Remember the last sentence of this article about learning to speak Mandarin? I may quote:
“It will get easier – once you start learning the characters. “
Awesome! And here I am – learning the characters. My teacher writes them with ease on the whiteboard. I draw awkwardly something on a piece of paper that kind of resembles her hanzi. After a while some of them look even kind of neat – and I get promptly praised by my teacher. And of course I promptly feel proud.
In some ways the characters do help. Since so many words sound the same, only the characters can reveal some connections.
The word for ‘worry’ is made up out of two characters that – by themselves – mean ‘carry on your shoulder’ and ‘heart’. Isn’t that fitting? If I worry about something – it moves my heart and it weighs on me – like something that I lift onto my shoulder.
For a while I wasn’t able to remember the word for ‘wallet’ – which I had only seen written with the Latin alphabet.. My life could have depended on it – until my teacher reveals to me it’s made up of the words for ‘money’ and ‘bag’ – which I both know. And suddenly it sticks. – If I had seen and known the characters I would have figured that out on first sight.
And then, there are these situations:
“What is the meaning of this ‘xing'” I ask holding up a piece of paper with the character for ‘xing’. “That’s the same as in ‘bu xing’ – not possible” I nod. I wish to live in a world where paper has three sides – one for the character, one for the pronunciation and one for the meaning, as my teacher continues. “If you take this ‘xing’ and ‘ren’ – the meaning is construction worker. If you take ‘ren’ this ‘xing’ and ‘dao'” – at this point she is fishing for one of the other pieces of paper I’ve been drawing on until she finds the ‘dao’ that is part of ‘zhi dao’ (meaning: to know) as well as part of Daoism – finding it, she continues “and this means ‘sidewalk’.”
At this point – I realize how futile my wish for three sided paper is.
Embrace the poetic of the language, I hear my roommates word echoing in my head. I embrace it.