I have never enjoyed any undertaking quite as much as I have enjoyed my pursuit of fluency in Mandarin. It has been a challenge like I never predicted. I sometimes hear people speak of their passion and how it ‘saved them’, or something like that. Surfers, extreme athletes, a wide variety of people who claim that they would be someplace very different if they hadn’t found their passion. Could this really be true, these statements that are, in their own ways, professions of faith? I sometimes want to laugh at these statements, simply as a reaction to their extreme nature, but one cannot refute the power of a person who has found something in which they can truly focus their energy.
I often worry about Chinese. On several occasions I have referred to the language as my problem Child. I feel true guilt when I fail to study as much as I should, and periodically have bad dreams in which I realize that I have forgotten how to speak. In part, it is a fear of the amount of time that will have been lost should I fail to gain fluency; hours and hours upon weeks of time would go down the drain. But it is more than this. The language has become a part of me, one which I do not think I could separate myself from, even if I tried. Oh, and let me put it out there that I have tried. I spent several months without really spending time studying, and for a while I was happy. But eventually the feeling came back, the panging sense that something was missing, that an elemental piece was out of place. The world wasn’t quite right.
And so I went back to studying, but as I have found each day, studying this language without the aid of a teacher is quite the challenge. To say that it is a matter of discipline is true, but it is also a matter of endurance. There are days when it is a pure drudgery to wake up and write three pages of the damn characters. I say this with the greatest love and respects for the characters, but god damn them. Learn one, learn twenty, learn them all and there are always more. Learn one, understand it and then realize that it means something entirely different than what you had first learned.
But this is what had initially drawn me to both China and to Chinese. The living nature of the language and the culture is something that I have never experienced. The more you seem to know, the more there is to be learned and the deeper the implied meanings become. Beyond this, the language and the culture are almost inseparable. A language is its culture, always, but in the case of Chinese this is especially true. I believe that I could study for a decade and still not quite grasp all of the underlying layers to this wonderful language. And so I worry that in stride with what I understand, I will realize, in equal measure, that I am still so far away from my goal of true fluency. Defeat has never really been a threat, it’s just that the road seems long and narrow.