I’ve been teaching myself Mandarin on and off for years, ever since I met my wife Pei. As we were going into the airport to fly home from our first trip to China together (to meet her parents) she had to translate her father’s words, “You should get married soon.” You can imagine how awkward it felt. Her mother does not speak English, while her father can manage to say many of the things in English I DO know in Chinese.
My CoverMyQuest pitch was to learn as much Mandarin as possible by doing an immersive class, so I could get closer to being able to have a conversation with my in-laws.
Since my father-in-law is the Secretary of Party Committee (党委书记) at Nanjing College of Information Technology, and since they have immigrant students who are studying Mandarin, we decided to join the class there.
I already had the basics down and only had about a month in China, so I joined three months into the course. It turned out two of my three teachers didn’t speak English, and the third knew many words but wasn’t very conversationally fluent. My wife took me to class on the first day so she was able to explain who I was to the teachers and find out what was expected of me.
At the beginning of the first class, I was surprised by the need to give a self-introduction in Chinese to the class. I was so nervous that my mind went blank and I believe I said “我叫Alex。我是美国人。我不说中文！” (My name is Alex. I am an American. I don’t speak Chinese!).
Hardly a strong first impression, but everyone was very welcoming all the same.
After Teacher Sun asked if my name was Alice, I would adopt my Chinese name: A Li (啊力).
My classmates were 16 freshmen college students from Indonesia and two students from Laos.
In class we had to practice dialogues and then stand up and perform them for the other students. Some of the students would stick to the script in the textbook, but I also heard many meandering tales that degenerated to one of the characters asking for a bribe, arguing with the police (who were not in the dialogue, but would turn up to spice up the story) or hitting up their mother on the phone for money to go to the bar.
We had a great time attempting to tell jokes to one another in a language that none of us was very proficient in.
While not in class, I got to spend a lot of time with my family in China. My little nephew 元宝 and I overcame the language barrier and chased one another around in his toy car for a few tiring afternoons. My siblings-in-law treated us to delicious Chinese barbecue and then played Euchre with us for Christmas eve.
My mother-in-law and I ran through a parking garage, lost, searching for her car before the garage closed and left us trapped. Finally, my father-in-law and I (and my translator / wife) talked about designing sensors for a couple of applications (he’s also a Physics Ph.D.) and he told innumerable jokes, a couple of which I even understood without translation!
I’m still far from fluent but, thanks to CoverMyMeds, my time in China brought me considerably closer to my family, as well as increasing my skills much more than expected!