Beyond Babel: Learning Mandarin Part II

As I made my way to the second floor, that all too familiar feeling of embarrassment began to creep back into my gut. Noticing my tall and overbearing figure slowing emerge from the stairwell, a couple of workers behind the counter smiled awkwardly as I walked toward them.

“Wo yao zhege,” I mumbled in broken Chinese, my finger pointing to a picture of a chicken sandwich. “Taocan,” I punctuated, to be sure the worker knew I wanted fries and a drink, too.

She then said something in reply that I couldn’t understand, though I felt it safe to assume it was a question. Guessing she was asking if I wanted that for here or to go, I mustered a “Zhebian,” which I had just learned to say the day before from a new acquaintance. His English was just slightly better than my Mandarin.

The worker smiled and took my 100RMB bill to make change. It was more than enough to cover my McChicken Sandwich combo, but I could never make out the price they quoted.

After about a minute, I was presented with a tray arranged just as it had been every other day for the previous three weeks or so. Taking it, I made my way to my usual spot and awkwardly sat down two tables away from a group of middle school students whose mouths were left gaping seeing such a large white man with a beard in person for the first time.

This had been my routine for weeks. Not knowing where to start with learning the language and being unable to order anything like fried rice or noodles at the shops littering the streets of Longyan City’s downtown district, I had settled for a steady diet of McDonald’s for lunch ¬†every day until I could make headway in the language. They had a menu with pictures I could point at, after all.

But, how would I make headway? I had virtually no books and thus far no one willing to teach me. The few acquaintances I had made during that first month all seemed more willing for me to teach them English than for them to teach me Mandarin.

I determined that I couldn’t spend my days in China like this anymore. I had to break away from the rut of not being able to communicate with those around me. It was becoming embarrassing, after all, to show up in the only McDonald’s in Longyan everyday for lunch and mustering an order with less than articulate Mandarin grunts and guesses.

More than that, I wanted to preach. That’s why I came to China in the first place. I reasoned that learning to order noodles and fried rice would be the first baby steps on the long journey to Mandarin fluency that lay ahead. So, that was it. As I walked out of McDonald’s that day past the group of middle schoolers with mouths still wide-open, I resolved to give my all to studying the language one order of fried rice and dumplings at a time.

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