NYU Shanghai

Chinese Adventures

Learning a language is an emotionally fluid process. At some moments you feel so confident that you are progressing, that you have improved. At other moments you feel so incompetent, that this language will never be able to be grasped. And you despair, for that inability to understand the language will shut off so many opportunities for the future.

Frustration with language is not simply because you cannot grasp it. Rather, the frustration stems from the consequences of being able to learn the language or not. You deceive yourself into thinking you’re fluent when you’re not in the environment. But when you try to live a normal life in that language and culture, so many terms and processes are unfamiliar.

As the saleswoman persuades me to buy some lotion, I can only understand about half of her words. I try to explain that I need something simple; she understands me as needing something fancier. But I know enough to ask for a different gift, rather than the conditioner she says the lotion comes with. She adds a storage container and two face masks, which is not a bad deal for only $10 US, I think. But I have to trust that the lotion doesn’t contain anything harmful since I cannot read the ingredients.

The saleswoman accompanies me down to the cashier register, and cheerfully announces her success with me to her colleague in an accented Chinese I barely understand. Once the total is announced and the money handed over, life falls back to its ordinary, understandable rhythms. On one hand I am proud to have managed that situation, but on the other I am lost, wondering what I actually did buy.

Keeping awake in class with some milk tea. (Evelyn Cheng)

But like everything in life, especially in the preparatory years of college, learning Chinese is an up and down process. Sometimes we feel like we have a secure hold on the future. Other times we feel that we were foolish to even think of the possibility.

The key? Persistence and patience. Like NYU’s motto, “Perstare et Praestare,” I will persevere, and excel.

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