Practice

One practice I have achieved over the past, … year or so…. is often on a Wednesday. And I’m sorry to be oblique, or cryptojonicon as L puts it, but there’s an issue that forces me to be.

About once a week, and we’re not perfect, I meet a stranger at Peet’s coffee. We work together on a project for an hour. In the past year, there has been 2 of these strangers. Before we meet, if I am lucky, I have some spare time — 20 minutes to an hour — to reflect on the exercise that we undertake with each other.

Parents in America are pretty much charged to almost teach their kids to almost read. Lots of kids get to kindergarten knowing their ABC’s and understanding the fact that letters make up words, and words are what we use to talk to each other. At least I think that’s how it works. That seems to be my memory. The schools will teach you ABC’s in kindergarten and first grade if you need it. And if you need it, you will pretty much be at a permanent disadvantage. Most, if not all, working and middle class families know this and prep their kids at home. It happens kind of naturally, just like teaching babies to talk is something that just sort of happens, and there’s lots of incentive to read out loud to kids.

But some people fall through the cracks. And some people switch countries during this process, which puts you at a huge disadvantage.

So during my 20 minutes to an hour of contemplation each week on this topic, I take stabs in the dark at what my strangers need. Do they just need a bigger vocabulary of English words to work into their everyday experience? Do I need to explain sentence structure, or do I satisfice with pigeon caveman grammar and sentence structures just to get meaning across? (Oddly, this almost always works in Chinese. L always describes it as caveman grammar: I eat noon rice. I be America person. You be China person.)

So yes, I also think about my own progress towards being bilingual. It was a huge weak spot even in high school. I think the only non-honors class I ever took was 2nd year Spanish. College, I attempted to cheat by taking Polish. It was a dream situation: a class of 6 first semester, maybe 4 second. Miserable experience. On my third attempt, throwing caution and past experience to the wind, I decided to switch character systems. I’m now 10 years in to my Chinese experience.

Part of my practice is to turn the tables on my language learning experience. I have been very critical of my own learning abilities, as well as the language teaching that has been offered to me. 黄老师 and my forgotten 口语 instructor from Beijing are the standouts, and that might be 35% of my continued momentum with China. Of course, the rest of the momentum is completely on the heads of my friends and informants who keep me inspired to keep coming back to China: the women entrepreneurs who simultaneously run businesses and attempt to affect childrearing for themselves and their peers. That seems to be the core group right now. Sure, there are men in the mix, but this is a strongly female group—almost all of them moms.