当前位置: 首页 > 征文作品外教组 >  Freestyle Mandarin Learning
六月有奖征文:Freestyle Mandarin Learning

作者:Michael Finn | 来源:广州市沃尔德文化教育咨询服务有限公司

 I had just graduated university with a master’s degree in Journalism and absolutely no job prospects, like many other people in my situation. Since I’m Irish, I might as well keep up with tradition and emigrate to a bigger country with more opportunities.


Most of my peers would venture to Canada, Australia or England; places with very mild culture shock and slightly inferior butter, but I didn’t want to have to land on the ground risking my money on the chance that I might get a job.


Both of my older sisters have lived abroad, one in Korea and the other in Spain, and taught there as ESL teachers. Having already gotten my TEFL over the summer before graduation, I just needed to search endlessly for positions in Asia that weren’t scams, eventually settling for Guangzhou.


They both had an advantage in their respective countries; one studied Spanish in school and the Korean Hangul system actually makes sense, unlike Chinese which is just a bunch of squiggles thrown into a giant bag and understood, for some reason, by two billion people.


I have never shown an interest in learning Chinese and was cautiously optimistic about the move, since China is usually used as a euphemism for; ‘a place far a away that does things differently’ (see, the wrong way).


Naturally, I had to polish out the basics of the language, so I got a dictionary and a beginner’s textbook. “Ni Hao, Wo Jiao Mickey...... Okay, I just have to learn this pinyin first and worry about the tones later. I can’t expect to recognise these characters, there’s millions of them”.


In the weeks leading up to my departure, I knew I had a long way to go, so hopefully manic gestures and loud shouting could bridge the language divide. From my experience of traveling abroad, surely service staff would have some level of English?


I arrived in Guangzhou, still unsure how to pronounce the name of the city (Guang....Jew?) and was introduced to the office of my new company. It was amazing to be in the middle of a city where every forth building was taller than the tallest building in Ireland. This was the centre, and aside from the massive population, the heat and the non-latin script on all the signs, it felt like a normal city.


Until I got settled into my kindergarten, my Chinese co-workers were sorting everything left right and centre. I could give the learning a break, but picked up things passively. “So 入口 means ‘entrance’ and 出口 means ‘exit’”, I noticed but didn’t know what the pronunciation meant.


My new kindergarten was in the peripheral Zengcheng City, about two hours from all my new friends in Guangzhou by bus, and with me as the resident laowai. Getting hollered at was an hourly occurrence once I left my house, since I am white and bearded. Old people and children would stare, and groups of teenagers would shout ‘HALLOU’ and ‘You are very handsome!’, and there wasn’t much to do but soak it in. Back in Ireland, I’d get attacked for no reason.


The city was a chaotic but organised, motorbikes with a family of five and no helmets would risk death from the potential carnage that is a normal Chinese road. Chickens would wander around my apartment complex and elderly women would randomly point their grandchild’s arse like a gun and let them go to the toilet on the street. The streets were alive most of the night, unlike Ireland which can be calm, quiet and where most shops are closed by 19:00, except for the pubs.


None of my co-workers spoke English, nor did the motorbike taxis or the ‘mei nu’s at restaurants, so I was relying on WeChat too much and being ripped off for my ignorance. I couldn’t approach this language as a school subject, it was sink or swim.

From the other laowais I’ve met here, they seemed to be able to put us into taxis and talk to the drivers with confidence, as well as order food and booze. At the time, I thought they were amazing, but in hindsight, they were just shouting out important words with absolutely atrocious tones, but it’s better than nothing and I just needed to communicate.


“Food, right. This little thing here(鸡)means chicken, so I’ll have to just get that and hope that all those other ‘sqiggles’ mean something that taste good”. Eventually asking for a tai dan was second nature and I learned the words for all the main meats, so if there were no pictures, I’d close my eyes and dive in. My new favorite vegetable is eggplant, so I needed to ask about ‘Chay-zi’ (qiézi 茄子).


Eventually I was using the motorbike taxis so much I was giving ‘zuo’, ‘you’ and ‘Bǐzhí zǒu’ (I even recognised the important characters looked the same, and .


Communication with the teachers was rough, and I often felt lonely and isolated. But I eventually figured out how to ask for things (wo yao.... Eeeeeh.... Scissors?) and for directions (eeeeeh.... Zhe ge.... Zai na li?), but there was definitely a distance.


By the time I moved back into the city, I have been picking off Chinese characters in road signage, classrooms, and other resources. If I could pick off a character I recognised and learn through context, I’d have a better vocabulary.


“I see that character, . I’ve seen it in the word for park, which is GongYuan, 公园, like the money, but with out that box thing around it, . There’s a district in Guangzhou called SanYuanLi, 三元里, so I’ve added Li to my vocabulary, I’ll figure out what it means later”, just an example of some word association. I could go for months recognising the use of a character, but never how to pronounce it.


As a smoker, I started smoking 中南海. Never knew how say the word, just pointed to the box behind the counter, “zuo..... Eh, yi dian. Eeeeh bai (white). Dui dui dui. duōshǎo qián?”.


, that’s easy, it’s zhong.... Like zhongguo, the word for China. It means middle because it’s like a stick piercing a box, in the middle”. I always knew that Nan meant south, but never really focused on the character until I looked at a map of China, which has always helped me connect the dots.


“So Nanjing was the southern capital and Beijing is the northern capital. Beijing is 北京, Nanjing is 南京, great! I’ve internalised the Chinese compass. I know the Shang () in Shanghai means up.... or something. Oh, that character looks familiar. Ah! 中南海 means zhong nan hai!”


To recall the numerous examples of learning phrases and characters this way would take a whole novel. I learn from my students, I learn from getting lost, and seeing two words combine to make another word makes me appreciate just how amazingly intuitive this language is.

“So ‘Duo’ means ‘more, and shao means ‘less’? Duoshao means ‘How much’ (多少). Just like how ‘DaXiao’ means ‘Size’, by combining big and small, 大小”.


After months of frustration with the abysmal internet in this country, I started watching some English language TV on Bilibili.tv, which have English subtitles. I didn’t think I’d learn so much from it, but it was very helpful: Any time Hank Hill said ‘That’s great’, i’d see a 太好了, I instantly recognise ‘hao’ as good, and the tai means sun, or very. TaiHaoLe. When a character wants to confirm if everyone knows what’s going on, I’d see 明白, Ming and Bai, Ming from MingTian (明天)which means ‘Tomorrow’, and Bai () means white, from the time I spent in the Baiyun (白云) district in Guangzhou.


After two years in China, I can now banter with the Chinese teachers, and talk to them about my lesson plans without a translator, but if the conversation gets to heavy on vocab, a simple ‘ting bu dong’(听不懂)will let me off the hook.


As for dating and making small talk with strangers, I have held my own. In my position, you have to ‘fake it til you make it’, that is what my new friends were doing when I first moved here when talking to the taxi driver or when they ordered food. They sounded like idiots, but Chinese people know they are trying, and anyone who tries to fit in deserves the appropriate amount of respect.


Getting roped into a conversation with someone who has no English is about picking up on the words you can recognise: “Ni bla bla blab na li aaah”, I hear him say while he offers me a cigarette. I understand ‘ni’ meaning ‘you’ and ‘na li’ means where. So I just reply; “Wo shi AiErLan Ren”, meaning I come from Ireland. The other words I have to look out for would be ‘gong zuo’ (工作) meaning ‘work’ and, as previously mentioned, DuoShao.


The children I teach would constantly badger me in Chinese, and the English they do know are mainly token phrases that they blurt out; “Mickey Laoshi! I am a butterfly!” It really helps the learning process for me when I reverse engineer my lessons to teach me the vocabulary in Chinese. It also helped me learn that ‘Teacher Mickey’ sounds very similar to ‘Mickey Mouse’ in Chinese, something all my students pick up on very quickly.


My relationship with coworkers in China has always been a ‘fly on the wall’ look into this culture that I never thought I’d be so immersed in. Teaching small children and teenagers from time to time lets me see the level of micromanaging that goes into the upbringing of a Chinese child. Free time is a curse for these parents, whereas if my parents ever suggested I do some school work on a weekend or summer, I’d report them for abuse! I learned guitar because it was my passion and could get women, and even then I would never interrupt a weekend for lessons. To learn.


But I can’t complain about the very attitude that puts rice in my belly.


This level of pigeon Chinese will have to make way for some formal training at some stage, and I can’t rely on the Baidu Translate app to fill in the blanks if I want to keep living here, thus becoming some bitter and jaded expat who segregates himself from the natives like some factory owner living in the Shanghai Concessions circa 1920.


Cultures have always picked up traits and values from others, be it religion, politics, sexual hangups or linguistics. You don’t lose a part of your own culture for embracing another, which is the depressing attitude that is prevailing in many western countries, where people vote in wealthy tyrants instilling xenophobia to scapegoat the failings of their country.

Coming from Ireland, which has had its population decimated by emigration and famine over 160 years ago, it has been amazing to see the social landscape change as more foreigners assimilate into our country, professional and unskilled alike, bringing their own slice of life into our society. I hope China can experience the same, as it went from a poverty stricken hermit state into one of the most influential countries in the world.


Living abroad, no matter how similar or different it is from your homeland can have major benefits for your outlook. You learn more about your own language when learning another, and your experience can help improve aspects of the society that you came from.


No country is an island...... Not even the ones surrounded by water and sharks.

电话:010-52480300  传真:010-689486369  邮箱:wetalent@waijiao.org.cn