Why are You Trying to Learn Chinese?, by Debi Strong

Debi Strong will be traveling to China with her husband on 11/14/99 to pick up their new daughter, Brenna Xiaoxiao Strong, who was born 1/10/99 and currently lives at the Maoming Social Welfare Institution. For the past year she has been spending her nervous energy studying Chinese language and culture, among other things.


     ‘Why are you trying to learn Chinese,’ my friends have said, ‘Isn’t she going to be American?’  This is the single most common comment I have received over the past year when I have shared the news of my family’s impending adoption from China and my beginning studies of Chinese language and culture. Even other adoptive parents have expressed misgivings: ‘Won’t you screw up her early language skills?’; ‘That’s too much work for me!’;  ‘She’ll never need Chinese here, why bother?’

     Why bother? To be honest, I have always loved Asian cultures. I studied Korean martial arts for over a decade, I’ve eaten tons of sushi and learned a considerable amount of Japanese over the past 25 years or so, and I’ve always been drawn to anything oriental in design. So my motivation is not totally for our new daughter’s benefit--it’s also for my own selfish needs! But, again being honest, if I were doing it strictly for myself, I would probably have given up about six months ago, because....

     Chinese is hard! The bad news is that there are hundreds of Chinese dialects. The good news is that the Chinese government has declared the ‘official’ spoken language of China to be Putonghua, or Mandarin. Then again, no matter what dialect you speak, all written Chinese characters are read with the same meaning. So if you can’t speak the local dialect but you can write in Chinese, you still have a chance of making yourself understood!

     To simplify or complicate matters, depending on your point of view, the romanized version of Chinese known as ‘pinyin’ was adopted in the 1950’s by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although pinyin helps people like me to learn pronunciations and proper tones, my understanding is that few people in China actually use it. So if you really want to read and write, you still need to learn the beautiful-but-complicated characters of Zhongwen (written Chinese), each of which conveys an entire concept as opposed to a single word. Of course, the ‘simplified’ characters are the ones you start with, but if you truly want to be literate you must also learn the ‘traditional’ forms.... Doesn’t this sound like fun?

     And then there are those ‘proper tones’ -- there’s a real challenge.  Spoken Chinese, or Zhongguohua, only has about 400 different sounds. It’s the actual tone, or pitch, of the syllable along with its context in a sentence that give the sound its meaning. There are four basic tones, along with a ‘neutral’ tone. For example, the word ‘ma’ can have five different meanings according to the way in which it is pronounced.

     Using the first tone, which is high and flat, ‘ma’ means ‘mother.’  With the rising second tone, pronounced somewhat like a question, it means ‘hemp.’ On the other hand, with the third tone -- which starts high in pitch, then lowers, then goes up again-- it means ‘horse.’ But with the fourth tone, somewhat like an exclamation, ‘ma’ means ‘to scold or curse.’  And then there’s ‘ma’ with a neutral tone which can be used at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question! Of course the written versions of all these ‘ma’s’ look very different. So you just need to be sure to remember the differences in tones when you speak.... No wonder I am almost paralyzed with fear every time I try to speak at our local Chinese restraint. I might think I’m asking for dumplings (shui3jiao3) but pronounce it wrong and actually say I want to sleep (shui4 jiao4). This is a very funny joke to most Chinese people. I’m trying to keep my sense of humor.

     So the language learning is a true challenge. But there’s more to China than speaking Chinese, you know: in over 5,000 years a country builds up an awful lot of history, culture, and literature. So I have been reading novels, autobiographies, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, cultural studies by Chinese-Americans, and attempting to read some scholarly histories of China. One of these days I’ll get around to the books on poetry and art.

     It isn’t easy, but it is fascinating. The biggest thing I have learned over the past year is that the more I learn about China, the more I realize how ignorant I am! But here’s the situation as I see it: as the parent of a child from another culture, a child who will most likely never have the opportunity to meet her birthgivers, I feel I owe this little girl the effort of making her as comfortable as possible in both of the cultures she will be a part of, instead of feeling alienated from either. As the current parent of a ‘normal’ American teenage girl right now, trust me--I do not want to give this next child the chance to tell me something to the effect of, ‘You stole me from my country, I look Chinese but I’m not; I think I feel American, but not really.’ Emotions run rampant enough in adolescence without any additional issues.

     I guess it all boils down to, 1) my trying to be a good, proactive parent and, 2) my own quirky trait of wanting to learn everything I can about everything that interests me. So now you know why I am trying to learn Chinese!