In one of my recent assignments for the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post, I spent time reporting on a group of Chinese tourists who were in town recently. Having spent eight months from 1996-1997 studying the Chinese Basic Course at Defense Language Institute (Mandarin Chinese, specifically), it was a thrilling assignment.
As I took pictures, I listened to them talk. My Mandarin is very rusty, even much more so than my Russian, but I could pick up words here and there as they tried on cowboy hats. I would learn during the interview that cowboy hats aren’t common in China. They’re mostly worn for fashion purposes by women, and among men, they’re more popular among the artistic types. Surely, there are cattle in China. It makes me wonder what the niu zai in China wear, and, looking back, I regret not asking. Interviews tend to be quick and to the point when you’re doing it mostly through a translator.
Still, a few times I got to show off what Chinese I can still speak — much to the group’s satisfaction:
How you’d say hello to a group of people. They immediately smiled and responded back, “你好!”
They sounded pleasantly surprised that an American could speak Chinese.
So, I decided to introduce myself…
Later, they wanted me to tell them how I could speak Chinese, but they wanted me to speak in Chinese.
Here’s what I said, for better or worse:
It’s supposed to mean: “I studied Chinese at Defense Language Institute in 1996.”
And they sounded like they understood it.
“What’s your favorite Chinese phrase to say in America?” the translator asked me.
I said: “请你给我筷子.”
They all laughed. Heartily. It’s a phrase you say to a waiter in a Chines restaurant when you’d like to have chopsticks.
Finally, I wrote down the name I was assigned when I studied Chinese. My given first and last name is Richard Zowie, and in Chinese, I was known as Zuo Ruicha. Or:
Side note: one of my teachers at DLI at the Presidio of Monterey, California, was Wang Lao Shi (Lao Shi means “teacher.”) Her full given name, last name then first name, was Wang Manglin. She would probably be in her sixties now. If anyone knows where she is, please let me know. I’d love to chat with her again.
Richard Zowie studied Mandarin Chinese at DLI from 1996-1997, before transferring into the Russian Basic Course. Post comments here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Google translate, the title means: “Re-learning Chinese”.
From 1996-1997, I spent eight months studying Mandarin Chinese. The Chinese call this language 普通话, or Pu Tong Hua, meaning “Common Dialect”. There are lots of languages spoken in Chinese, and Pu Tong Hua is the universal language used to understand others.
My studies were not successful, and after parting on very amicable terms with my teachers, I was given the option of studying either Russian or the language of Iran, Persian Farsi. I chose Russian. Then, I made the very bad mistake of giving away all my text books and my dictionary to a fellow soldier who was enrolled in Korean but wanted to learn Chinese. At the time, I was very stressed and burned out, and it felt natural.
Now, as I reflect, I’ve thought the past few years that eight months is far too long an investment of time to just quit and never do anything with Chinese again.
So, I am now learning the 214 radicals that are the building blocks of Chinese. I’m also jotting down the characters of anything that fascinates me, such as place names, countries, famous Chinese people (such as 孔子) and things involving astronomy (The Chinese call Astronomy 天文学, or Heavenly Language Study). I can use chopsticks and ask for them, and I can say a few phrases.
Ultimately, I would like to gain a strong understanding or even a fluency in the three languages I’ve studied formally (Spanish, Chinese and Russian) and my great-grandfather’s language (German).
Time will tell.
Richard Zowie’s name while studying Chinese was 左瑞查. He also likes the Chinese name for Richard: 理查德. Post comments here or e-mail them to email@example.com.