Learning a language takes time. But once you do, you can enjoy the perks, like conversing with locals, getting jokes, & taking pleasure from individual cultural expressions.
For me, learning a language has always been about discovering a new world. Why else bother? Pragmatic reasons can be easily discarded. It’ll probably take me another few years of hard work before I even dare to attempt using my Chinese skills in a business negotiation, say, or when advising a local high-net worth individual on overseas investment opportunities. Better keep to the comfortable realm of English in these situations. And as for my daily needs, well, I happen to live in an increasingly high-tech world that abounds in language-related software; platforms and apps are competing in helping the lazy foreigner to conveniently navigate her surroundings while avoiding the effort of learning a single word of the local language. I know plenty of ex-pats, as I’m sure you do too, who live and work quite happily in China for years without ever venturing beyond the obligatory “Ni hao” and “Xie xie.”
But then there is the thrill of human connection; of talking to common Chinese people, perhaps people who’d never spoken to a foreigner before and never thought they would. There is the joy of a sudden smile on the face of a street sweeper when I casually say something to her while waiting for the traffic lights to change. It means that I’ll probably miss the next green light, and then the next, because chatting to her is much more fun than chasing a time schedule. There is the deep satisfaction of painstakingly answering a disturbingly direct and personal question in a language that gives me time to reflect while searching for the right words to express myself. There is the delight of actually getting a joke, like when the driver laughs and asks you whether you want him to pick you up at nine (“jiu dian”) or at the bar (“jiu dian”)…
But then there is the thrill of human connection; of talking to common Chinese people, perhaps people who’d never spoken to a foreigner before and never thought they would.
And then there is my private collection of local pearls: words that you won’t find in any other language, at least none that I speak. Idiosyncratic words that tell me something new about the world that I’m trying to penetrate. I’ll treat you to a few of these. Do feel free to reciprocate, I’m sure there are plenty that I haven’t discovered yet.
Did you know for example that in Mandarin there’s a special word for getting married again to the same person (“Fu Hun”)? It is not the same word as remarrying, mind you. There is another word for this, known as “Zai Hun.” “Fu Hun” means exclusively, and in my opinion rather intriguingly, to get married again to the same person whom you previously divorced. Which obviously leads to the question, how common could that occurrence be in order for it to get its own dedicated word? Well, not uncommon, people tell me. The recent spike might have something to do with the increasingly tougher regulation of the real-estate market. To curb speculation the authorities have introduced some restrictions when buying a second or a third home. So, what is a young family with some extra cash to do if they want to invest it in an extra apartment? Maybe divorce, buy the second one and then become a family again?
Here’s another favorite: “Luo Ci.” It means to quit one’s job without having another one. Turns out this kind of behavior is so common here in China that it has been granted a word of its own. I had a first-hand experience of it a few years ago when my Mandarin teacher got so furious at her boss’s measly present on Teacher’s Day that she resigned on the spot. The five-yuan-worth foldable towel that she got was probably a bit of a disgrace, but let’s face it, how many people in your country would quit their job over something like this?
And then I love the word “Yang Lao,” meaning to enjoy life in retirement. Maybe because I’m secretly in love with all these Chinese retirees I meet: constantly roaming the parks, swinging their limbs like acrobats, singing and dancing to an amazing array of musical styles and always laughing, laughing, laughing… Oh to be old in modern China!