I Am a Pancake
by Roseanne Etcheber-Cheng
My husband and I had the opportunity to move to Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong for the job opportunity that took us to Asia. While the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Hong Kong and the diversity of Shanghai were intriguing on some level, in the end the deciding factor was much more simple: in Beijing we would be forced to learn at least the rudiments of Mandarin Chinese, whereas we could probably get by in Hong Kong or Shanghai with English. What is the point, we asked ourselves, of moving to Asia if you’re not going to come back with some of the language to show for it? There is a mystique about Chinese. “I won’t just be learning another language,” I thought arrogantly, “I’ll be learning Chinese.” I imagined myself after my experience, walking the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco, bargaining with the vendors and ignoring the amazed people who stood in awe of me. Beijing it was.
I wanted to get a jumpstart on my Chinese so I bought some language CDs. My first sentence was Wo putonghua shuo de bu hao (My Chinese is not good). I practiced that sentence over and over in my car, much to the confusion of the people driving beside me.
The narrator of the tape kept repeating, “Remember, the tones in Chinese are just as important as the words themselves.”
“Sure,” I thought. “Whatever.”
As the time got closer to the move in 2005, I enrolled in a beginning Chinese class at the junior college in Mountain View, California. I was just as cocky as I could be walking in that first day. I’d listened to four CDs by that point, and was fairly confident that not anyone else in the room could say, “My hotel is near College Street.” I thought I would sit back, relax, and show the room how it’s done. I maintained that level of superiority as several tired high school students walked in the classroom. High schoolers? I thought. Mei wen ti (No problem).
My first day went…bu hao (not good). The problem with my Chinese CDs was that they hadn’t taught me any of the pin yin, which is the English alphabet applied to the Chinese language. When asked to write down my famous sentence, “My Chinese is not good”, my pin yin looked something like this: Wuh poo tong hwa shwouh duh boo how. My teacher looked at me like he thought I must be joking. I certainly wasn’t, but learned quickly that I probably should have pretended I was.
We spent hour after grueling hour repeating the Chinese pin yin sounds. “Bu” could no longer sound like “buh”. It was “boo”. “De” was no longer “dee”, but “duh”. And “Ci” was no longer “Si” but something that sounds a lot like you have every intention of showering the person you are talking to with saliva.
And then there were the tones. The voice in my language CD was right. Knowing how to say any word in Mandarin is of no use unless you know one of the four tones in which it’s said. After I was in Beijing awhile, I learned that the word for grass, cao, if said in the wrong tone, means fuck. The possibilities for offending people are boundless and terrifying.
After the third day in class, the teacher pulled me aside and said “Don’t worry. I’m not going to fail you. I can see you are trying, even though you are the slowest in the class.”
My cheeks burned. “I don’t care what grade you give me!” I snapped. “I’m moving to China in a month and need to learn this to survive.” I mustered all the drama I could.
“Oh my,” my teacher said, clearly concerned. “Well in that case, maybe you should stop taking the tests. You should just focus on learning… whatever you can.”
Surprisingly, by the time I got to China and into the swing of things I learned that the basic phrases I knew were understandable. The only problem was “My hotel is near College Street” was not a sentence I had any use for. I used my Wo putonghua shuo de bu hao every day, but it took me three months before I could say “Where is the bathroom?” correctly (that pesky “ci” sound).
The thing that amazed me the most was meeting foreigners who, at some point in their lives, mastered Chinese. Not every laowai was like me and knew only basic phrases. Many foreigners I met spoke practically perfect Chinese. I seethed with jealousy. I did everything I could to practice my Chinese with strangers, and used every miming gesture and “Chinglish” word I could think of to get people to understand me. That was okay for awhile, and helped me build my vocabulary. But that cocky CD-listening Chinese student I used to be began creeping back into my life again. It resulted in a classic (albeit quite common) experience—I looked like a jackass.
I had been feeling ill for a few days and was sitting in the car on my way home from the international school where I was teaching English. At that point I had been living in China for about six months. Our driver Jack turned to me and said, “Would you like me to take you to dinner tonight?”
I decided that I could answer him in Chinese. I knew how to say, “I am” and had just learned how to say “sick”. I turned to him and said, “Bu yao. Wo she bing.” I emphasized my third tone on the last word, expecting Jack to be the first on my list of Chinese people to be stunned with my language skills.
“And while she’s so sick, to be so clever!” I imagined him telling his wife.
Jack turned his head from me and began giggling. I had never heard him giggle before.
“No, no,” he said, waving his left arm in the air. “You just said, ‘I am a pancake.’”
The narrator on my Chinese CDs began laughing in my left ear. My mean Chinese teacher at the junior college sighed in my right.
If by “being a pancake” I was someone who felt like a total idiot who would never make it out of China with a shred of confidence or dignity, then yes. I most certainly was a pancake.
In an effort to maintain some level of self-respect in the expat community I enrolled in one-on-one tutoring classes at the Bridge School in Beijing. My tutor was a sweet girl name Li Meng who came to my apartment twice a week for an hour and a half. Our lessons were… what’s the right word?
Li Meng had the type of patience that I imagine cloistered nuns to have. She never sighed, never yawned, never gave me a disparaging comment. She didn’t giggle at me when it took me five painstaking minutes to tell her the following:
In the morning, I wake up. I take a shower. I make breakfast. I eat breakfast. I go to school. I work. I come home. I work out. I go to sleep.
I went through with these bi-weekly lessons for about six months and, lo and behold, my Chinese got better. Things people said to me started making sense. I knew one Saturday when I made the unforgivable mistake of going to IKEA during a sale and I was able to say, “Don’t touch me!” to the people that were shoving me out of my place in line, that I had reached a real turning point in language acquisition.
What happened next is tantamount to being told I must learn to fly or breathe underwater. Li Meng told me that I had finished the two introduction books from the Bridge School and if I wanted to go on in my learning I would have to learn Chinese characters.
“But why?” I pleaded. “Can’t we just keep using pin yin? What’s wrong with that?”
“Pin yin is just there to help you learn the basics. You cannot be fluent in Chinese until you know characters. It is not so bad, you’ll see.”
Mentally, I was transported back to my junior college class in California. My teacher there had also tried to teach me Chinese characters. My rendition of ni hao (hello) looked not like a child had written it—that would have been a compliment. My characters looked something like adolescent drawings of houses with smoky chimneys and squiggly lines representing birds flying in the sky, only bigger. Much bigger.
Some of my foreign friends in China who spoke Chinese offered this friendly piece of advice: “Don’t worry about writing the characters, just worry about recognizing them.” That would be sound advice except for one, tiny detail: I have a terrible visual memory. The idea of having to retain something as complicated and detailed as a Chinese character in my head seemed nothing short of impossible.
I did the only thing I could think to do in my situation: I quit my lessons. By that point I had mastered enough of the language to stumble and stutter my way through most day-to-day activities and didn’t feel the need to do much more. Did I want to? Yes. Did I need to? Well, maybe.
I’ve been back in the US for two years now, and I have yet to wow anyone with my Chinese. I still struggle with tones (most recently I told the Chinese teacher at the high school where I teach that I was feeling very “old”… I meant “tired”). When people who know I spent three years in Beijing ask me if I speak Chinese, I usually reply with a long, rambling, “Uh… well…. Kinda…” This is hardly the success I was going for. But in the end, I look at the woman I was when I left the US, and the woman I am now, and know that my success in Asia isn’t measured in vocabulary words or pronunciation. It’s measured by the guts it took to go there in the first place; the adventures and misadventures that are now part of my story.
Roseanne Etcheber-Cheng is a teacher, writer, and soon-to-be mother who currently calls Minnesota home. When she is not lesson planning she is hanging out with her husband and dog, Daniel. She is currently revising a book of essays about her three years living in China, most of which involve her making a fool of herself in one way or another.