Tuesday, March 4, 2008

I Made a Chinese Friend

Tai chi ended last week, so now my afternoons on Tuesday and Wednesday are free. On this first day of freedom, I came back to our apartment for a while and did some stuff online. I was rejected from the summer program that I wanted to be in, so I've been scrambling to find another program that I could join. On one hand, it's difficult trying to figure out all this stuff from halfway across the world, but on the other hand, it's a lot less stressful thinking about just staying here than it would be if I were in America and had to rework my whole plans for studying abroad. Getting rejected was tough at first, but there's so much going on that I've moved on pretty quickly to what to do next.

When it was 3:00 and I had been on my computer a few hours, I realized that I was in China and should be doing something that had to do with Chinese. I started walking without knowing where I intended to go, and ended up getting on the bus to school, with a vague notion that if any old people were doing tai chi I could practice with them.

School just came back into session this week at the college here, so for the first time I came in and there were Chinese students walking around. There's a fountain in the middle of the campus that has seating around it, and I saw this guy who looked like he was sitting alone. I sat next to him, and after a few minutes when he hadn't left and I had mentally practiced the first few minutes of conversation, I started talking to him. "Hi, are you a student?" He said he was and we started talking about our studies. I asked him what he was studying and didn't understand his answer, but that was okay, and then I told him that I'm an English major who's also studying Chinese. I just turned twenty, he said he was two years younger than me. That opened up a whole new avenue of conversation, since it meant he was a freshman.

We talked about where he was from and what he thought of Chengdu. The university we're at is the college for minority students in Sichuan province, and is proud of itself because it has people from all of the 56 minorities. Each minority has its own language and is ethnically different. Imagine the United States without any Europeans and instead with a ruling Native American tribe. Everyone is kind of the same, but the similarity is mostly political.

The guy I was talking to belongs to one of the nationalities. He can speak standard Chinese (Mandarin), but he also has his own language. It's interesting the way China handles minorities. The 97% of Chinese who are Han Chinese are bound by the one-child policy (with limited exceptions), but minorities are allowed to have more than one kid. This guy I was talking to is the first one so far to tell me had a sibling! He said that people of his nationality are allowed to have three kids. Another thing that China does is what we would call affirmative action: minorities who don't score very well on their version of the SAT get bonus points for being a minority.

All of this made for interesting conversation, but I felt like I was drowning. Even the guy's slow, basic Chinese had me working so hard to figure out which words I knew and what they meant and what I needed clarification of and how to ask him to clarify, and how to reply to his comment in the first place. He was so patient with me. We only had to give up on what he was trying to say twice. Every other time he could simplify things for me enough that I could understand. I live in a two-story house that is occupied by just our family. He usually eats in the cafeteria, but has the food that specially belongs to his nationality.

After a few hours sitting there, two guys he knew came by. He warned them that I didn't understand very much, but they introduced themselves to me anyway and were happy to try their memorized English phrases on me. The guy I had been talking to didn't know any English, except for Hollywood and sister. When they talked to each other, it was in their own language, which had at least one sound that Mandarin doesn't have. I think their nationality was influenced by Arabic societies, because they looked like they were from the Middle East and one of the guys' names was Achmed, complete with the whispered guttural "ch" that you hear in Arabic (Marian can tell me the linguistic word for it).

And that's how I made my first Chinese friend. His name sounds like Elias, and I don't have anything to offer him but he wants to hang out with me anyway, and we're going to meet each other at the same place next week. And although it was arduous, and not very deep, I had a real conversation with a real Chinese person for an extended amount of time. A few times when I was listening to him I started smiling because I was so amazed at myself. Then I wouldn't be able to concentrate on what he was saying, and he'd have to say it over. By the end of the semester, who knows how good I'll be? Maybe I'll even be able to smile and listen to Chinese at the same time. I do have a Chinese friend to do it with.


Anonymous said...

haha, i feel honored to be your go-to linguist. i don't know much about the arabic language, but i'm assuming when you say "ch" you're describing the sound that's like the first sound in "(c)hannukah," so it must be like a pharyngeal fricative. i think it sounds like some sort of huge bird when i make it, but i don't know what it sounds like when someone who actually speaks arabic makes it :-S

Anonymous said...

hmm...not sure what the best way is to post on this blog, but this mysterious, 'anonymous' commentator is marian :)