After five months of complacency I’ve finally taken up Chinese lessons. Blissful ignorance has given way to unmitigated frustration and I often find myself thinking, “I know I almost know what you’re saying, but trying to teach myself Chinese with Google translator isn’t as constructive as one might think.” And so it’s been a week now of making new sounds with my mouth that I don’t think my mouth was meant to make and I can’t help feeling like maybe I was onto something before. My first impression is that the language is all about control. You don’t – can’t – move your mouth around to better enunciate or emphasize words as the different tones require that your lips and tongue take certain positions. And if you move them too much or in the wrong way you can easily end up declaring, “I am very water,” instead of, “I am very sleepy.” The language also relies immensely on context, as many words are pronounced the exact same way but have multiple meanings. “Man,” and, “difficult,” for example; two words that some might find more interchangeable than they’d at first appear.
On Tuesday I met up with my friend Eddy to grab coffee and reaffirm my decision to study conversational Chinese. It would vastly improve the quality of half of my friendships if I could meet people halfway on the language front. Afterward we played pool above a karaoke parlor. Ascending the gummed up, stained, damp stairs and entering the dimly lit room with its rows of aged pool tables I felt sure we’d run into the Chinese Tony Soprano, or at least a prostitute or two. But it was just us and a group of Korean high-schoolers.
Yesterday I spent the evening taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a street festival for the radish, of which there were truckloads (literally). I ate grilled lamb on a stick (well, nibbled at it until someone noticed and said, “You don’t have to eat it”) and tried a bite of blood in a soup of pig’s organs. The blood was a small brown cube with the consistency of tofu and the “organs,” whichever ones they were, looked weird and then I got grossed out and gave my soup to a friend to finish. Luckily I was with some very understanding Chinese who weren’t offended by my lack of adventurous tastebuds and the fact that I’m a stereotypical American who prefers his animal parts be an indistinguishable mass of crispy/salty/boneless white meat. I’d take up vegetarianism (again) but the thought of my dad’s meatloaf reminds me that that’s an undertaking with a time limit.
On the bus home my friends informed me of their affinity for Gossip Girl. They’re the third and fourth Chinese persons to have confirmed that for some reason the CW is defining America for an entire generation of Chinese. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s depressing nonetheless. They declared that I look like Penn Badgley (“You are Dan Humphrey!”) and after I explained that Brooklyn is not on the Upper East Side we parted ways for the evening. I have three more days of winter session and then I finally catch a break. These past few weeks have been a marathon (intersected by a vacation), but my March paycheck is going to be so big I might set off some fireworks in celebration. If only I hadn’t developed PTSD in the wake of Chinese New Year…