Lost in translation: My journey to gaining proficiency in Chinese

Photo of Chinese learning books
Je.T/Creative Commons

Related Posts

Despite the fact that I grew up in Hong Kong, my Mandarin is actually comparable to a dumpster fire. Long story short, I went to an American high school, so I am fluent in English and OK-ish in Cantonese but not so much in Mandarin.

Not to worry, I thought. After all, I attend college in the United States, where English is the primary language. Alas, COVID-19 hit, and I was essentially forced to return home. When I combined this situation with the fact that I’m taking a gap year, I realized proficiency in Mandarin is really important. First, I would have to work in Asia this summer. Second, the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus gave me second thoughts about immigrating to the United States permanently after graduation.

Two other events also spurred me on this magnificent journey to brushing up my Chinese. When I went to the doctor’s office, the conversation from my perspective went something like this: The doctor asked me in Cantonese, “When did you last … ?” I strained my ears. I deduced the word I was missing was some medical term, perhaps some medical complication? Because I was a rather healthy individual, I chose the safe response, responding in Cantonese, “No, I do not.” The doctor stared at me. Oh no, I thought to myself. I asked in English, “Sorry, wait, what?” and the doctor responded in English, “When was your last period?”

Also, I had applied to an internship in Hong Kong for a cool tech company, where my skills matched perfectly with what the people hiring were looking for. That is, until the interviewer declared, “OK, let’s speak Mandarin!” Great, I thought to myself, and I responded, “OK!” The next sentence, I simply could not understand, so I asked, “Could you please repeat that? I couldn’t hear very clearly.” The interviewer repeating it did not bring me closer to understanding, so I just ended the interview with, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do this.”

Sadly, I did not get the job. If the doctor’s appointment had pointed me toward the path to learning Mandarin, this interview was the final push I needed, and that day, I signed up for Mandarin boot camp.

A few weeks into my Mandarin journey, I actually really began to appreciate the value of learning a new language. I now believe everyone should learn a second language (this means you). First, it really encourages creativity in your native tongue. For instance, Cantonese is very vivid and sarcastic, and speaking it has greatly supplemented my humor in writing in English. Plus, language, especially Chinese, allows you to appreciate a new form of art. The Chinese character “問” means “ask.” “門” is “door,” and “口” is “mouth.” Combining these, “問” represents the opening of a mouth, which is what you do when you ask a question. “尿尿” means “to use the bathroom,” and “水” is “water.” So you can see the image of water leaving your body in this word. While learning a new language may seem daunting and while the process is certainly difficult, it opens up new worlds and brings you to places you never would have imagined.

Contact Kristel Fung at [email protected].