July 08, 2009


Greetings from the Mainland!

It feels strange to finally be in the season that we are accustomed to calling summer, when it feels like we've been in summer for 3 months already. The temperatures daily spike well into the 30's and often well into the 40's. For the first time in our lives we have air conditioning. We are unable to open any windows here, because our windows have no screens (or screens that move when pushed). Being on the third floor of an apartment and having a spiked fence below the window, it is a little nerve racking to have the windows open. Especially since the windows are only 3 ft off the floor and have a delightful, foot-wide ledge that the boys like to play on. Mothers just love the mental images that come with those combinations!

Anyway, I have never operated air conditioners before, so I am still learning that. It either is too cold or not cool enough (however, I feel that I can mostly blame it on the fact that every button on the air conditioner is in Chinese, so we sort of just hit buttons until it seems to do what we want!). Similarly, our washing machine has all kinds of fancy settings on it, but likewise is all in Chinese characters. We just turn it on and then hit the largest, most obvious button. So who knows, cold wash/cold rinse, warm wash/cold rinse? If you come to visit us, don't bring any "delicates"!

After about a month of James and I riding a tide of confidence in speaking Chinese, we have both simultaneously crashed. Our brains have shut down, we have no will to study and every day of lessons brings a new revelation of all the mistakes we are making. It really is terribly discouraging. We reached a point where we could say what we wanted (brokenly) and be understood. I think we were so happy to finally reach that point that we slacked off, and now we are paying for it. But it is hard to get that same amount of will and effort back up again.

Another problem is that we learn 10 new characters for every lesson finished, which makes for about 10 to 20 new characters per week. Usually the text book writes out the Chinese word with our (more recognizable) alphabet with the tone used written over top of the word. Once you get used to the different pronunciations of familiar letters and using tones, it is quite a friendly system. However, whenever we learn more characters, it stops writing out the word like this, after that it is brute memorization of which character represents which word with which tone. In short, if you don't learn and study the characters carefully, you make many, very embarrassing mistakes! Now I am forgetting even the most basic words because I have not been studying enough. Ahhhhh!

According to Wikipedia, there are some 47,000 Chinese characters, each representing a different word. But apparently, most Chinese people can only recognize a few thousand.
According to my textbook, I should be able to recognize 140. James has devoted more time to characters than I have, and is consequently doing much better than I. In addition to this, Chinese is not subdivided into individual words. So even if two characters together make a word, they are not obviously placed together. All of the characters are evenly spaced apart. Thus, when I read Chinese, I sound like a robot.

Today, James is off on another trip. He flew out this morning and will return by midmorning tomorrow on the overnight train. I am going to Cambodia as mentioned earlier. I will be leaving next week on the 15th and returning on the 23rd. I have a few days of visiting projects as a guest, a few days with old acquaintances of James', and a few days of workshops. I am very glad to have people to connect with while I am there. I was very concerned that I would end up in Cambodia and be stuck alone in a hotel with no idea of where to go or how to get around.

James has told me so much about living in Cambodia. From the smells you smell, when getting off the plane, to the sound the "noodle-cart" man makes as he comes down the street, to the feeling of an approaching monsoon, to hearing some old Khmer woman speaking in a loud staccato in the street. I'll be waiting for it all (in full awareness that much must have changed in the 13 years since).

We will probably begin an online photo album to impart some of these (and other) experiences. It seems for the time being that Facebook has joined the growing number of prominent websites that are currently unavailable, even with a proxy.


1 comment:

derrydown said...

I remember well the brain fatigue stage of language immersion. It's really scary. You feel like your brain just can't handle anymore, but it is just a stage. Your brain is having a hard time sorting through all the information, but you will make it! Keep going and you will come out the other side. I hope you enjoy Cambodia, Jess! The people are so nice. Love, Mom