Writing in Starbucks and Learning Mandarin

Once again I’m writing in Starbucks. Public places seem to be the only place I can get a substantial amount of writing done. Somehow when I’m at home and in silence I get distracted by every little thing and it progressively takes more and more time to satisfy each distraction that I end up not writing anything. But in a public place with the world going by around me the constant background buzz and little temptations of distraction allow me to slip in and out of concentration so easily that I actually end up writing more. At the moment I’m sitting by the window watching people rushing around outside trying not to get too wet in the rain. I can only remember it having rained three other times in the four months I’ve been here. Just as Scandinavians in London must look around them in amazement when it snows, coming from a place known around the world for its rain I find it quite compelling watching how the Xianese react whenever it does rain here.
I was hoping that the cold weather had finished. A week ago it was warm enough that I went out without a coat for the first time and it really felt like summer was just around the corner. On Friday the heating in my apartment was turned off. It’s controlled by the building management instead of me, but over the past few days with the more recent cool weather I’ve had to use my electric heater for the first time since it was really cold a month ago. I’m told that Xi’an has five months each of winter and summer and only a month each for spring and autumn and that winter turns to summer sometime at the end of March or beginning of April, so I hope that this is the last cold snap before the warmer weather arrives to stay.

As everywhere in the world, Starbucks is full of people with laptops eeking out a coffee as long as possible while taking advantage of the free internet. As it’s raining today it’s busier than usual and there’s that strangely pleasant artificial humidity from the heating combined with lots of slightly damp coats. Sitting in a comfy chair in the warm could potentially make me sleepy but the sporadic blasts of cold air when the door opens and the pretty girl sitting opposite me at the next table making occasional eye contact is keeping my sleepiness at bay. It’s times like these that I wish I spoke more than a few words of Chinese.

I’ve finally started taking some Chinese lessons with one of the teaching assistants at school, Emily. They’re only for an hour a week so I don’t expect to make quick progress, but it’s a start. The first thing I’m working on is the sounds and tones. Mandarin is a tonal language and has four different tones. In English and other European languages we use tones to add meaning to the same base word, but in Mandarin what I would think of as one word can mean four different things depending on how it’s pronounced. The four tones are flat (ā), rising (á), dipping (ǎ) and falling (à). Take the word ‘ma’. In English it always kind of means mother. We could pronounce it in different ways to add meaning to the base word. “Mā” would mean mother without any extra meaning, “má” might be a question about someone’s mother, “mǎ” could be asking a question of my mother and “mà” might be expressing exasperation. But in Mandarin “mā” means mother, “má” means toad, “mǎ” means horse and “mà” is a scold.

After four months of hearing Mandarin in the background I can now pretty much pick out the different tones even if I don’t know what the words mean. Emily has been teaching me the various sounds in Mandarin and we’ve been practising the tones. She’s also teaching me pīn yīn, the Romanisation system for Mandarin so I can read her notes and make my own. It’s a slow process but it’s good to be on the other side of the teacher-student divide remembering what it’s like to learn a language instead of teaching it. One thing that should make learning easier is that Mandarin has fewer tenses than English and no irregular verbs. The verb ‘to be’ in English could conjugate as ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘being’ and ‘been’. In Mandarin it’s just ‘shì’.

In other news, on Saturday it was my birthday. As I had quite a few classes on Saturday and seven hours of classes on Sunday starting at 9am, we decided to go out on Sunday evening instead. The evening was very enjoyable. We went to the Delhi Darbar restaurant on Yanta Xi Lu for an Indian and then to Park Qin. We had planned to go to Loco/Song Song after Park Qin, but everyone was understandably tired after the weekend teaching and we were still having a good time in Park Qin at 2am anyway. In my Sunday afternoon class to a group of students I absolutely love I started by asking what day it was. They all answered with Sunday, but I kept pushing them for different answers. Eventually one of them twigged and they then took guesses at how old I am. The answers ranged from 21 to 40!

On Tuesday I had a new class at a local kindergarten. I used to teach at a local secondary school which was quite good fun, but the planning took a full day and the teaching was over after just three 40 minute classes. The planning for the new Kindergarten class takes about 10 minutes, but the “lesson” itself to 19 three and four year olds is very hard work. Fortunately I have Amy, one of the TAs at school, and the kids’ regular kindergarten teacher in the classroom with me.

Last week I wrote a bumper blog update which was a bit too long. This week I’ll leave it there and hope more people actually read to the end this time!

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