I treated myself to a fresh mango for my success!

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"