Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

April showers
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It's raining today.


This will be hard for you North Americans to grok, but today is the first genuinely, all-day rainy day we've had since I got here. It's the sort of day that makes you want to put on a sweater and curl up with a book, which is just perfect for me right now; the past week has felt like an intense buzz of social activities and I am ready for some alone-time today. I'm still fighting off the effects of my lung-singeing lunch ten days ago - regularly coughing up stuff that is indisputably related to that incident - and also fighting a sinus infection that really wants to take root and level me. I slept for ten hours last night. (This is a hard place for people who like to draw breath, let me tell you. One of the Canadian English teachers is on his second week of antibiotics for a lung infection.)

Anyway, the weather is a treat today; I hadn't imagined that I was missing early spring rain until I saw it this morning when I finally rousted myself out of bed. And I have the perfect reading material for the day, too. Yesterday my friend Wencui (and her sister Wenhui, down for a week from their home in Inner Mongolia) came over to give me my weekly Chinese lesson. I've been feeling really bad that I'm not studying harder; my time here feels like sand running out of an hourglass, and I am afraid I'm not putting it to good enough use.

So yesterday before they arrived, I started to categorize what I knew. I wrote down all the verbs that I know (trying not to think how pathetic it is that I can actually DO that, although in retrospect I keep thinking of verbs I forgot to put on the list), dividing them into action verbs and verbs that relay a state of being (such as think, hope, wish, etc.). I did the same with time expressions. When my friends came over, I asked them to write the characters for all those words - much more efficient than if I'd done that myself. Then I made a list of characters that kind of look alike, thinking I'd ask them to expand that list for me.

As usual, we got off on tangents talking about the items on the list; these lessons are not very systematic. I suppose that learning language "in the wild" never is; when you take a class in isolation, you get this false feeling of mastery, because the language is broken down into small segments and you never encounter vocabulary that hasn't already been introduced. And (at least in the U.S., with the exception of Spanish) you never run into incomprehensible examples of the language in daily life. In a class, you never get the feeling that your knowledge is piecemeal; it seems to build in an orderly fashion.

But there's nothing orderly about the way I'm learning, and I nearly always am staggered by the amount I simply do not know. I know I'm learning, but I am definitely not learning as fast as I did at four, or fourteen. I'm starting to understand how it happens that adults move to a different country and only become minimally competent in the new language that surrounds them; when I was a kid, language just flew into my head and I mastered it without effort. Now, by comparison, it's a slog. And when I'm feeling out of temper with the country (as I did for about a week after I hurt my lungs), not only do I lose my motivation, it also feels like I lose the minimal language I've managed to acquire. I've read about this kind of resistance before, but I've never experienced it until now.

But yesterday was a good day. As part of the rambling conversation, I learned several words for "hotel" - about a week ago I'd taken a bus and needed to get off at a stop at a hotel, but I didn't recognize the characters or the spoken words for hotel, since I only knew one word and the Chinese have half a dozen. (And there's a half-empty/half-full moment right there: at the time I was frustrated that I didn't recognize the word for hotel, completely forgetting that [a] I can now read the bus route signs well enough to correctly identify the stop and [b] I could understand the other characters when spoken by the mechanical bus-lady voice, which, when I first got here, sounded like so much "blah blah blah.")

After the lesson, we went off in search of a map of Harbin in both English and Chinese, since I'd left mine at a restaurant (on the same day I was negotiating the hotel bus stop) and had tried in vain to replace it since then. We went off to the big, big bookstore at Heilongjiang University, which I'd visited once, in 2008. (And I should note for historical purposes that I was the one who suggested this bookstore, and I was the one who knew where it was.)

As soon as we walked out the back gate of the campus, Wenhui pointed out the characters for the pinyin "lu dian," which means small hotel:


Here's one. Do you see the characters there, in the signs on the window, once in red on a white background, and then in white on a red background?


And here's another, two doors down from the first. Look for the red characters.


All of a sudden, I could see that there were small hotels everywhere.

I don't know how to describe the sensation. I've been walking down this street for three years, now, and it's been almost completely opaque to me. During the first summer, every street in Harbin looked like every other street; I had absolutely no notion of where I was at any given time, partly due to my terrible sense of direction but partly due to the fact that I couldn't read anything, and, I learned, I am a person who navigates the world through print. I know the names of streets, of stores. Without those referents, I was lost. In the second and third summers, I gained familiarity by recognizing places - buildings I'd seen, and familiar routes to and fro. But still, until I was on campus by myself at the end of last summer, I often got lost.

This year, I've been feeling pretty confident about getting to the places I know - Carrefour, Wal-Mart (yes, Wal-mart), the various restaurants within walking distance - but the place has still been pretty opaque. When I learned the word for "supermarket" a few weeks ago, a whole host of places came into focus for me, and the same thing happened again yesterday, when I learned that there are hotels everywhere. It's as if the place is becoming layered, developing texture, right before my eyes; it's as if the hotels didn't even exist the day before yesterday, and now I can imagine what lies beyond the doors that heretofore, I never even noticed.

And so it continued, on the bus ride to the bookstore (where we scored the maps! Yay! I now have one for each teacher who's coming this summer) and in the bookstore itself (where I realized that the word for the action of ice skating or rollerblading - hua, to slip - is the same word that warns me that the floor in the locker room might be slippery and I should be careful).

After we found the maps, we pawed around in the kids' books, looking for something suitable for me. I found the books I'm going to curl up with today: Two books of fairy tales, both Chinese and Western, illustrated and written in English, pinyin, and characters. I've looked at other, similar books before, but my Chinese hasn't been good enough for them to be of much help to me. Now I find that I can parse sentences, at least in rudimentary fashion, which means I can follow the story in Chinese and I'm getting acquainted with new words and grammatical structures. (This is only possible because of the scaffolding provided by [a] the English text and [b] my familiarity with the stories; I know, for instance, that the tortoise wins the race. It's like all my graduate-school language acquisition theory is coming to life for me.)

But the piece de resistance was when I found a child's copy of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, illustrated, with characters and pinyin. I really want to read this book - the whole book, not just the kids' version - in the original. I looked at one of the lavish illustrations and thought, "Oooh, I wonder what this picture is about??" with exactly the same intensity and excitement I'd felt as a six-year-old when confronted with a book I couldn't read yet. If I really were six, I'd be reading that novel next week; as it is, it might take me a lot longer than that.

But I'll get there. For the first time, I think, "Yeah. I'll get there."

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