My kids are the smartest people I know. My son is in fourth grade, and he can already speak conversational Mandarin; my daughter is in first grade and she, too, excels in the language. That is no easy feat. Believe me; I know firsthand how difficult it is.
The two of them attend Barnard Mandarin Magnet Elementary School in San Diego. They have been taught Mandarin Chinese since kindergarten. They are also well versed in the Six Ancient Arts of Confucianism, which were brought to our school by the Confucius Institute at San Diego State University. My son has a special affinity for the abacus. When we were offered a spot on the Confucius Institute’s trip to Beijing last summer for him to participate in the fifth annual ShenMo International Abacus Competition, we jumped at the chance to go.
If my nine-year-old son could speak the language fluently, surely I could learn a few key phrases to impress the locals.
There was a lot of preparation before the trip. While my son was honing his math skills on an ancient Chinese calculating tool, I was starting a journey of my own: the art of speaking Mandarin without sounding like a middle-aged, American, non-Mandarin-speaking mom. If my nine-year-old son could speak the language fluently, surely I could learn a few key phrases to impress the locals. I had six months to prepare.
I had been taking Mandarin classes with other parents at our school for a few months already. The curriculum began with numbers, which was a cinch for me because I heard my kids say them so many times in their kindergarten years. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as difficult as I thought. Then we went into interrogative pronouns, which were fun because we said them in a little jingle. “Shén me, Shén me… What? What? What?” A piece of cake!
Then it got harder… and harder… and harder.
While I struggled to learn the most basic principles of the language, my awe and appreciation for my kids’ Mandarin skills increased exponentially by the second. How could my kids distinguish between the four tones? How could they decipher the tiny variances in the characters? And what on earth is a “radical?” I dreaded mispronouncing the word “ma” and the ensuing insult this would cause to the other people in my conversation. I was terrified of errantly calling someone a “yé ye” when he really should be a “wài gong.” Learning Mandarin was not going according to plan, and the trip was fast approaching.
While I struggled to learn the most basic principles of the language, my awe and appreciation for my kids’ Mandarin skills increased exponentially by the second.
When our parents Mandarin classes finished at the end of the school year, the teachers challenged us to write a long sentence on our own. Inspiration struck, and I wrote: Wǒ hěn xǐhuān zhège hóngsè qípáo. (“I really like that red dress.”) Certain that I had written the most brilliant and poetic passage known to modern Chinese literature, I proudly memorized it in hopes of impressing my kids. That night at the dinner table I waited for the right moment. I cleared my throat and stated in Chinese: I really like that red dress.
Except that it didn’t exactly come out that way.
My kids stared at me in confusion, the looks on their faces implying that my head had been replaced with a giant dumpling. Then they broke out in hysterical laughter. No one was exactly sure what I said that night, but one thing was certain: I was doomed.
At last, it was time for our trip. My son and I flew to Beijing where two representatives from the Confucius Institute met us at the airport. They oohed and ahhed at my cute little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy who could speak Mandarin so eloquently. The three of them had an animated conversation while I shyly watched from the side. Then they all turned to me and smiled. “Nǐ hǎo” was all I could say. (I’m sure I said that wrong, too.)
The abacus competition came and went way too fast. Besides taking home a second place trophy for his abacus prowess, my son was lauded for making a lengthy speech in Mandarin in front of the 800 contestants, and then another speech the next day in front of over 1,200 attendees, which would later be broadcast on TV. We were invited to the Hanban headquarters, where my good friend and our school partner Dr. Lily Cheng interpreted my English words into Mandarin for other individuals. I was too shy to put to use any of the Mandarin I had learned throughout the year.
We saw the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and a great many other marvels. I tried saying a few words to the locals. “Yùshì,” the word for “bathroom,” came in handy. I continued to practice some phrases with my son, but the blank stares that appeared on his face each time I spoke gave me more anxiety. I was ready to give up.
Toward the end of our trip, we were shopping at a night market when I saw a clothing boutique on the street. My son was more interested in eating ice cream than he was in shopping for Chinese couture, but I dragged him in any way. Then I saw it: the most magnificent dress I had ever seen… and it was red. I turned to the store attendant, paused to gain my composure, and said: “Wǒ hěn xǐhuān zhège hóngsè qípáo.” My heart was beating so fast and so loudly, I was sure everyone in the shop could hear it. Did I say it correctly? Yes! The attendant replied to me in Mandarin without hesitation. My son stared at the interaction in shock and amazement, his jaw dropped so far to the floor that a parade of lion dancers could have walked right into his mouth. It was by far my proudest moment in China.
My son interpreted the rest of the conversation in the shop that night. I ended up buying a dress while we were there, although it was a white (báisè) dress. I wear my beautiful Chinese dress with extra pride because of my triumph at that shop. I will never forget the feeling I had that night and the acknowledgment that I—a 42-year-old mom from San Diego—could speak (albeit briefly) with a Beijing resident in her native language. The most important part is that this event is legendary with my son. I thank the Confucius Institute at San Diego State University for giving me my first opportunity to visit China and to accomplish this amazing feat.
Now I can’t wait to go back to China. I could really use some shoes (xié) to go with my dress.