Friday, April 23, 2010

Leave and Learn

As our time in Taiwan draws to a close, I find myself getting sentimental about the small things, the daily or weekly interactions that I know I'll miss: buying magnolia blossoms from the lady on the street, chatting up my tea guy, exchanging pleasantries with folks at the morning market. I have also begun to distance myself from people I'm closer to, not unlike picking away at a bandage in hopes that the eventual ripping-off will be slightly less painful if the edges have already been pried back. I will miss the Taiwanese women I teach on Tuesday mornings, and the expat women I study with every Thursday. When I sit in church now I just want to close my eyes and listen, not sing. I hear about events in the not-too-distant future and realize they are nevertheless too distant for me. I am inching towards the door but still facing the middle of the room.

I'm also having to face my biggest disappointment about my time here: I have not learned Mandarin. I first came to Taiwan, way back in 2001, with a certain linguistic confidence. I had mastered German in school, was working as a sign language interpreter, had dabbled in French and Swedish and could even sing a hymn in Swahili. I liked languages. I could do languages. Since I was the only student in the "survival Chinese" class that year I expected that I'd pick things up fast, but even in that one-on-one environment I struggled -- I couldn't discern the tones, couldn't remember new vocabulary once I walked out the door, sometimes forgetting words as soon as I learned them. My teacher was patient, and commended me for my pronunciation, but my brain would not retain this precise, demanding, homophonic language. The irony was that the grammar of Mandarin, which is a hurdle for many foreigners, was so close to the grammar of ASL that it made perfect sense to me already. I didn't need reminders that time markers came first, or question words came at the end. But could I tell the difference between all those guos and guas, the shis, syes, and shrs? Could I buffalo.

I have learned enough from my intermittent lessons and bursts of solo studying to handle the day-to-day interactions. I can be polite, combining the right words with the right cultural cues for the most common situations. I can ask the time, tell a friendly stranger how old my children are, answer the question "Do you teach English?" with wo bu shr lau shr and an explanation of where my husband works and what he teaches. But I can't say much about my own life, talk about my interests, explain how I spend my days. I can ask, "What's that called?" but not remember the answer five minutes later. I dread asking someone his name, knowing that it will bounce off my ears and land, gently but irretrievably, at my feet.

I should've started with characters. I am a visual learner, not auditory, and love the meaning and images that are wrapped up in characters. This is a late-blooming realization, and not much use to me now that we're leaving, but I will keep it in mind. If Arizona is going to be home for a while I should start working on Spanish now, I suppose. And maybe if it comes too easy I can dabble in Apache.


Tim said...

Yue lai yue hao. Man man zuo. I love you.

Unknown said...

Apache is tough. I actually think Chinese is easier. The bad part is they will make fun of you and often look down on non-Apaches (aka Whites) who "try" to learn their language. They are a prideful people and don't like anyone messing with their culture. My vocabulary consists of words I needed to learn to make sure my students weren't swearing or making crude comments to me. I did leave with a handful of good ones though.