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.
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.