Photo: danielcastromaia/Shutterstock

How I Learned to Read Chinese

by Jocelyn Eikenburg Nov 3, 2010
When I came to Hangzhou, China in August 2001 as a writer – and to work on Mandarin fluency – I faced a great, embarrassing wall: I was illiterate.

Sure, I could speak and understand basic conversational Chinese, because I’d studied while teaching English in China from 1999 to 2000. Then, as a beginner, speaking and listening in a tonal language was so challenging that I didn’t want to deal with the characters.

But in Hangzhou, my ignorance was a big deal. Even though I could chat with locals, order food and ask directions, I was baffled by business cards, menus, and even store signs. I needed to read so I could build vocabulary and truly be fluent. But how?

I started with my old standbys – a tutor, taped dialogues, and notebook for vocabulary – and added flash cards for Chinese characters. Yet a flip of those cards crushed my confidence, and left me with a headache from cramming 50 characters into my mind. After a couple of weeks, I abandoned my flash cards and my hopes for cracking the character code.

One evening in November, when I returned to my hotel, I noticed the Chinese chef crouched around a television behind the front desk. At first, I sat down to practice my spoken Chinese with this friendly guy. But this time, the chef hardly said anything beyond Ni Hao, because he was engrossed in the TV. So I thought, okay, I’ll watch too.

It was a love story, subtitled in Chinese characters like most programs in China. To my surprise, I understood a lot, because they spoke colloquial, everyday Chinese. While I couldn’t keep up with the subtitles, here and there, I would hear the actors say something, and connect the word with a character. And, as an incurable romantic, the story sucked me in, instantly.

That was it – a spoonful of sugar was just what I needed to swallow those Chinese characters.

After that, I joined the chef most evenings to sweeten my vocabulary over a few good Chinese love stories on the tube. Still, in the beginning, it was more saccharine than study. The subtitles whipped by fast, so I only learned a character or two every week.

So, in January 2002, when I upgraded my job to web writer for an internet company, I upgraded my guilty learning pleasures with a DVD player and discs of Meteor Garden, China’s hottest TV love drama. Meteor Garden hooked me with its four Taiwanese hunks and a syrupy romantic tale. And when you’re hooked, you really study the words — otherwise, how will you know why they broke up? Now I could pause or rewind my way to understanding, looking up words and characters in my dictionary or ask Chinese friends.

First came Meteor Garden, then came the soundtrack. Sure, the music was as substantial as bubble tea. But I didn’t care, because the home karaoke discs came with music videos and subtitles so I could follow along. I remembered words and characters even better, because they were sandwiched into a gooey melody. So, every time I told my friends buyao jianwai – don’t be a stranger – I heard the song “The First Time” echo delightfully in my head.

As I started reading more, I soon discovered a little wordplay in my hands – texting in Chinese. I would use pinyin, a romanized version of Chinese characters, to spell words out. Sometimes I had to choose from a list of characters, which was challenging. But often, the mobile phone’s smart input system would guess what I meant to write. Sending simple texts to my Chinese friends soon became a sweet little daily routine.

By Spring 2002, I discovered my sugared down study was paying off – I could actually read some signs. The bathroom posters that read “come in a hurry, leave with a flush,” added a little poetry to the mundane. A sagging, ancient store near the office was aptly named “Long Time Supermarket.” And the characters painted beside a construction site said “Hangzhou is my home. Creating a model city requires everyone,” making me feel a connection to my adopted city.

But, other times, I felt a disconnect when I read something entirely wrong – easy to do when the difference between characters could be one stroke. One night, while taking the bus home, I asked my friend Jun why this sign said yaliao – tooth materials. “That’s yake, the dentist!” he giggled.

After I moved to Shanghai in March 2003 to work as a copywriter, I still kept up with the TV dramas, karaoke discs and texting. But, because I had learned so much already, I began cutting out some sugar. I watched the news, and the TV remake of the Chinese literary classic, “The Water Margin,” on DVD. In the office, I used the Chinese version of Windows XP, and tried reading office e-mails in Chinese.

But I still needed a little dessert every now and then, especially after reading newspapers in Chinese. My first tries left a trail of black marks all over the paper from underlining unfamiliar characters. Times like this called for a sinful taste of love dramas or Chinese pop music or texting, just to ease those headaches and get a shot of confidence.

Late in 2004, my Chinese coworkers forwarded an e-mail in Chinese, warning about a supposedly carcinogenic cosmetic. I could read it, and it wasn’t true. So I wrote back in Chinese, with a link: “This is a fallacy. You can see for yourself online.”

That afternoon, one of my Chinese coworkers stopped me. “Did you really write that reply?”

I told her yes, and then her eyes widened. “We were shocked when we saw it was you. We thought a Chinese wrote it.”

There was no sugar in that e-mail, or even in my coworker’s words. But suddenly, I felt a high.

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