A wise man once said, “Wow, oh my god, Mandarin Chinese is a super difficult language to learn and I have no clue how anyone in the history of civilization has ever managed to learn it.” Okay, maybe a wise man never said that. But I’m willing to bet tons of other people have said that, because it’s true. If you are a native speaker of any Latin-alphabet-based language, you’re used to using any combination of 26 familiar letters (and maybe a few accent marks) to create words. So, when you start learning Mandarin, you think to yourself, whaaaaaaaaat? How am I supposed to create all these characters and actually remember the 2,000 characters necessary for functional literacy?! AND REMEMBER HOW TO WRITE THEM???
I felt this way, too, at first. Despite learning Chinese in high school, coming to China proved to be an immense transition for me, and I found it hard to understand what people were saying, or, in some cases, what I was even saying. How is one supposed to learn a language so different from their own?
Well, that’s where Vivian comes in.
The agency I used to find my host family provides me with free Chinese lessons, and Vivian is my teacher. We have one-on-one classes, just her and I, three times a week. As time has passed, she has led me from a struggling HSK 3 student to a (still struggling, yet somewhat competent) HSK 4 student. Soon, I’ll take the HSK 4 exam. But what makes Vivian such an important person to me?
She is more than just a teacher, she is a miracle worker. When I first arrived, most of what I said to her was, “你可以再说吗*?” I understood close to nothing of what she said. In my mind, everyone spoke too fast and I was living in slow motion. But when I didn’t understand, she explained. She made sure nothing went misunderstood. When I didn’t (and, admittedly, still don’t) understand why we just sometimes add 上 after verbs to mean… something, she never once criticized my learning ability. She teaches, but does not condescend. She praises, but does not 捧杀**. She is approachable, friendly, and knowledgable. Lessons with her are the farthest thing from boring.
Without her, I would not know so many things. A teacher like Vivian is more valuable than all the textbooks in the world. She has taught me culture, slang terms, popular trends. She has showed me songs and apps and valuable learning resources. She has taught me how to make dumplings. If there’s a teacher who has changed my life here in China, it’s Vivian.
Today, Vivian and I accidentally spent almost our entire class talking (which happens a lot, because I really love to talk). As I mentioned before, when I first arrived in August, my Chinese was very poor. Today, we had a whole conversation ranging from gun control in China and America, to how I got stuck in Hong Kong for 15 days (long story), to the relationship between China and Africa. All in Chinese. At the end of class, she told me, “Your Chinese has gotten so much better. When you first came, you couldn’t understand me, you spoke slowly. Now, we can talk for awhile and you never have to ask me to repeat myself, you always respond well.”
I responded with a typical Chinese, “哪里哪里***”, but, I was fully aware, without her magic, I’d still be struggling.
*= “Can you say that again?”
**= 捧杀 is difficult to translate into English. 捧 means to hold up, and 杀 means to kill. Basically, if you compliment somebody in a way that makes them smugly assume they no longer need improvement, you 捧杀 them.
***= A very chinese way of accepting a compliment, literally means, “Where, where?” Used to simultaneously accept a compliment yet also insinuate you are not as good as they say you are.