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Chinese study: Seduction to marriage to doing dishes
By Emily Ford

IT'S late on a Thursday evening when I arrive home after two weeks in London. Mr Wang, our doorman, looks up from his paper.

"Long time nose!" he says beaming, with obvious pride. "Long time nose!"

"Long time no see!" I reply. "Mr Wang, you learned a new phrase!"

Mr Wang and I enjoy a kind of ad hoc language exchange whereby I teach him English and he corrects my Mandarin. For most Chinese people, even the feeblest attempt by a foreigner to speak their dastardly tongue elicits praise, even wonder. But Mr Wang is a stickler for pronunciation. He has recently devised a cunning method of pretending not to understand me until I say every word correctly.

"Baaaozi" not "baozi," he sings in an exaggerated baritone, as I go to buy my morning buns.

Mr Wang is elderly but has a voracious appetite for learning. He has mastered the phrases "go to work," "go shopping" and his newest favorite, "go to bar," a repertoire which he finds covers most of what he needs to say. Now every time a foreigner leaves the building he simply picks one and shouts it at random.

Romance with Chinese

"Go to bar!" I catch him shouting at a bemused American couple at 9am. "Go shopping!"

After two weeks at home where almost everyone understood me, speaking Chinese again feels bittersweet. At the beginning, Mandarin is a delicious seduction, reeling in naive learners with its charms. When I first started, the discovery that every word had at least four different meanings depending on pitch of voice was an endless source of delight.

"Wow, learning Chinese is like learning to sing!" I thought, romantically.

I fell in love for real after my first dalliance with writing, specifically the moment when, in front of my entire class, I correctly guessed the Chinese character for duck.

"Wow, learning Chinese is like learning to draw!" I thought.

Now I have realized that learning Chinese is more like a marriage. However much effort I put in, it never seems to be reciprocated, but tantalizing glimpses of a better future always prevent me from leaving.

"The honeymoon has worn off and now we're arguing about whose turn it is to do the dishes," I think grimly.

Meimei, my Mandarin teacher, has standards even more exacting than Mr Wang's. Recently she has been teasing me about my lack of characters, which have remained poor even as my speech has improved. Her latest joke is to point to a word that she knows is in my vocabulary, knowing that I won't be able to read it.

"Er ... Qing? Xing? Shi?" I guess, throwing out sounds that in my experience have the highest probability of being right. "Wrong! Haha, you're illiterate!" Meimei says, bursting into peals of laughter.

This kind of teasing is fair enough. The language is undeniably hard even for Chinese people, who endure years of study to master an enormously complex writing system, while we sit home watching cartoons.

After abandoning my initial aspiration to memorize 30 characters a day, I decide to learn 10 to perfection. It takes me five hours, but by the end I am confident.

The next time I see Meimei I proudly draw the first character for her to inspect. "What's that supposed to be?" she asks. I can't tell if she's joking. "That's ming!" I say indignantly. "Oh, ming!" Meimei says, shaking her head. She draws a character exactly the same as the one I have drawn, except for a tiny dot barely visible to the naked eye. "This is ming."

I leave Chinese class feeling distinctly deflated. On my way out I pass Mr Wang, who is in an exuberant mood. "Go to bar!" he shouts merrily. "Go to bar!"

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