I first came to China to study Mandarin Chinese ten years ago (in 2005). It has been an enormous challenge and has taught me that mastery is a process, not a finish line.
I have learned much; particularly patience and persistence. When I first began studying, I felt I wasn’t learning quickly enough. I would go outside and look for opportunities to practice what I had studied.
One of my techniques was to hop on a random bus and ride it until I was no longer familiar with the area. Then, I would get off the bus and, not allowing myself to get back on the same bus, figure out how to get home. This left me to my wits, my dictionary and what little Chinese I had. This difficulty gave me enormous benefit and did wonders for my learning. I also discovered many new and interesting places and people along the way.
We often avoid difficult situations and challenges. However, these can be some of the richest, most rewarding experiences in life. Learning Mandarin has been an experience full of struggle, pain and confusion, but the effort I have exerted has returned to me in the form of rich rewards: joyful experiences, new friendships, exciting adventures, the strengthening of my mind and moments of realization. The process of learning is difficult, but as we solve the problems along the way, we can enjoy the fruits of our effort.
The greater the challenge, often the greater the rewards. If you climb a small hill, perhaps you will soon forget the experience. However, if you overcome the enormous challenge of scaling to the peak of a large mountain, you will never forget the experience. And the feeling you had at the summit and the memory of the accomplishment will be forever with you, enriching the remainder of your days. It is by overcoming challenges that we become wealthy with experience. It is by spending ourselves that we become rich.
One thing I wish to point out is that no matter how great the challenge, it is simply made up of many common challenges. Common challenges lead to rich rewards. One step forward is one step accomplished.
Below is an article I wrote for a magazine in 2007, two years after arriving in China. I share this in the hopes that it will inspire you to take on great challenges, so that you may build up the type of wealth that you can never lose, the riches that can never be taken from you.
Common Challenges Bring Rich Rewards
Many people will tell you that if you learn Mandarin your future will be filled with opportunities. There is some truth to this; however this isn’t why I study Mandarin. I turned to Mandarin because of a desire to have direct access to the Chinese world, to be able to experience it personally, and because I was looking for a challenge. Mandarin is spoken by about one-fifth of the world; the possibility of being able to communicate with so many new people is too tempting to pass up.
When I first arrived in China over two years ago I had about ten Chinese words at my disposal and pronunciation that rendered them virtually useless. One day, still new to China, I went to a local outdoor market which seemed to sell everything from fruits and nuts to plungers and haircuts. I approached a small stand and, looking in my dictionary, said that I wanted to buy some batteries. The owner paused, thought a moment and told me to wait a minute. He soon returned carrying a rather large TV in his arms. I stared in disbelief as he proudly displayed its features. I checked my dictionary and found that, due to my poor pronunciation, batteries and television sounded very similar. Needless to say, after this, I never again forgot how to say or pronounce these two words.
I figured that because a child learns the oral aspect first, I too should begin this way. I hunted for opportunities in the “real world” to use what I had learned and to solidify it in my brain. It seems that the daily study provides the soil and the seeds, but the language really starts to flower when it is fertilized and watered by interaction and daily communication with the local people. One day, I became absorbed in the way a mother was speaking to her baby, very slowly, repeating words, and clearly enunciating. I wished someone would speak to me like that. I began to cock my head to the side, wrinkle my eyebrows, and look curiously when I didn’t understand something. I would do what I could to show that I, indeed, wanted to learn. This opened the floodgates and suddenly many people began responding in a different way. Some people will not waste their time trying to explain every little word to you, but a few will. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get treated like a child.
One particular restaurant owner who is very good at speaking to my level seems to view me as a personal challenge of his own intellect: how well can he adapt his explanation to my ability. As my Mandarin improved, I have been able to interact with him even more. One day, while waiting for my food he began to quiz me on some words and phrases he had taught me previously. Despite a few mistakes, I was generally successful. He smiled, put his arm around me and, with pride beaming from his eyes, told me that today’s meal was on him. At that moment, what meant the most to me was the connection we had formed which was made possible by my commitment to study his language. Without this, our friendship never would have existed.
I continued to look for new opportunities such as practicing Tai Chi with the elderly, playing cards and mahjongg, memorizing Chinese song lyrics and jokes, and always carrying a dictionary with me. It seems that, in acquiring a new language, you inevitably go through cycles of ups and downs. When I feel good about my level I have to remind myself not to get cocky and lazy and when I feel down about it I have to remember that it’ll go back up again eventually. It’s a rollercoaster ride, but the sense of accomplishment and adventure outweighs all that is put into it. As my Mandarin has, slowly but surely, improved, the Chinese world has slowly changed from a chaotic confusion in which I felt separated into an abundant rich atmosphere in which I can explore and be a part of. It is a magical and beautiful process.
Recently, I was joking around with a little five year-old girl who lives near my home. She asked me why I have so much hair on my face (referring to my beard) and declared it to be too messy. She turned around and appeared shortly with a plastic knife in her hands. Before I knew it she was grooming my beard and constantly asking if the knife hurt. Between the smiles and giggles of those who gathered to watch, I assured her it was just fine. After her adjustments she produced a mirror and said it looked much better. Looking at her adorable, chubby face, deeply red in the cheeks, I felt gratitude for every minute of study I had put into Mandarin. Such a unique moment, tattooed forever in my mind, was the gift I had been striving for: the joy of connecting with a new world.
I am still far from fluency. Fluency is a goal for me, but isn’t the reason I’m learning Mandarin. I am learning it because of the experience along the way. The feeling that I have created this window into a whole new world through my own effort and determination is an immensely satisfying feeling and adds a whole new dimension to my experience in China. I feel so fortunate to be able to delve into such a rich and abundant culture and society. The more Mandarin I learn, the more I learn about China and its people. This allows me to better put myself into other people’s shoes and to become more patient and understanding. This, in turn, makes me a better person and can for you too.