The zh sounds almost like a j; the ōng a high, level, sing-song tone, like a bell finishing its “dong.” The wén rises as if in a question. Zhōngwén, 中文: the Chinese language.
I sit on the dark rug in my bedroom, hands propped behind me, lifting my left leg in sets of ten while I listen to my forty-fourth language lesson since late January. My stereo says: “Mrs. Chen tells you that Taipei is a very interesting place.” No longer self-conscious about my passing housemates, I declare in a loud voice that Taipei is a very interesting place: “Taibei shi yi ge hen you yisi de difang.” My stereo repeats: “Taibei shi yi ge hen you yisi de difang.” I pause long enough to pump my fist to my side: count it. My physical therapy resumes. The stereo says: “politely ask Mrs. Chen if she will give this to Mr. Li.” I say: “mafani, ba zhe ge gei Li Xiansheng?” My stereo says: “neng mafanin, ba zhe ge gei Li Xiansheng ma?” Damn. I drop my leg after eight lifts and pick a piece of lint from the carpet.
There are several thousand common words in the Chinese language. Each has its own character, but four or more words with utterly different meanings can sound almost identical, the only difference coming in the tone with which they are spoken. Like the zhōng of zhōngwén, shuō ends with a high, level tone, a typically versatile Mandarin word that means to say, tell, or speak. It sounds like “shaw” but is a little softer, more delicate and hollow.
At one in the morning I’m sitting at the kitchen table, copying out characters. It’s cold for April and my feet are a little numb. I ignore them. Chinese class is tomorrow and my homework is finished, but writing a character out fifteen times is nowhere near enough to memorize it, so I’m practicing more on my own. Each time I write a character I shift a blank sheet over it, so I can’t refer back when I write the next one. Sometimes I invent written conversations between severely attention deficit-disordered Chens and Lis: “He has four older brothers. Will you drink tea today? Tomorrow he has to go to work. What did you do last week?” I try to write from memory and make a lot of mistakes. My pencils are long and my erasers worn to the nubs.
Mandarin is the official language of China, spoken by one-fifth of the world’s population. That means over one billion people use the word huì to say that they are able to do something. Despite its positive connotation this is spoken with a falling tone, which sounds terse, like a stern teacher telling his class: “quiet!” Huì.
I shift my notepad in front of me, waiting for my turn. We are answering questions about time periods and I have to be ready; the teacher knows I’ve studied Mandarin before so he sometimes asks me harder questions. Beside me my classmate struggles to say that yes, she ate yesterday, while I try not to think about how hungry the evening classes make me. Suddenly it’s my turn. The teacher asks: “Ni xia ge xiatian qu nar?” Where will I go next summer? Easier than I thought; I answer quickly: “Wo xia ge xiatian qu Beijing.” Without smiling or congratulating me my teacher continues: “Ni zai nar zou shenme?” What will I do there? My voice slows a little: “wo zai Beijing yao kan . . .” I break down altogether, grinning sheepishly: “the Olympics?” I shrug, still grinning. My teacher tells me how to say it, after which I repeat it, badly. With a quick nod he moves on to the next person. He’s actually much nicer than the Mandarin teachers I had in college.
The Chinese language is thought to date back thousands of years, some of its characters having evolved from pictographs. One that probably didn’t is 我 or wǒ. This word uses an inflection that falls first, then rises. Sometimes I actually dip my head a tiny bit when saying this tone. Wǒ means I, or me.
Why is it such a thrill for me to study Chinese? I pick lint from the floor, I stay up late, my stomach rumbles throughout class. I get things wrong. I love it impulsively. In January when I began to write characters again after a ten-year hiatus, I found that my hand’s muscle memory had retained the strokes more readily than my mind. This revelation set off a sequence of tiny but joyful reunions, as if, while digging through a box of childhood toys for the first time in ten years, I had found my favorite plastic cow, my Raggedy Andy, my wooden alphabet puzzle. Like these memories my Chinese mind is a glowing map, a network of telephone-like connections, circuits flashing or brightening with each word or character. Its appetite seems infinite, and there are always more words, new words, old words – recombined, in my most glorious moments, to form entirely fresh and correct sentences, sentences I have never made before in Chinese. My bounding heart! My sparkling brain! I love the process. But I also have a goal, just a single sentence that I want to be able to say:
Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén.