Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Learning Chinese

As I've mentioned before, my father was hispanic and my mother was anglo-saxon/American. His family was from the Dominican Republic, while her family was from Scotland and England. My parents split when I was two, and at that time I had only learned rudimentary Spanish as a second language. Once my mother got her own place, however, my brothers and I spoke only English. I had to learn Spanish the hard way like everyone else -- through high school language class. But thanks to being exposed to it when I was a baby, the one advantage I had over everyone else was a natural authentic spanish accent that I didn't really have to work at, and a smattering knowledge of individual words like the words for "juice" and "dog".

What does this have to do with me learning Chinese? Well, you see, I hate Spanish and all things associated with the language and hispanic cultures. I was given crap all my life because I had a Spanish last name but yet could not speak the language or undersatnd the customs the way other hispanic people expected me to. So because of this I developed a negative stigma against the culture. To this day I refuse to learn more than the basic level of proficiency in Spanish because I vehemently do not identify with the culture.

However, I did want to learn another language. I'd been told so many stories about how naturally adept my mother had been at learning languages. She learned Spanish fluently over the course of one summer, according to my grandmother. I always entertained the idea that I had inherited her easy fluency with languages. I picked Chinese as the language I myself would chose to learn, rather than being something others expected me to learn simply because of my features and last name.

Let me put it another way: I felt I could only learn another language when it was a language no one on Earth would expect me to know. If my teacher or peers perceived me as somehow having an unfair advantage over a non-native speaker (as what happened with Spanish), I could not learn it. Additionally, I wanted a language that was so far out of left field that no one would expect it. I thrive in situations where people underestimate me. So naturally I wanted to learn something not too many people can learn easily.

This was one of the reasons I chose Mandarin. And yet it is only a superficial reason.

The other, real, reason I chose Mandarin was because of all the cultures on Earth, I've always identified most with Chinese people. That might seem strange for a mixed kid who grew up in the south Bronx ghetto to say, but it's true. From so early on that I can't remember why or when exactly, I've been fascinated with China. I used to read children's stories written by missionairies working in China. The stories were written by Westerners, but were about Chinese children and often took place during Imperial history (almost alway the Qing Dynasty, but I read a few from the Tang Dynasty as well). As a kid I found the culture so alien from anything I had ever seen before, that I used to think China was this mystical magical place. For me, the Far East was a real-life fairy tale!

For someone who hated his surroundings and the life he'd been born into, you can imagine why the allure of Asia had been so strong for me. As I entered puberty, it only grew more profound as I began reading histories and non-fictional accounts of China. I also read more serious Chinese folklore stories written by Chinese authors and poets throughout time. China felt like my home away from home, and yet I'd never been there.

In 1990 when I began high school, the Japan-o-phile invasion of manga and robotech anime cartoons had only just begun to take over hordes of dweebish American teens. And while I admit to being mildly susceptible to the allure of Nippon as well (particularly Samurai culture and coda), it did not even come close to the love affair I had with all things Chinese. Since I was a boy, naturally this chiefly developed into a keen interest (bordering on obsession) with all things kung-fu.

By the time I was 16, my main goal in life was to run away to China and seek out the legendary Shaolin mountain and study with the monks for the rest of my life. Say goodbye to my friends and family, and just disappear! That's how badly I wanted to be away from America and the materialism and senseless violence of the South Bronx ghetto mind in particular.

By the time I was 18, common sense won over and I realized that a more sensible plan was to go to college and study as much about Chinese culture as I could. I went to Middlebury College in Vermont primarily because it was a very strong private liberal arts college -- but also because it was one of the most esteemed and recognized leaders of undergrad language education in the entire nation. Not an insignificant accolade, I must say. Particular renowned were its Chinese language classes and instructors.

I started taking Chinese classes at a time when I did not yet know what my major would be. I came into Middlebury expecting to major in pre-med. Then this switched to Psychology. But when I realized how much fun I was having in Chinese language class--and that, in fact, I did indeed have a knack for learning the language--I came to an epiphany one restless night in January and decided to make my major Chinese Studies. And once I crossed that threshold, there was no turning back. I threw myself headlong into the endeavor of learning everything I could possibly learn about China. Not just its official language--but all aspects of this great culture and nation. Art, history, politics, economics, and, most of all, its literature. Although language study took up 60% of all my education time at Middlebury, my second love was studying Chinese literature. I devoured all of the classics, some of which I would later re-read in the original Wenyan -- the (classical) Chinese literary system of writing.

By sophomore year of college I was already taking advanced classes and preparing to study abroad in China during my junior year. However, plans unfortunately fell through due to financial reasons and also an oversight I had made in choosing my curriculum, which forced me to have to stay behind and take specific Middlebury-based classes or else risk getting kicked out of my major. It was a dark time for me because I had been so looking forward to studying at the Beijing Normal University and then, later, in the northern frigid city of Harbin. My friends ended up going, and I stayed behind. To this day it is my single most regret about my college education.

However, staying behind junior year turned out to have been a blessing. Because it allowed me to turn my studies towards modern Chinese literature and politics, a subject that I would find myself singularly attracted to. I also became engrossed in mainland China's dramatic film works, most of which had been banned by the Communist censors from being seen in the directors' own homeland. Had I gone to China, ironically, I never would have seen these movies during my junior year. Which would have been too bad as, due to these movies changing my world view forever, I was able to form the basis for the thesis I would have to write senior year in order to graduate.

Senior year, in addition to writing my 100-page thesis, I had now entered a super-advanced level of language study by this point. A level designed for only the serious Chinese major. This meant I was in classes with only 6 other students at all times, all of whom I'd been classmates with for almost my entire college career.

By this point we were studying Confucius and Lao Zi in the original script, conducting entire classroom discussions in Chinese, and writing out thousand-character essays every single week for each class! It was grueling, and my brain was mush--but I learned so much! I had long ago started dreaming in Chinese, but by senior year it had gotten to the point that I no longer remembered any Spanish. Whenever I tried to speak Spanish, the words would come out in Chinese first. It got so bad that it was sometimes difficult for me to even speak English, so immersed had I become in Mandarin.

I can't even wrap my head around that right now! Can you?

I ended up acing the thesis and graduating with honors. I had accomplished one of my main goals at college. Yet I knew enough to know that all my studies had only exposed me to the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and that the next step was to actually move to China and basically "turn" Chinese! :)

Unfortunately, I could not leave the people I loved behind after all. Most importantly, Lisa. We were too much in love that I could not bare the thought of abandoning her to live out my selfish dream of being some kung-fu hermit living on a mountain top in central China. I faced reality, and realized that I had other dreams to follow. Like becoming a writer . . . and marrying Lisa. So far, I've realized one of those dreams already. And I'm working hard on realizing the other.

I regret now, however, that in the 10 years since graduating, I have not found any use at all for my Chinese language skills. I don't have Chinese family members to converse with, my friends from college are all over the globe and of sporadic contact, and I've allowed myself to be too distracted by other personal concerns over the years.

All of which are excuses for me admitting that I have drastically forgotten a lot of what I've learned. I can no longer read Chinese even half as good as I used to be able to do, and my writing skills are almost non-existent. However, I can still carry on conversations in Chinese, as the lingual part of the language was the part most ingrained in my brain after all.

And, you know what? I still have the occasional dream in Chinese to this day! So I guess that's a good sign.

Over the past year I've been thinking of taking up remedial Mandarin classes. It's going to make me feel like a dumbass paying money again for something I've already learned before, but I jut can't allow for all that I worked for to go down the drain. I also need to figure out some way to keep the knowledge active so that I don't lose it again.

And, of course, I desperately want to go to China. I keep seeing three-week excursions being offered here and there, and want so badly to go. Maybe someday I'll work up the funds and courage to do so.

And there you have it folks. Why it is that I know more Chinese than Spanish, and why I feel more of an affinity towards Chinese people and culture than I do my own father's culture.

Thanks to Cindy over at A Little Sweet, A Litte Sour for asking me to write this. I know it was a rather long read, but I hope I covered all the bases! :)


cindy said...

david, wow, i'm so impressed. your mandarin reading writing speaking and knowledge of history and culture far surpasses mine! your journey was amazing. as for how you got to that route, wow, you are one stubborn bastard. haha! but i guess i can't say i'm surprised. ;*)

get this. i was originally a literature major (ucsd did not offer creative writing, alas), and the only reason i didn't stick with it was because you needed to be "fluent" in another language by graduation. i wanted to study chinese and knew there was no way i'd be fluent in four years--not as a non-chinese studies major.

and mandarin is so hard. if you don't use it, it's so easy to lose. thanks for taking the time to share your story. it only proves that you'll accomplish anything you set your mind to. i've no doubt!

David Batista said...

Oh, wow, thanks so much Cindy! That's really such high praise coming from you. I'm always jealous of you because you *are* from China (R.O.C.) and, even though you lost some of the language like I did with Spanish, you at least have family members who can speak it with you. And plus, I'm envious that you've actually been to Taiwan and Hong Kong. So lucky!

In your shoes, it would have been very hard for me to learn Mandarin since everyone would have expected you to naturally ace everything. And when you didn't, they'd then look at you like as if you're a special breed of retard.

It's what turns me away from learning Spanish fluently even now. No matter how good I get, I'll never be native fluent. And when you're hispanic and look the way I do, being only half-fluent is far worse than being non-fluent at all.

Does that make sense?

cindy said...

i do understand. at the same time,
who cares what spanish fluent people may say?
you know mandarin! you win! =D haha!
(and the ones who judge, you shouldn't mind

i would love it if the bubs learned mandarin and
had interest in it. but they will grow to be their own people, with their own interests. i admit, i'd be a little sad if they weren't interested--but it is their choice.

Ashe Hunt said...

I remember having conversations on the phone and you actually slipping into Mandarin, which I found profoundly interesting and rather funny. I wish my life schedule had allowed me to take more than the one semester of Mandarin I took 'cause then we could have maintained each other, as much as we talk. (That's still a plan I keep in the back of my mind!) Life plans are easy to plan in the head, harder to stick to in reality. I'm still proud as hell that you majored in and became fluent in Mandarin.

thE gEOgrAphicAlly blind said...

OMG Lao Zi, Wenyan, Confucius, and writing thesis in Chinese? being a chinese all my life i could never dream me being able to do all these... lol... guess i should be ashamed... the nearest i came to these was that i used to enjoy reading... erm... dunno if you know about this guy, his name is Jing Yong... he writes ... novels... =)

thE gEOgrAphicAlly blind said...

and erm... a little suggestion as to keep you from forgetting chinese... u can watch mandarin films i guess (or listen to chinese songs)... u don't get to speak the language but at least you could hear it... ;)

David Batista said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I envy you being Chinese! :)

And you're so right, watching movies and listening to Chinese music does help. I love Chinese pop music, btw! And my favorite movies are Chinese movies. When I watch them, I find myself repeating the dialog over and over. I enjoy the sound of the language, and forming the words and tones just right. So I guess I'm doing something right!

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