The universe works in mysterious ways my friends.  I’ve come to the conclusion that if there is a God, he must read my blog.  After my post yesterday I was in a rotten mood, an in an attempt to take my learning of the language into my own hands I went to a small coffee shop called Lilly Coffee, the only expat establishment in the city.  It did me little good. The text books given to us are published in China, made evident by the numerous grammatical and spelling errors such as “learnt” instead of “learned,” and thus they don’t have simple things that would make the process easier.  For example, the textbook for my Chinese characters class has the pinyin translation, but not the English translation, so I know how to pronounce what I’m writing, but often times I don’t know what it means.  The only dictionary I have is a photo-copied  version of Lost Planet’s Mandarin Phrasebook, and more often than not it proves to be rather useless.  There are pages missing, the print is too small to read the characters accurately, and a couple of times I’ve even noticed that they have the wrong characters printed or they give a bad translation.  I left the coffee shop as discouraged as ever, finding no help whatsoever in the stack of literate I have on the Chinese language, wishing dearly that I had someone I could simply converse with, someone to answer my questions and fix my errors when needed, providing me with a tool set of problem solving abilities that would push my language comprehension to the next level.

Ask and ye shall receive.  I was hanging out in my room when I got a phone call from Li Lidong, one of my language teachers who himself is struggling to work on his oral English.  He proposed that we set up a time to meet twice a week in which we trade-off working on each other’s respected endeavors.  I felt as though a weight had been lifted, and I foresaw this as an amazing opportunity to not only work on my Mandarin, but to also have something to do in my hours of wasted time.  It was a relief beyond words.

But that’s not all.  I had gone to dinner with my Chinese friend Tony, who’s English is quite good, mercilessly bitching about the stagnant nature of my classes.  I hadn’t hung up the phone with Li but twenty minutes before Tony called me saying that he had finished his homework and wondered if he could come over to my room and help me with my Chinese.  We spent about an hour so covering some of my most basic questions that my teachers had either not been able to answer, or I had forgotten to ask them.  We went over several of the common things that people like to ask foreigners when they bump into them on the street, and he covered all of the ways in which they might ask.  A lot of times I can figure out what people are asking me by recognizing a few key words, but usually I have to say “Ting bu dong,I don’t understand, a few times, at which point they rephrase the question and hopefully I am able to understand.  It’s usually something like the difference between “How long have you been in China?” and “When did you arrive in China?”

Tony and I covered all of these possible questions in their various forms, and when he left I felt a certain sense of pride in my newfound level of comprehension, so I thought I would reward myself with a beer.  The store that I usually go to was closed, and I like going to the same one because by now they are used to my appearance and I’m not bombarded with questions I don’t understand, and they don’t stare at me like I have a pencil sticking out of my neck.  I went to another store, and per usual, my entrance sent the two girls working behind the counter into a fit of giggles.  One of them shouted, “Baba, laowai!” Dad, foreigner! An older gentleman emerged from the back and greeted me with a smile and said, “Hullo!”

“Nihao,” I replied

In Chinese, he said, “What country are you from.”

“I’m an American.”

“American!  I didn’t know there were Americans at this school.  How long have you been in China?”

“Maybe a month.”

“One month?  You speak Chinese very well for only being in China one month.”

“Thank you.  I think my Chinese is not so good, but I’m studying.”

“Are you a student or a teacher?”

“I’m a student.”

“Oh you’re a student.  What would you like to buy?”

“I would like a beer.”

“Our beers are right there.”

I paid him and said goodbye, and he asked me to come back soon.  It wasn’t until I was about halfway back to my room before I realized that I hadn’t said ting bu dong once!  And what’s more, I had understood every word that came out of his mouth!  I felt like jumping up and down in the street, crying, calling my mother, and guzzling my celebratory beer all at once. I called Tony, nearly in tears, and thanked him for his help.  In response he shouted “Jia you!” which translated literally means give it gas, but is more or less the Chinese equivalent for go on get it!

There are two lessons about studying abroad in this story.  The first, life has its highs and lows, but when you’re immersed an in alien culture such as China the lows are much lower, and the highs are much higher.  This might seem a little corny, and in fact it is, but get over it, it’s true.  Earlier today all I could think about was how much I missed just talking with my friends, just shooting the shit with no particular purpose or meaning, and how I would give anything to be out of this crappy little city.  But after my encounter in the shop I felt like talking to anyone who passed by.  Hey you, ask me a question and I bet you twenty bucks I’ll be able to answer it.

The second lesson, and perhaps the more important one, is the importance of seeking and accepting the help of those around you.  I don’t know where I would be right now if I hadn’t had the help of several young Chinese students.  They’re kindness and compassion thus far has pulled me out of several jams, and made my life here much more enjoyable.  Tony helped me buy my bike.  Huang helped me buy my cell phone and gave me a tour of the campus.  Nathan was is my drinking buddy, and about a week ago, over a bottle of rice wine, related a deeply personal story about a childhood friend of his that passed away when he was 20, a moving and emotional conversation that was perhaps the first and only meaningful interaction I had with a single person since my arrival.  These simple, yet immensely helpful actions have not only made my time in China more bearable, they have also helped me to realize the true value of my friendships back home and across the globe.