Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nĭ hăo

Why, why, I kick myself, did I not become bi (or tri) lingual back when I had a functioning brain?

For someone who loves to talk as much as I do, it is sheer torture to meet a non-English-speaking person and not be able to communicate! Oh, I put in my years of high school French with the formidable Madame Kohn (I still wake up in a cold sweat after dreams of being called on to read aloud from Balzac). But I was, and remain, truly the Teflon linguist: nouns and verbs slide as easily from my memory as fried eggs from a coated pan. 

Fresh from my failure en français, in college I decided to go German; my new husband was of Teutonic descent.  If I'm ever stranded in Düsseldorf, I'd better be satisfied with getting to the nearest playground (durch den park) for a turn on the monkey bars, because that's the only destination I can reliably articulate. Once, in a fit of I-don't-know-what, I bought some Irish language tapes. Did you know the standard phrase of greeting is "God and Mary be with you?" I am in possession of that useful nugget of information, which will serve me well on the Emerald Isle, where a whopping 1% of the populace still speaks Gaelic. When I took a group of youth from church to Costa Rica, I bought Spanish tapes. From them, I learned: how to order a beer ("uno cerveza, por favor"),which my mission trip kids would never be allowed to do anyway.

I had resigned myself to the life of the lame-o English-speaker, when along came Ya-Jhu.

Sheridan’s girlfriend has been living with us since the fall. She is a native of Taiwan, fluent in her birth language, but also astoundingly adept at ours. Yaj can understand (and make) jokes. She can use very sophisticated adjectives and adverbs, accurately. She fearlessly traverses the perilous landscape of American English. Therefore, when she suggested coaching us in Mandarin, what could we say but yes, please?

How is it going? Well, we’ve had two lessons to date, and both have been rather successful. I can now attest that things are tasty (hăo chī), and I can reference my computer (diàn-nǒw). If they ever start making computers out of chocolate (hăo chī de diàn-nǒw) I am all set. What’s the difference? Why do I feel even somewhat confident that I can become conversant in what is arguably the toughest language on the planet?

The difference is the teacher. We love Ya-Jhu. We would follow her lead if she were teaching us Esperanto, or Tagalog. We want to honor the effort she is making to bridge the linguistic gap. Sheridan is, of course, light years ahead of us in Chinese. But we will catch up, we swear. It's, increasingly, a small world. When we care, really care, we do whatever it takes to connect. Right now, we may be bu hăo (bad). But we will perservere. 

 Hello (nĭ hăo), small world. 

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