I fretted about forgetting Chinese. Every time I ran into the ebullient Chinese teacher from the Confucius Institute who lives on the fourth floor I would stammer and spin through Chinese sentences ending in Turkish and Russian in my head. I lived in China for over four years. I spoke Chinese so well many people mistook me for a native [minority]. One year when feverishly sick my flatmate even informed me that I spoke Chinese while sleeping.
But I haven’t lived in Chinese since 2013 – almost four years past. I started to wonder – fear – that I’d forgotten it. So after visiting the US and deciding on grad schools (as the program I enter would, to some extent, determine the languages I need to speak), I determined to spend two hours a week on Chinese. I sought out the Chinese teacher and arranged to visit her during office hours twice a week. (Bring your baby! she exclaimed. She’s so cute and guai [demure, well-behaved – she’s only ever seen her strapped in the baby carrier, and not wrecking havoc on our living room floor]. She can sit there while we practice [and rip up papers and eat the stapler]). I went through all the free material on half a dozen Chinese reading apps (do I really want to pay $14 a month when there’s a whole internet?). I pulled out my old HSK 6 practice book before realizing that, unless I actually planned to take the HSK, the stiff language of test prep would serve me very little of practical use. And then I turned to Chinese TV.
I don’t watch TV except for the annual bout of Game of Thrones. I didn’t watch TV when I was in China, though TVs everywhere were always on (perhaps that’s why I didn’t watch it). However, back when I was in Beijing (and back in the days when we actually bought DVDs) I once bought a box set of a TV series and watched all 60 episodes, pausing the screen every time I saw a word or phrase I didn’t understand, looking it up in the dictionary, and carefully scribing it into my Chinese notebook. It was a great way to pick up natural language in use, and fill in some of the gaps in my vocabulary of the everyday. Unfortunately, being out of the ‘Chinese loop’, the first twos series I chose to watch (based off of recommendation lists online, some of which are hilariously bad, and what’s actually available on Youtube), were terrible, soppy things (see here). I can stand about ten minutes (sometimes fifteen!) before my brain starts smoldering and revolting against the plot inconsistencies, poorly drawn characters, and the way idiotic is portrayed as cute in girls and overtly critical and lovingly concerned in mothers.
Fortunately/unfortunately, I haven’t forgotten my Chinese. I go to sleep with phrases from the TV shows reverberating in my brain, I hear their voices as little mental responses to a hundred different things during my morning. I should have chosen better TV shows (any suggestions? Or should I just attempt news talk shows?), as the wide eyed girls from the shows squeak and squeal like cute little hamsters with crimped hair. It seems my Chinese was just latent, waiting just for a little electric prod. My speaking still isn’t as fluid as before – my brain fumbles around words I know I know but can’t call up to the tip of my tongue. But certainly, certainly I haven’t forgotten it. And gurgling up with the language comes all the memories – of old friends, of places once explored, of that sense of boundless possibility, along with all the things I really resented about popular Chinese culture. I think next I’ll write a comparison of social-state themes in Chinese and Turkish TV series, as there’s certainly a lot both attempt to tell the viewer in instructing them in social norms.