• "Learning Chinese felt like a punishment, but fortunately I managed to find ways to get by." (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Chinese is a difficult language to learn, or at least for me it was.
By
Carolyn Cage

6 Jul 2020 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2020 - 12:09 PM

I imagine most kids growing up in Australia spent their Saturday mornings sleeping in, watching cartoons, spending time with friends or playing sports. For me, it was waking up early for Chinese school, workbooks and weekly tests.

During the 45-minute commute to class, I’d cram sounds and strokes into my head, and wobble characters down the page of my exercise book as I’d finish off my homework in the car. I’d often think to myself, if only the teacher knew how tidy my handwriting would be with enough time and a smooth surface.

I’d sit in class next to my sister, and stress the mā, má, mǎ, mà tones as best as I could. Our disdain for Chinese school helped us bond as siblings, and my main motivation for doing well was fuelled by the fear that if I fell behind I’d be held back at the beginner’s class without her.

There were no summer holidays, and recesses were ever so stressful. Because I knew that around the corner was a stand-up presentation – and as someone who grew up with an immense fear of public speaking, reciting phrases in a particularly arduous language created an avalanche of anxiety.

Our disdain for Chinese school helped us bond as siblings, and my main motivation for doing well was fuelled by the fear that if I fell behind I’d be held back at the beginner’s class without her.

Chinese is a difficult language to learn, or at least for me it was. There’s the pinyin, tones, lack of consistency in sentence structures (subject-object-verb, but then subject-object-verb as phrases become more complex), radicals and components of characters, and don’t get me started on the order or symmetry of strokes.

I never understood why learning pinyin wasn’t sufficient enough, or the necessity for characters to be constructed in a certain sequence. I’d often take the 50/50 chance of using ‘ma’ or ‘ne’ on the end of the sentence, or unintentionally call my mum a horse (马 mă) instead of the Chinese translation of ‘mother’ (妈 mā).

Learning Chinese felt like a punishment, but fortunately I managed to find ways to get by. I learnt to master the art of character writing through repetition, and memorising characters using pictographs. The character for fire (火) was much easier to remember as a flame, and the character for rain (雨) imprinted effortlessly into my mind as raindrops on a window.

Working out ways to get around learning the lexicon became more of a priority than learning Chinese itself. As the weekly tests rolled around I’d flip over my ruler and copy the characters I had furtively written on the back, and ask my mum to buy exercise books with the smallest squares possible so you couldn’t see any missing strokes.

Working out ways to get around learning the lexicon became more of a priority than learning Chinese itself.

But that of course backfired when my mum would ask what I had learnt – or vigorously hand over the phone with long-distance relatives on the other end. I’d confidently recite the same phrases I knew with ease, but be riddled with panic any time I’d have to converse back. She eventually grew suspicious that I wasn’t learning anything new.

When I started failing class my mum hired a private tutor – which made me despise learning Chinese even more. As a child who went to Chinese school on weekends, had a private tutor for Chinese and a separate one for maths, in addition to speech therapy, music and Chinese flag dancing lessons – I resented my parents and refused to go.

It took two weeks for my parents to convince me to reconsider, and the bargain deal was that I’d be rewarded with a McDonald’s Happy Meal afterwards – which was significant proposal as fast food was never allowed. I craved the opportunity of relating to my “white” friends, and join in on the hot topic conversations of what Happy Meal toy we got on the weekend – so I willingly agreed. 

Looking back, my lack of interest in Chinese school did not only stem from the struggle but the unwanted feeling of being ‘othered’. Although speaking another language is now a well-respected skill, growing up bilingual felt more often than not like an invitation for insults, giggles or remarks about how I speak “ching-chong”.

Looking back, my lack of interest in Chinese school did not only stem from the struggle – but the unwanted feeling of being ‘othered’.

I still recall the feeling of dread when my mum would pick me up from school and yell over in Chinese, or the anguish I felt as she’d use it as a code language and murmur “jiào tāmen tuō xié” under her breath any time I had friends over prompting me to ask them to remove their shoes. Those memories are just as vivid as the micro racial aggressions that always followed suit.

But I reached a point in my mid-20s when I shed the internalised racism I was harbouring so long deep inside, and began to learn Chinese again – this time on my own terms. I enrolled in Chinese subjects at university and studied any chance I could; on the phone to my mum, to a waitress at a Chinese restaurant, and growing an obsession with daily XP goals on Duolingo.

Studying Chinese again ran smoother with self-motivation, but I realised my vocabulary didn’t extend much past the topics of family, occupation, food and common phrases. Instead of asking where my glasses were, I’d ask where my eyes were – because there was a limit to what I had learnt. I could recognise some characters in subtitles or on a menu, but couldn’t for the life of me remember how to write them.

It was akin to learning how to ride a bike again.

It was akin to learning how to ride a bike again. Perhaps not a bike with a well-adjusted seat or a greasy chain, but one that was old and rusty, and needed a fair bit of maintenance. Despite how rickety it was however, once peddling, I could do so at my own pace – and realising the privilege of being able to speak a second language, made it feel honourable, which put a bit more pressure into the tyres.

I don’t know if I will ever be as fluent as I once was, or if my Chinese will ever be solid enough to use in a professional sense, but hearing the excitement from my mum when we converse in her native tongue – even if I do throw in an English word here and there, or how much stronger my connections are to my culture and family, it has made giving up the Saturdays of my childhood more than worthwhile.

Carolyn Cage is a freelance journalist from Melbourne. You can follow her on Twitter @carolynanncage.

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