Alexandra Sieh
Alexandra Sieh

"Mei ... no, bù ... uh ... mei xiang ..."

"Bù xiang ..."


Welcome to my weekly Chinese class, during which I regularly struggle to choose between two ways to say I didn't/don't do something. These two words — mei and bù — lead the verb, and you have to pick the right one or look like a real dumdum.

I, Queen of the Dumdums, have yet to choose correctly.

With each failed choice, I argue with my tutor. "See? Hànyu tài nán le (Chinese is too hard)," I literally whine. "Not too hard!" she says back, smiling encouragingly.

Easy for you to say, lady. You're basically fluent in two of the harder languages there are.

I, on the other hand, am a woman in her late 20s who can be outclassed by Chinese babies as they pop their own spit bubbles.

And that's after more than a year living here.

Though let's be honest. My first year of Chinese studies was hardly a picture of motivated dedication. More like a mild flirtation that fizzled out, resurfaced and yet never left the "friend zone."

I started — and later canceled — classes at a local school. I then opted for self-study, only to devolve into a toddler-sized tantrum over directional nouns. I told you all then I'd found myself a tutor, and so I did. After about seven months, I'm proud to report our classes are nearly 70 percent in Chinese.


I'd done it. I'd finally overcome the great hurdle and found the joy in Chinese education.

The problem was, I had zero confidence in whatever meager ability I'd attained. In that first year, while I'd learned enough to get basic errands done, I'd also spent a year with my foreign friends lecturing me about tones, grammar, you name it.

It soon got to the point where I wouldn't speak near other foreigners. I didn't give a shit about sounding ridiculous to a native speaker — they found me absurd anyway. But there was something extra-strength discouraging about a fellow foreigner, only a few months further in their Chinese education, lecturing me about tonal accuracy or grammar.

Hardly a confidence booster.

Fast-forward to now.

I've upped my classes to almost five hours a week. I still have that same tutor in the cafe. My friend and I added another speaking course in which another tutor literally tallies the number of times we say "Fuck," regardless of if we curse in Chinese or not. (That number is then how many sentences we have to write.)

Most importantly, I've started a two-hour reading and writing class. It depends who you ask, but the consensus seems to be knowing the characters really helps when it comes to tones and vocabulary retention. And while first attempts at character retention failed spectacularly, I was surprised when I worked through my first few dialogues in class, pinyin free.

"Hái mei ..." I'd practically whisper.

"Yes!" my tutor would say through her grin. "Confidence, Alex. Zìxìn."

I smiled back. I knew a hell of a lot more than I thought — now I just needed to own that. Speak, struggle and keep on keepin' on.

Confidence. Now that's the lesson I'd needed all along.

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