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Learning Chinese: Before and after

Learning Chinese: Before and after

Mel Patching (British)


I wake to the raucous cackling of women outside my window. They are prepping vegetables for the tiny restaurant below our flat I presume. I stretch then roll over to peek out my window. Sure enough, they squat in a circle surrounded by vegetable peels and plastic bowls, yelling loudly at each other in what can only be an argument, scaring away whatever semblance of ladylike elegance they might have once had. Giving up on any thought of a lie-in, I get out of bed and go for a shower. 

Off to work. Locking both doors behind me I give a smug smile at how tidy our white doorframe looks compared to the gaudy red and gold stickers that adorn all other doors in the hallway. 

On the bus I grasp the overhead pole tight to brace myself against the driver's inept clutch control, and as the blare of the speakers defiantly penetrate my noise-cancelling headphones, I stare out the window in a desperate plea that the scenery will somehow drown all this out. 

Shops flash past. It amuses me how a restaurant can be sandwiched in between two hardware stores… Do they not mind the guy wielding metal on the pavement meters from the table they are eating on? I need to keep an eye out for some landmarks… no idea how many stops to go before I get off. 

Talking about restaurants… lunchtime is no longer something to look forward to. It's always a gamble: what is going to be put in front of me? I point to pictures that have clearly been downloaded from the Internet, and bear no relevance whatsoever to the food the restaurant serves. I usually cop out and just have what my friends are having, and then bear a silent grudge against them for ordering frog meat. Ew. 

In the taxi home, I pretend to be busy on my phone in an attempt to dissuade the driver from talking to me. He blabbers on, ignoring my feeble 听不懂's, and insisting that we are friends. Finally, home at last!

What a day. 


I wake to the raucous cackling of women outside my window. They are laughing about the latest antics of one woman's two-year-old son. "他不怕老鼠,老鼠都怕他!现在这里很干净!" (Tā bú pà lǎoshǔ, lǎoshǔ dōu pà tā! Xiànzài zhèlǐ hěn gānjìng! The rats are more afraid of him than he is of them so now the place is nice and clean!) Haha, cute. 

Leaving for work, it strikes me how bare our doorway looks bare compared to our neighbour's. Theirs is decorated with well wishes for the new year: 出入平安 (chūrù píng'ān) "Peace on all your comings and goings." How nice. I want one! 

On the bus I cling on for dear life to avoid swinging into an elderly woman standing next to me. I watch as she struggles to keep her balance, clutching on to the back of a chair where a teenage boy lounges, playing games on his phone. The loudspeaker blares, "Please give up your seats for the elderly, pregnant, sick, or those less able to stand."

I stare out the window at the rows and rows of shops flashing past. 家具(jiājù) "Furniture"… 西北拉面 (xīběi lāmiàn) "North-western style noodles"… 干洗店 (gānxǐ diàn) "Dry Cleaners" – oh good to know! I have been looking for a place to dry-clean my coat for ages. I glance up at the map: 4 more stops to go. 

At lunchtime I am craving dumplings so we go to a great little place where you can see the dumplings being made right in front of you. I scan down the menu:

黄瓜鸡蛋 (huángguā jīdàn) Cucumber and egg

白菜肉 (báicài ròu) Chinese cabbage and meat

西葫芦瓜虾仁 (xīhúlu guā xiārén) Pumpkin and shrimp

四季豆肉 (sìjì dòu ròu) Four season beans and meat

They all sound good.


(lái yí fèn huángguā jīdàn de ba, xiǎo fèn jiù hǎole)

I'll have the cucumber and egg dumplings please, just a small portion is fine.

…I say to the waitress then take a pair of new chopsticks out, separate them then rub them together like a real pro.

In the taxi home, the driver asks me where I am from, what my job is, what my salary is, where I live, whether or not I have a boyfriend. I laugh to myself, imagining an English cabbie asking such things. I choose not to take offence but to take this opportunity to practice my speaking skills. I ask him what his favorite parts of town are: 你最喜欢的地方是哪里呢?(Nǐ zuì xǐhuān de dìfāng shì nǎlǐ ne?) and how long he has been doing this job: 你做这份工作多久了? (Nǐ zuò zhè fèn gōngzuò duōjiǔle?). When I get home I scrawl the new words I had picked up from the various conversations I had had that day in my vocab notebook.

What a day! 


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