I’ve returned to England for the winter holiday, and the journey back was much more pleasant than the journey out. When I tried to check in for my first flight from Changsha to Beijing, I discovered that it had been cancelled. After the member of staff had finished explaining this at some length in English, I replied ‘Xiè xiè’ – ‘Thank you’ in Chinese. This caused her to physically jump off the ground in surprise, before recovering and rapidly firing off ‘Nǐ huì shuō Zhōngwén ma?!’ – ‘You can speak Chinese?!’.
Me: ‘Yī diǎndiǎn.’ ‘A little.’
Her: ‘Wǒ shuō Zhōngwén háishì Yīngwén?’ ‘Shall I speak Chinese or English?’
Me: ‘Suí biàn.’ ‘Either’s cool, dawg.’
Unfortunately this proved my undoing, as there followed a fairly long set of instructions about changing my ticket in Mandarin, which I needed to clarify in English. Nevertheless, her extremely gratifying initial reaction made any slight embarrassment at having to revert to English worth it.
My nascent Chinese came in handy a few more times before reaching home. I was upgraded to first class for the Changsha-Beijing flight, and – this being my first experience of such promiscuous luxury – felt the need to ask whether the packets of seaweed-coated peanuts strewn about the first-class lounge where I waited for the flight to arrive were complimentary. This could certainly have been achieved in English, but using Chinese gave me a warm fuzzy feeling inside, and perhaps achieved a little something for the image of the ignorant Englishman abroad. My insistence on using Chinese where possible on board the first flight made both my day and the air hostess’s (whose day might otherwise have been spoiled by the passenger across the aisle, who seemed rather too used to travelling first class), and relieved the tedium of the 11-hour Beijing-Gatwick flight, as I was able to spend some of it standing at the back and attempting to converse with a steward.
Don’t get the idea that my Mandarin is good – I still have the conversational ability of an earthworm, and not even a Chinese one. My point is that even earthworm-esque Chinese can be useful.
When I left for China in September, I went with the aim of becoming ‘fluent’ in a year – anything less would be considered a failure. (My idea of fluency is something like ‘being able to converse about any everyday topic without significantly holding up the flow of conversation’.) There’s nothing wrong with lofty goals – indeed, another ambition of mine is to go from a decent club chess player to a Grandmaster, which could hardly be loftier. The problem comes with the idea of failure. I used to think that anything less than fluent Chinese was essentially useless, as you couldn’t use it to get work which relied on it (e.g. in translating/interpreting or most positions within China). Of course this is nonsense, and every level of a foreign language confers some benefits, from reading menus and getting around more easily in that country, to making human connections such as those talked about in this post which you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. (I’m sure some level of Chinese would also be a bonus for getting a job with any company which does business in China.) Likewise, each incremental improvement in chess understanding increases your ability to appreciate great games and enables slightly more satisfying tournament results.
Even if we can be philosophical about our (relative lack of) progress, and realise that a little is still better than nothing, it can be hard not to consider your efforts a failure when they are set beside the towering heights of your ambition. For this reason I think lowering your expectations temporarily – i.e. setting stretching but not impossible intermediate goals on your path to mastery – may be a good idea. Not setting intermediate goals has been one of the failures of my chess project and my Chinese project to date. Note that by ‘lowering your expectations’ I don’t necessarily mean forever relinquishing your aspirations to greatness; I simply mean setting a lower goal first, achieving it and appreciating it for a worthwhile end in itself, and then continuing on your path of improvement (should you feel that it’s a path still worth taking).
I’ll be blogging about my specific goals for the remainder of my adventure in China in the coming weeks.