Sitting on a couch in a crowded cafe, I slammed my Chinese Grammar book shut.

"That's it," I said, loudly, before dropping my head to my lap.

I'd spent an hour reading about directional nouns and was on the verge of my third language-based meltdown. And when I say meltdown, I mean full-on, toddler-styled hissy fit — complete with cursing, muttering and my repeatedly running my hands through my hair in frustration.

Not my finest hour.

My first six months of Chinese education felt very much like I was repeatedly smacking my head against an increasingly tall language barrier. As Dane Cook puts it, summing up his reaction to the TV show, "Lost," I always had "42 new questions and no goddamn answers."


I quickly shelved self-study as something I "didn't have time for," and I let my classes expire at the school nearby. I'd never learn this, I reasoned, and I was getting tired of trying.

By February, my trip Vietnam was a much-needed break.

It also threw me back at Square One with a new language. My friend and I muddled our way through a Vietnamese phrase book, but soon realized it was best to point and shrug than say anything. The Gs were Zs and each odd swoosh or accent indicated a sound we had no hope of guessing right.

Chinese never looked so good. Upon returning home, I felt relieved. I may jumble my tones and speak with an infant-level vocabulary, but at least this mess of a language was my mess.


I hit the ground running, finding a few tutors and getting back to the basics. Slowly, I found I could listen to others and pick up the gist of the conversation. More characters looked familiar on signs and menus. Moments I'd mentally prepared for in advance - simple restaurant interactions or directions to cab drivers - came naturally.

Finally, things were clicking.

Approaching eight months in Beijing, I'm still nowhere near where I wish I was as far as spoken Chinese. But I know way more than I thought.

I still get unnecessarily frustrated by the absurdity of this language. (I mean, seriously. I carry my wallet, cell phone and computer with me. In Chinese, that's a "money bag," "hand machine" and "electricity brain." Talk about putting things literally.)

But it feels good every time I say something right in this almost comically complex language. A small accomplishment I've learned to never take for granted.

Read about Alexandra's adventures overseas: Stalk her: