Oct 082005

Just got back from vacation in Japan. More on that later. I’m checking my email and we just received a fan mail.

Sent: 2005年10月4日 13:52
To: jesse_covner@yahoo.com

Subject: Chinese: in need of hope

Hi Jesse,

My name is Jason and I was fortunate enough to stumble upon your blog about your adventure in China. Coincidentally, we’re both Jewish, from San Diego, dated Japanese women, and enamored with China.

My reason for writing is to help me better understand my Mandarin potential. I am currently taking my first semester of Chinese at college, and although I enjoy the challenge and love the culture, it is slowly becoming an exercise in futility. Character/writing acquisition proves difficult, leaving little time for oral comprehension. Being that you, too, learned Chinese from scratch, is there hope for me? My fear is after studying Chinese and laboring for years, I will have only improved moderately. How long did it take you to learn Mandarin? Will this initial difficulty diminish? Ultimately, how much time (daily, yearly, etc) and to what extent of effort should I expect in order to gain considerable fluency (let’s say, minor business proficiency)?

Thank you in advance for your time and help. Your advice is much appreciated.



HI Jason,

Not sure why you are enamored with China. China is not that great of a place coming from San Diego. San Diego is like heaven…beach…sun…parks… I like it here in China and I doen’t at the same time. You like Chinese culture? Sometimes I do. And then there are always Chinese people bragging about their god damn 5000 years of history. To which I always say…yeahÂ…5000 years. Great…Â…so what has that taught you about the situation and problems of today?

I just got back from a vacation in Japan. Love it there. Except everything is too expensive. Food gets boring. People are too polite so I can’t yell at them (or hard bargain). Things are a little too clean. Can’t cross the street against a red light. Etc. And companies require you to subsume your individuality to a greater degree than American companies. Which is really bad.

To Answer your questions:
I started studying in college for 2 years and didn’t really learn anything much. Couldn’t speak at all. My character writing was OK. Then I went to BeiDa for a year. At that time (1991), it was still too soon after 6/4. So it was an intense atmosphere. No Chinese students talked to me. And I was introverted / mal-adjusted anyway. So I drank and partied with Russians and Japanese students…that is the short story about how I met my wife Haga who was also studying there. I talked Chinese with the Russians and Japanese…but no Chinese people could understand us. I didn’t study much. I’m not astudierudyier.

After graduation, I forgot how to write Chinese and I can now barely read. I find that for me to improve now, I need to re-learn those skills. I am learning to read by reading bad men’s famagazineszinese (the equivalent of Details, or FHM)
At various times I dated Chinese girls and didn’t get along with them. So we aa lotd alot…in Chinese. I worked for two Taiwcompaniespanese and didn’t like my bosses…so we aa lotd alot…in Chinese. But I did not formally study Chinese at all after graduation from college (in 1992)

If you can and want to learn Chinese the same way I learned, my advice is thus: Pay attention to pronunciationiation. Learn to say things the right way first. Understand the tone pronunciationiation in your first semester…you don’t have to master it but you do have to get the concept down cold. DO NOT focus on reading and writing, BUT do understand the concept of Chinese characters. Spend 1.5 hours a day your first two years. Then… listen to how Chinese people speak and repeat what they say. Not off a tape…but real conversations. Focus on expressing yourself and your sense of humor. Fantasize about talking to a pretty girl in Chinese and what would you say to her to impress her.

Go to China or Taiwan > find good friends / girlfriends > have a good time > always try to express yourself in Chinese > never give up.

One more thing…it never gets easier. Even when you get better at it, you think you are no good. There will always be a time when you feel that you suck because you could have expressed something better.

Good luck.

 Posted by at 8:40 am

  4 Responses to “A fan letter”

  1. Why learn Chinese?

    The answer to this question will tell you how much, if any, effort you should put forth to studying Mandarin.

    If you want to increase your earning potential I’d say don’t bother. Being able to speak Chinese isn’t that much of a benefit in the U.S. where there are native speakers available or in China where a native Chinese speaker with good English skills will be better than your native English with Chinese skills.

    Interested in traditional Chinese culture? Then learning how to read traditional characters (Taiwan) would help you study old Chinese texts. But alas, the Chinese you study in Taiwan would not be the same as used in old texts because of changes in phrase usage and other grammatical issues.

    Want to serve your gov’t or work in the CIA? There are better languages to learn to make yourself more attractive to the U.S. gov’t.

    So, in short, why bother?

    If you are interested in Chinese culture visit Taiwan. The island wasn’t subjected to the things that the mainland was during the Cultural Revolution.

  2. Well, thank you DaveinChina and Jason for reading the blog. I didn’t think anyone…including friends and family (the main target audience) reads this.

    Dave, I respectfully disagree with your comment. I think the situation is not as cut and dry. And I hope you don’t take offence to this, but you sound like someone who is local-hired (like me) and is discouraged by not getting high earnings while seeing foreigners who know nothing about China come here with great ex-pat packages. That’s my situation anyway. And if you are making money in China by being an English teacher clown…for your own sake…STOP!

    Jason, if you want to increase your earning potential with a US company, Chinese language is not going to help. Not because there are enough Chinese speakers…but because what they look for is domain knowledge (industry and functional skills). They don’t understand the value of having bilingual speakers in America and they usually send over people who are intellectually and culturally un-fit for work in China.

    There are plenty of Chinese people in China with good English. There are critically few Chinese people who have good business management / leadership skills. And there are very few who understand foreign markets, foreign marketing, foreign management practices, corporate culture, etc. The biggest problems facing China today are all related to lack of management skill. If you develop management / leadership skill, domain knowledge, and Chinese language skills, you will have a lot of earning potential.

    Or you can start your own business. China is a good place for that.

    To study Chinese culture, you need to speak Chinese to talk with other academics. You also have to read (and probably write a little) traditional characters. I know many people who do this. They are all better students than me. But you will still need to know simplified characters because you would undoubtedly do research in the PRC.

    Actually, I don’t agree that Taiwan has more traditional Chinese culture than in PRC. Taiwanese culture and PRC culture have come under different influences during the 20th century and neither has a culture the same as in pre-revolution times. Also, there are many different facets of culture that can be looked at. And every different region in China has local variations. There is a big culture difference between Suzhou and Shanghai – two places where they speak almost the same dialect. There are huge culture differences between city and countryside. And big differences between Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, SiChuan, etc. I don’t really want to go into this topic….its a controversy that I don’t care about.

  3. BTW, are you the same as Daveinchina.com Dave? If you are, thanks for putting on the link at your site. I like your news-feeds. Also, its funny how I guessed you are an English teacher. Anyway, what bar-seen you hang out at?

  4. hi

    sorry it took 2 months to get back to this post. one of those around the world and back things.

    I am daveinchina (sounds funny to say) but I’m not much of an ex-pat bar guy.

    I think my comments about traditional culture being more present in Taiwan is due to the cultural revolution. Much of the purging of traditional elements that affected the mainland didn’t affect the island.

    Also, I maintain that besides personal development there is little use to study Chinese. I could do a bullet point thing but it wouldn’t be worth it on a 2 month old post 😉

    As for the English teaching clown, I vowed not to do the dancing bear thing long before I arrived in the middle kingdom. Last semester I spent four weeks discussing the idea of social protest.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.