I studied Mandarin for about a year before we moved to Beijing in 2006. I learned enough of the language to feel confident enough to jump in, feet first, upon arrival. It was sink or swim. I didn’t want to be stuck at home, in fear of being unable to communicate.
So, about a week after we landed in Beijing, I took my 1st grade vocabulary and ventured out, away from our secure compound. I shopped, I went sightseeing, I took my boys to doctors’ appointments. I was successful in my communication attempts about 90% of the time. When I didn’t know what a shop keeper was saying during a heated bargaining session, I faked it and I always convinced them my language skills were better than they actually were. (I might have a future on stage and screen.) I always told them I was a Beijinger (from Beijing) and wanted the local price, not the tourist price. I got what I wanted, most of the time; which is why I loved living there, most of the time.
Our Ayi (nanny/housekeeper etc.) and I conversed enough that we became friends. Sometimes we chatted in English and sometimes in Mandarin. Her basic English was better than my basic Chinese, but if numbers or dates or measurements of any kind were involved, I always switched to Mandarin. It wasn’t worth the risk that she’d give my two year old the wrong dose of Motrin, after all.
In my childhood, I studied Hebrew, in high school, I studied Spanish and in college, I studied Russian. None of these experiences, though, was as in-depth as my study of Mandarin, which was one-on-one with a teacher. So, now, whenever I have to attempt to communicate in another language, it takes a huge amount of effort to find the words in any language other than Mandarin.
There are definitely times, now that we are home, when I could use some kind of translation services. When we lived abroad, we often socialized with other couples from the diplomatic community and with couples sent abroad by their companies back in countries from Finland or France, Austria or Azerbaijan.
Most of the time, the women I became friends with were conversant in English or we used our elementary Mandarin when we were together, but now, as we are all back in our home countries, it is very difficult to write emails back and forth because their English language skills, like my Mandarin skills, end with verbal communication. So, a translation agency would be helpful.
Alas, I am on my own, so we communicate with short, simple exchanges. We make the effort, though, despite the complications. Living abroad, in a fishbowl environment like the one we experienced in China, bonds friends together. The friends I made in China are friends for life and for that, I am very grateful.
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