Alexandra Sieh
Alexandra Sieh

"Hey, how do you say 'active'?"

"Active," Manfriend said, hardly looking up from his coffee.

"Ha ha ha," I muttered, rolling my eyes as I opened my Chinese dictionary app.

I was practicing my grammar and wanted to write, "It is often said that Coloradans are healthy and active." I knew everything except that last word, so I typed it in and looked at my options.

"Looks like it's ji(1)ji(2)*," I told him.

"Be careful," Manfriend answered. "Get the wrong tones and you're saying 'penis.'"

He's right, of course. Ji(1)ji(2) means "energetic" or "active," while ji(1)ji(1) is a childish way of saying "dick."

The Chinese word jiji should be handled with care.
The Chinese word jiji should be handled with care. (Courtesy photo)

Which meant that while my written homework would be great, should I then repeat my sentence aloud — with imperfect tones — I'd be calling all Coloradans penises, in a childish way.

At least we'd be healthy penises?

With a small margin for error, you can probably see why I've always been reluctant to speak. My spoken Chinese has lagged far behind my reading and writing progress because I'm afraid of making an embarrassing mistake, especially involving genitalia.

Often I won't try new restaurants unless I'm sure they have what I want. I won't take the lead speaking to a taxi driver. Sure, I actually know most of what I want to say, but even 80 percent isn't enough.

I wanted it to be perfect.


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Anyone who knows me isn't shocked by this. I've been chasing perfection for years. I had the nicest handwriting in elementary school. If my notes weren't perfect — even as late as university — I'd scrap the lot and start again. There's a reason my personal blog sat stale for so long: I couldn't think of the "perfect" thing to post.

That's probably why page design in journalism suited me: I demanded my pages be damn near perfect.

Now, you'd think China would've knocked this out of me. This country is imperfect in every way. Even if I time things perfectly for minimum commuter traffic, I'll end up running late, squashed between two folks with rank morning breath. I'll plan a near-perfect lesson only to have a child literally wet themselves at their seat.

There was no perfect anywhere, especially here. So when was I going to let this obsession go?

Thankfully, I have — as a writer, teacher and otherwise.

But here I was, in one of the most forgiving environments there is for spoken mistakes, still using English and relying on my teacher to translate.

Finally, she stood up one class and wrote this on the board:

"Ting(2)zhi(3) zhui(1)qiu(2) wan(2)mei(3)."

In Chinese, I asked what that meant.

"Stop chasing perfect," she translated.

I sat for a moment, stunned. She continued to explain, but I was deep in yet another expat-inspired epiphany.

Looks like I'd found my new motto.

* The numbers in parentheses correspond to one of the four tones in spoken Mandarin. ( thoughtco.com/four-tones-of-mandarin-2279480).

Follow Alexandra's adventures overseas: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk her: instagram.com/wildeyed_wandering.