Straight after my Chinese class with Meng Loashi (Teacher Mang), I headed to the gym just around the corner from my school. Today was a swimming laps kind of day so I suited up and walked up stairs to the lap pool. All four lanes were taken by people and there was a group of middle-aged Chinese women gathered in one corner of the pool taking a break from their laps and talking with each other. I knelt down next to the women and said, “Dui Buqi, Keyi jinlai ma?” Which means: “Excuse me, can I please come in?” I was hoping my meaning would come across as ” Do you mind if i share the swimming lane with you?”The five middle-aged women looked at me in shock and said ,“ Jenda! Ni de Chongwen hen hao!” Which means: “ Wow! Your Chinese is good.” I thanked them profusely and then started to get into the pool. However, all the women began to playfully tell me that i needed a swim cap to get into the pool. I could see in their faces that they thought it was preposterous that I would get into the pool without a swim cap.
So I asked the pool attendant if I could borrow one and they giggled with each other as I was getting my swim cap. Then upon entering the pool, all of the women surrounded me and began to ask me many questions.
“ Ni shi na guo ren?”- Which country are you from?”
“Ni de gongzuo shi shen me”– What do you do?”
“ Ni ji sui?”- How old are you?
“ Ni de jia zai nar?”- Where is your home?”
And the list goes on. I answered all of these questions and they increasingly felt more comfortable with me and they kept telling me how good my Chinese was. So there we all were, five middle-aged Chinese women in white swim caps plus once waigguoren(foreign person).We were laughing and smiling and I felt as if I had known these women for a long time. After fifteen minutes or so we said our goodbyes because we all had to get back to that exercise thing.
I swear for the next thirty minutes of swimming, I had a huge smile on my face. It was so incredibly gratifying to take everything I have learned in the classroom and put it into practice. It’s always been a joy for me to connect and understand the people I’m around, wherever i am in the world. However, the true understanding is experienced after learning another language because learning a language is learning a culture. So maybe the ladies thought I was crazy for not wearing a swim cap. They might not even like America or Americans. The elderly women in my apartment may look at me like i’m crazy for wearing a short sleeve t-shirt when it’s 70 degrees outside. Some people may not like that foreigners are living in their apartment building. But there is no denying that once a foreigner opens their mouth and starts speaking in their native language, the mood shifts to one of appreciation from the native speaker.
I constantly read articles and books discussing Chinese culture and to be honest, four or five months ago ,I felt that i had a very broad understanding of Chinese culture. However, seriously studying the language has helped me better understand why Chinese culture is the way it is on a whole’nother level and it has given me more insight into how Chinese people express themselves.
The more I study, the more I want to learn! and I’m grateful for the insatiable craving to learn.