When it comes to languages, I'm not what you'd call a natural.

I've retained little from six years of Spanish — just a smattering of chit-chat phrases, numbers and colors. After a semester of Italian, the only thing I remember is the drunken jokes my friend and I made while studying the language.

More often than not, the Latin base most languages share helps our English-thinking brains understand things like conjugations and similar sentence structures.

But Chinese, well, this is a language based on characters and tonal changes. A simple linguistic error when commenting on a llama could inadvertently translate into telling someone to f*** their mother. Another word, improperly used, means "stab with a knife" instead of inquiring about directions.

Alex Sieh Boulder Daily Camera
Alex Sieh Boulder Daily Camera

Understandable, then, why I've been hesitant to use the few words and phrases I've learned. To be deported over a misused tone isn't the way I want this story to end.

Yet, I refuse to be the foreigner in China who gets by miming and using broken English. If I'm living here, I want to do things right. So I enrolled in Chinese classes, where I got my Chinese name, Aì Lè, which means "adores happiness." I also bought myself a few training apps and have set my mind to copying characters at coffee shops around the city.

One cafe, The Bridge, sits just outside my apartment. Tucked against a wall nibbling a chocolate muffin — or enjoying the view from the rooftop on a limited air-pollution day in Beijing, I've become something of a regular in this three-story coffee shop.


A regular who had yet to order in Chinese.

That needed to change.

Bracing myself, I caught the waitress' eye one afternoon and called her over with a quick, "Fuwuyuan!"

Pen poised on her notebook, she waited for me to point out what I wanted from the menu. After various visits ordering this way, there was little expectation I would have anything else to say but, "zhege." ("This.")

"Yige hei kafei?" I said timidly, praying my tones were right and that I didn't accidentally insulte her second cousin or threatened physical violence.

Surprised, she looked up, a small smile tugging at her mouth.

This foreigner was learning, slowly but surely. She told me what I owed and I passed her my yuan.

After I ordered a refill with a bit more pep in my pronunciation, I thought, I'm practically a local. Take that, China.

My second cup in hand, I sipped with a stupid grin across my face. I had made it through my first all-Chinese interaction.

A black coffee never tasted so good.

Read more about former columnist Alexandra Sieh's adventures overseas: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk her: twitter.com/ansieh.