Learning Mandarin Chinese

Five thirty comes way too early. I peel my eyelids apart only to realize our room is still dark and the only thing on my schedule is “study Chinese.” And literally, that is all I ever do. If you’re wondering where I’ve been, I can only say that studying has literally taken over my life. I have class every morning and then study all afternoon. I make dinner then prepare for my next day of class. It is an endless cycle and yet so rewarding. Every so often I say a few words to someone and when the “light of understanding” brightens their eyes, I smile and think, so it IS working. 

My commute is usually an hour and five minutes. I time it. Every day. I take a quick taxi to the bus. Every day my driver gives me a bright “早上好!“ (Yes, I typed that myself.) I usually smile back and return the “good morning.” Sometimes I grunt and think, seriously dude, it’s 6:45. We’ve become quite good friends, he and I. I then get off at the bus stop and try desperately to squeeze my little white self onto a bus with a hundred of their brown-eyed, black-haired selves. One day I got caught in a mob. Fifty people were madly rushing for the bus that was about to arrive and I was in the middle. It was run or be trampled. I ran. Once free from the mob I told myself I would never be that desperate for a bus and I would NEVER stand in the middle of a crowd again. Once on the bus I pull out my books and “stand study”. Twenty minutes and a million bus stops later, I reach the subway station.

People from all directions mill toward the station entrance. They come from everywhere. I often think, how are all of these people going to fit in there? Somehow they do and I’m amazed every time. Every morning there are “the runners”. They make a mad dash to the station entrance because they don’t want the 7:15 subway, they want the 7:14 subway. So, they run and beat at least ten people. I chuckle at their wasted energy and their now sweaty t-shirt. WHY?

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The line to enter the subway station is usually several hundred people long. Every morning we mash together to form one school of bodies shuffling in the same direction. Shuffle is the word that describes everything. Our feet move inches at a time as we press forward. The dirty ground scrapes the bottom of our shoes and that is the only sound to be heard. Heads are down and people listen to their ipods or watch movies on their phones. Some are on a mission to maneuver through the mass of bodies and again I chuckle as they usually only advance by three or four feet. Nevertheless, I applaud their effort… and chuckle.

Nothing can describe this scenario. The smell is a combination of a million food carts selling every imaginable breakfast item, the breath of the man next to you (usually garlic), and the exhaust of a thousand busses pulling into the station.

The sound is simply that… sound. No one speaks. It is the thunder of the subway rumbling in every minute. It is the moving of bodies. It is the honking of a thousand horns during rush hour. It all clamors together to create the description of every morning in China.

The feeling is the breathing in of polluted air. It’s soggy shoes on a rainy day. It’s having a stranger’s elbow in your rib. It’s feeling like cattle as everyone prods along, heads down, being directed by the bodies pressed around you. You are simply another fish swimming in the sea and once on the subway you will never see those other faces again.

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The subway. Let me explain the Beijing subway at rush hour. There is nothing in my culture, upbringing or past knowledge that could’ve ever prepared me for the subway. My stop is where the subway starts. It is the farthest north station on line five. For this reason it is always extra crowded and extra feisty. The subway arrives empty (obviously) and the seats are limited. The awaiting commuters wait anxiously for the doors to slide open. Once open, the first fifteen people at each door usually get a seat. Being the ignorant foreigner that I am, I stood in shock  that first morning. Imagine shaking a bottle of Pepsi and then giving the cap the slightest twist you could give. That brown liquid quickly finds the smallest hold and sprays it’s way out of the bottle in a raging foam. It happens so fast you can’t hardly see it. This is the best description I could find for the “spray” of people onto the subway.

The doors slid open that first morning and bodies flung in and dove for seats faster than I could say “wow”. So I stood there, jaw dropped wondering what disaster was headed our way to bring on this kind of mad dash. I realized it was the simple pleasure of having a seat while commuting to work. I got on and made myself comfortable standing somewhere in the middle. My stop is only seven stops down and takes only fifteen minutes. In those seven stops the subway packed full of people. After the fourth stop I thought, no one else is getting on this subway. We’re out of room. To my amazement, ten more bodies wiggled their way on at the next stop. I’m still amazed every day when this happens. I’ve even seen a grown woman take five steps back before running and jumping on. The force of her body, along with a little desperation won her a spot on the subway. After arriving at my stop I realized that eight bodies were touching mine (don’t doubt me, I took the time to count.) I also realized that the door was six feet away and there were thirty bodies between me and it. I pushed and shoved and said “excuse me”. No one heard or cared. Finally I got the elbows out and as the train slowed to a stop I made a desperate leap for the door. I got off just as the doors slid closed behind me. Note to self: stand by the door tomorrow. Now every day I plant my feet firmly beside the door and refuse to be moved. Bodies shove and wiggle yet I hold my ground.

Once off the subway I take a fifteen minute walk to school. I pass over eight lanes of traffic by way of a walking bridge and look out to view beautiful Beijing. I can often see hundreds of high rises and a backdrop of mountains. When the clouds sit low and the pollution is thick, my mountains disappear. I always check. it does my heart good to see the mountains standing tall and beautiful. It also does my heart good to see God’s beautifully created nature!

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The walk brings me panting to my class and giving a breathless “hello” to my classmates. I usually cram for ten minutes before class starts and then I sit… and learn.

My teachers give instructions (in Chinese). They tell us to teak a break (in Chinese). They ask us questions (in Chinese). We stare (in English). I tell people all the time, “My teachers don’t mess around!” That’s the truth. They say it once and expect you to repeat it. They give a quiz on characters they haven’t taught you how to write, but since they used it in class, they have every right to expect you to know it. They assign homework that takes two hours on top of your studying. They give you 95% even when nothing was wrong because “You can do better”. (Literally, I’ve had that happen). They push us… and we learn. Oh, we kid with them and play around. We have fun and they love us, but they don’t ever go easy.

After an hour commute to school, four hours of class and an hour commute home, I then climb five flights of stairs to our home. I breathe a breath of relief, drop my bags and eat a quick lunch. Then I study. 3-4 hours usually gets the job done and prepares me for the next day. To not study isn’t an option. To not study means I fail my quizzes and fall behind in class. That’s not an option. So I study. Lois naps and I study. Lois plays on the floor next to me and I study. It is my life. In between these hours of study I find moments of giving my baby tickles and enjoying dinner with my family of three. I rock my baby to sleep and give her her evening bottle. I then tuck her in, kiss her head and study a little more. I go to bed early like an old person and start it all over again the next day.

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And this is how a person learns Chinese. This is how I learn. This is my life. And every minute is worth it. Every minute will make a difference. Every minute will pay off. So, I say to tomorrow, bring it on! (And then after acting strong I beg God for help!)

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