An Unspeakable Language

Stephie on Saturday morning playing with talking Mandarin word charts.

Stephie on Saturday morning playing with talking Mandarin word charts.

It is Christmas time and we will be returning to the United States in about a week.  We are looking forward to seeing everyone, though we will be brutally jet-lagged for a few days.  I imagine many wonderful reunions with friends and family after four and a half months in China.  That said, there is one particular reunion scenario I’m not looking forward to and it goes like this:  You and I go into a bar, happy to see each other again, and we sit down and order a beer.  You look at me earnestly and say, “how’s life in China?  You speaking the language yet?”  I look hard back at you.  I tell you to go to hell and order a shot of Patron.  Just one.  Why?  Because no, I am not speaking the language yet.  And I probably never will, because I’m absolutely convinced that it is unlearnable and trying is driving me insane!

Of course, in reality, Mandarin is not unlearnable.  Over a billion people on the planet speak it.  I have an 8-year-old daughter who runs around our house on Saturday mornings in her robe and pajama’s spewing Mandarin like it’s her freaking native tongue.  And when I can’t communicate something important to our driver, Steven, I look in the backseat at my 11-year-old and tell her what I’m trying to say.  She briefly looks up from her iPhone as if I’ve offended her, blurts some gibberish to Steven, and goes back to her phone.  “Of course, sir,”  he then says. “Now I know.”  (Steven has called us sir and madam, despite our protestations, since day one and we have no clue why).  So yes, Mandarin is very learnable, just not by me.

Cassidy pretty much done with being my translator with our driver.

Cassidy pretty much done with being my translator.

I am trying.  I have been taking lessons twice a week for more than 3 months and literally can string together just one full sentence from the Mandarin lexicon.  I consider it my Mandarin “money” sentence and swell with pride every time I say it.  It is:  “Wo hen gaoxing renshi ni,” which roughly means “I am very glad to know you.”  Unfortunately, it has limited use and Karen tells me my face looks like I have bad gas when I say it.  So much for pride.

Olivia desperately trying to teach me Mandarin.

Olivia desperately trying to teach me Mandarin.

I would love to blame my lack of Mandarin language skills on the messenger, my tutor Olivia, but she is awesome.  She comes to us from WOWO Mandarin Language Training Center (  She is good at teaching the language and she speaks English fluently.  So it’s on me.  Cassidy and Stephanie have Mandarin class every day at their school, Concordia, and spend another hour a week with Olivia refining what they have learned.  Olivia also works with Karen on Saturday mornings at Costa Coffee (, which is Britain’s version of Starbucks (, both of which are everywhere here.  Karen struggles as I do with Mandarin and the reason for both of us is the same:  We can live fine lives in Shanghai without ever speaking the language, which impacts our motivation to practice and learn.

How could we live in Shanghai without speaking Mandarin?  Well, to get into a good college in China, students must be able to pass a writing test in English.  Though oral understanding of English is not required, it is encouraged.  This means that many Shanghai folks have some level of English comprehension, along with a corresponding proficiency to speak it.  So, other than my ability to say “hello,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “check please” in Mandarin (“ni hao,” “xiexie,” “laojia,” and “mai dan”), I don’t really feel a pressing need to speak the language.  And I haven’t even mentioned how often I whip out my phone and put Google Translate to use.


"Vodka, lady, it says vodka."  Google Translate is not perfect.

“Vodka, lady, it says vodka.” Google Translate is not perfect.


That said, there are very good reasons for learning to speak Mandarin.  First of all, it is the official language of the country we currently live in, and has been since 1949.  It is a language that evolved from several Chinese dialects over centuries and was eventually standardized based on the Beijing dialect (thus the official language designation).  In Shanghai, many residents speak what is called Shanghainese, a language that evolved from the Wu dialect and that is practically unintelligible to native Mandarin speakers.  However, as Shanghai has evolved into one of the most cosmopolitan, culturally diverse cities in Asia, Mandarin is slowly pushing Shanghainese into obscurity.  That is fine with me — I’m having enough trouble trying to learn one Chinese language.

Secondly, Mandarin is the most spoken language on the planet.  I would love to use this opportunity of living in China to allow us to return to the States with the ability to speak Mandarin.  For the girls, fluency in another language, particularly Mandarin, will give them an edge in the increasingly international competition to get into a top U.S. college.  And as economies around the world become more interconnected, that fluency will help them secure and further good careers.   On a personal level, it will help the girls to maintain the friendships they have made here with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese buddies, for whom Mandarin serves as a common language.  Not to mention the personal fulfillment they will feel from mastering a second language.

Olivia works with Cassidy on the Mandarin charts.

Olivia works with Cassidy on the Mandarin charts after school.

For me, learning Mandarin is part of the journey.  It is a journey I have been on for the last couple of decades, chasing that which excites, challenges, intrigues, or scares me, and one that has brought me a joy I cannot put into words.  I have been many things, including waiter, cook, legal assistant, PR guy, Chief Communications Officer, political flack, restaurant owner, food and wine marketer, writer, etc.  Mandarin speaker and Chinese cultural representative are next, I hope.  I want to get as much personal enrichment from this part of the journey as I can.  To do that I believe I must at least speak passable Mandarin.  I’m sick of looking like a circus freak as I Pantomime and act out what I’m trying to say to the bemused Chinese.  Instead, I want multi-dimensional conversations with my Chinese friends, so that I can better know them and their amazing culture.

And of course, I need to learn Mandarin for the most important people on the journey with me, the ladies (all 3 of them, or 4 if the dog is in play).  In order for their China experience to be as rich as possible, I feel I need to know the language so I can engage more in the local culture, and help them do the same.  There are so many exciting aspect to life in Shanghai and I don’t want anyone in our family to miss out on them because I didn’t make an effort to learn the language.  Also, we all have made Chinese friends here and they engage with us in English.  It’s only right that we make an effort to engage with them in Mandarin.  So grudgingly, I will listen to my Chinese pronunciation programs on the computer, do the lessons, and use the flash cards in the work book Olivia gave me.  And I will try to use what little Mandarin I know in my day-to-day interactions with the Chinese.  Yes, I do unspeakable things to Mandarin when I talk, and apparently I look pained when I do it (which explains some reactions I get).  But I have to buck up and start studying.  That, or start paying one of my kids to be my translator.

And this is what can happen in translation if you don't pay attention in language class.  They meant to say "marinated."

And this is what can happen in translation if you don’t pay attention in language class. They meant to say “marinated.”

4 thoughts on “An Unspeakable Language

  1. These posts are such a great way to keep up with all the adventures the family is having in China. Looking forward to seeing everyone when you return. Safe travels!

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