“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”
– Emily Dickinson
There are two examples that I can think of, out of the hundreds while I was in China, that stick with me whenever I think about why I taught myself how to speak Chinese. The first one was when I had a flesh eating spider bite from Cambodia on my leg. My best friend had brought them with her when she arrived from travelling and was covered in more than 15 bites. These bites start out as a pin prick the night before. The next morning, they start to expand and melt the flesh surrounding the bite. I was bitten and within three days, it was difficult for me to walk. My bite was about an inch deep, seeping pus and bleeding. It was about the size of a 2p coin (a silver dollar) and swollen like a Ping-Pong ball on the middle of my leg. Only an idiot would have thought that I didn’t need to go to hospital. I remember being sat in my apartment with my 2 friends and my ex. My ex was the only one who could speak Chinese. I asked him to take me to the hospital to sort my leg out. The pain was like a lightning bolt had struck my leg. He refused to take me. I started to beg him to take me. He still wouldn’t. He was too busy going to bars and passing out on the bed. My begging then turned to rage. I was so angry. I had moved 6000 for this waste of space and he wouldn’t take his boyfriend to the hospital, knowing full well that I didn’t speak a word of the language. Finally, he succumbed and said that he would send one of his friends with me. His friends didn’t speak English. I wanted someone to go with me who could tell the doctor what had happened. You can look at a leg with a hole in it and assume it’s anything. How would they know if I was allergic to anything? How were we going to communicate? Nobody spoke English! I refused the offer, still angry that my boyfriend who I’d followed this far wouldn’t help me when I really needed it. I hobbled down to the pharmacy and used my Google translate app on my phone to buy plasters (Band-Aids) and something to clean it with. Luckily for me, whatever I bought, worked well on my bite and was fully healed within 6 months. Every time I thought about this, it got me so angry. I wished that I could communicate like the locals do. It would have been so easy that way, not to mention that I could make new friends easier. The second example was again, back in my apartment, which was infested with cockroaches, moths, spiders and anything else that looked like a nightmare-come-true.
I hated those bloody cockroaches! Nobody told me that they can fly! Why is it that everything nasty in this world can crawl and fly?! You don’t see flying horses or pandas, just nasty little bug things that always go for the face when the lights are off and you just want to sleep. I read once that there’s even flying spiders in a jungle somewhere in South America. That is my idea of hell! I’ve never been good with creepy crawlies. They frighten the hell out of me. A 6’3″ man. How sad! Anyway, I had been in China for about a month. It was a hot, humid Saturday night and I was lying on my bed which had a mattress that may as well of had been a slab of concrete. The air conditioning unit was in the other room as the builders had decided that nobody needs air to circulate as you sleep. I was naked and lying perfectly still, trying not to move too much. The laptop was open and CSI: Las Vegas was on. The bed was covered in Oreo wrappers and Coke bottles. Another nutritious dinner for me. My boyfriend at the time wasn’t around, which was nothing new at that point. He was at a nightclub somewhere or at a hotel room with someone. I wanted to eat something healthier. It had been what felt like a year since I’d eaten vegetables. I wished that I could speak Chinese, because then I wouldn’t need him to translate for me or wait for him to return home, whenever that would have been. Running my fingers across my face, I could feel the oil and bumps from the spots which had returned with a vengeance since I wasn’t consuming anything apart from saturated fat. I snapped. I’d had enough. I picked up a notepad and a pen, hopped into a taxi and said the only street name that I knew which was, luckily, a night market food street! I got there and didn’t know where to start. The street was bursting with people and hundreds of little food stalls. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. This was going to be fun. Who knew if I’d even get home safely?!
This was my chance. It was my chance to actually achieve something by myself. All my life I felt like I had never achieved anything. I failed my school exams, dropped out of college and didn’t make it to university. Now I was young, living in China and ready to learn a life skill. I walked up and down the market street, speaking to different vendors, trying to figure out what was what. I’d point to something and listen to the word that they would give me in Chinese and write it down. It took a lot of patience and dedication but after a while, it became a really good tool for me to use. That notebook went everywhere with me for 3 months. I would write everything down that I could. I was like a sponge, soaking up every single Chinese word or phrase that I could learn. First came the names of food. There are so many different types of food over there, so to learn them as you go along is a very hard thing to do. Then came names of roads and places. This is something that I taught myself while in taxis. Taxi drivers will always try to get you to speak to them, whether you understand Chinese or not. It was frustrating but, after a while, I could understand the general gist of what they were trying to say to me. My students used to teach me a lot of words in class. I was teaching them English but, they would teach me the odd handy phrase at the same time. All of this went into my handy notebook.
One night, I was due to go the night market street again, about 3 months after my first trip there alone. I was in a taxi, having a conversation with the driver when I suddenly realized that I had forgotten my notebook. I had been referring to it every time I left the house, relying on it to get me from A to B, relying on it to feed me and help me make conversation. I felt more nervous without it now than I did before I’d even taught myself any Chinese. Nevertheless, I couldn’t afford to be any later than I already was. I got out of the taxi and walked towards where my friends were sitting. Upon being presented with the menu, which none of us understood, I found myself reeling off an order in Chinese. I asked for lots of things for the table, some not too spicy, some with an extra ingredient and some without certain ingredients. There was a vegetarian there as well so I had to cater for her needs too. I finished ordering our food and beer and sat there looking around the table at my friends who were at this point, jaw-dropped. So was I. I couldn’t believe that I was doing this. I was doing it without my book. I was doing it without a translator. After that, my confidence was spilling out. We went shopping at the night market. I was having conversations in Chinese with the shop keepers. Talking back and forth like I was one of them. I was on such a high. I got home at about 1am to my once again empty apartment. I waited for my ex to get home so I could tell him the good news. He finally came home at about 4am and I told him as soon as he walked through the door. I told him that I managed to have conversations without any help and didn’t make any mistakes. He was blank. He didn’t care. There were no hugs, no congratulations from him. I just wanted him to hug me and tell me that he was proud of me. Nothing. Instead, he said “oh, ok” and went straight to his laptop. I wanted to jump under the duvet and never come out again. This was another hold he had over me. Another way to control me, to make me feel like I was stupid. It was always that way. His lack of comments, apart from the negative remarks, always made me feel about an inch tall. This time that wasn’t going to happen. The old me would have tried harder to please him and try and show him again that I was in fact doing something that he could be proud of. After so many years of him making fun of me for not passing my high school exams and for not going to university, after so long of him telling me that I was capable of nothing, I was ready to prove to myself that I could do this.
I took absolutely any opportunity to speak Chinese and ran with it. It didn’t matter if I was right or wrong. I wanted to do this. I wanted to do this so that I never had to ask him for any help translating ever again. I kept hearing that spiteful tone that he used that night in the apartment when he refused to help me. I kept remembering the blank look that he had on his face when I just wanted him to acknowledge me. That was my fuel. With every new phrase that I taught myself, his voice got quieter and quieter. Now there was no stopping me. At this point, I was translating for my friends every day. I was sorting out utility bills for people, calling taxi firms and organizing taxis for everybody. I was the organizer and I loved it. This kept going right up until my last day in China. He still, after all of that effort, didn’t appreciate and still doesn’t appreciate that I taught myself so much. That doesn’t bother me anymore and hasn’t for a long time. I stopped caring about what he thinks while we were still together.
When I got back home to England, I took a spoken and written mandarin test. I did it half-heartedly as I didn’t expect to know much on the test. I had never studied it after all. I received the results and nearly fell off my chair. 95% correct! That’s an ‘A’ (Advanced)! I still look at my test result and go a bit weak at the knees. It’s something I’m extremely proud of. Whenever I feel a bit down or a bit useless which, as a human being, is a natural thought process from time to time, I take a look at the scar on my leg which has healed nicely. That scar, which was so painful at the time and unbearable to do anything with has healed and acts as if it was never painful in the first place. It is a reminder to me that there was a time where I didn’t think that I was anything special. That scar changed me. It showed me that even the most painful of things can heal in time. I sit here writing this today, healed both inside and outside.
If you ever feel like you are stupid, think again. I was told for so long that I can’t do anything right. I believed it and it got me down. Really down. I watched all of my friends go on to college and university while I was 10 steps behind them, slaving away in retail always thinking:
“I could have done that”
That is not the right attitude to have. I have gone from a complete failure at school to someone who is fluent in one of the hardest languages in the world. I did this in 6 months. The next time you think that you COULD do something or that you COULD HAVE done something, I want you to stop yourself, mentally slap yourself across the face and say out loud:
“I’m DOING that now.”
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