Learning Mandarin has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my time in Guangzhou. I’ve spent some time reflecting recently on the ways in which language learning has opened up my world here, helped me make friends, and allowed me to get to know Guangzhou better. With that in mind, here’s a look into the silliness of my language learning, the patience it requires, and how much it means to me here:
Patience is a Persistent Hiss
“Ssiii,” I clenched my front teeth and pulled back my lips. A hiss, then a short vowel between the “i” in “if” and “e” in “egg.”
Jan leaned in intently, tapping the Chinese pronunciation chart in front of me.
“Not ‘Suh,’ ‘Si!’” She said, mirroring my expression and saying it perfectly. The other coffee shop denizens fixedly ignored the two women hissing at each other by the window.
I first met Jan on my third day in Guangzhou. Hot and tired after a long walk through one of China’s largest cities, I stopped at a coffee shop. Summer had just begun and the weather was tropical, wet, and blistering hot. An iced coffee was calling my name. Jan took my order with a smile. Excited to try out my Chinese, I successfully ordered, but broke down into English on “for here or to go.”
As I picked up my drink, I complimented her excellent English. She admitted she needed to work on it more and asked how long I would be in China.
“Two years,” I shared, “This is my third day.”
“Oh then you have to learn Mandarin. Don’t worry, I can help you!” She replied.
Though I was keen to advance, we spent four weeks just on pronunciation. Mandarin’s tones plus a multitude of sounds absent in English were severely testing my patience.
“Ssiii,” I intoned in my best impression of her.
“Ah! Feichang hao (very good)!” She exclaimed, clapping her hands together.
“Maybe now we can try three letter words?” I asked hopefully.
Half an hour and more hissing later, we ran through some English. Jan was struggling with “though” vs. “tough,” “peer” vs. “pear.” English can be as unfathomable as Chinese, if not more so.
We packed up and headed out. I wanted to go to the local market to buy flowers.
“I can help you,” Jan offered, taking my arm as we crossed the street. “Watch out! Cars is crazy here!”
“Thanks, and ‘cars are crazy.’” I corrected while stamping down a sudden pang of resentment. I felt perfectly capable of going by myself.
At the market, Jan switched fluidly into Cantonese, helping me buy lilies, fragrant in the sweaty summer heat.
“Pork bun?” She gestured to a nearby stand I’d usually pass by, unable to read the menu. The simmering smell of the steaming buns was too tempting to pass up.
Munching as we walked through the neighborhood, I heard snatches of local Cantonese jumbling with Mandarin, the national language. The grimy apartment buildings offset by the vivid green of the trees, lush and verdant in the sticky humidity. Sparkling skyscrapers rose up overhead, a clash of old Canton and modern China.
Gratitude replaced my pride, as Jan retook my arm. There was so much to learn, but for now, I was content to be patient and explore Guangzhou with my friend.