China has been in my blood since childhood. A family friend tried (in vain) to teach me some of the Chinese language when I was about 10 years old — it was not that I was not interested — it was that I was only 10 years old and needed a little more structure to my learning.
Later, while studying at university, I was lucky to share a house with some Chinese scholars who were on a research assignment in Australia. One, in particular, Zhong Ning Ning, was a great man with a true passion for the world. Over a year or so he taught be as much Chinese history as could be crammed into our evenings, and in return I taught him English. I think I received more than I gave … but it was one of the highlights of my time at university … and it fueled my interest in China and its history.
Ning was also a man of great humour. I remember taking him to see Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and at the "feast" I looked across the darkened theatre to see Ning’s reaction. I had been living with Ning for some time and we had become good friends — I had learned about his childhood, his family (waiting for him to return) and his belief in the communist system. Now, watching a movie with western decadence as one of its core themes, I was wondering what my friend would make of me and my society. After a pause, he looked across, smiled, and said, "wow, big dinner!". Those three words taught me about China than a whole year of conversation.
Over the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to travel to China for business and I have found my old interest in China reigniting. I am fascinated by the language, by the energy of the place, its history and its people. I am overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality of the people who I meet and work with — I have certainly been spoilt by this. And the sheer fact that they can converse in Mandarin, Cantonese and English (not to mention any number of dialects) … embarrasses me by my inability to clearly say much more than "good morning" and "thank you".
So I have started listening to some Mandarin lessons in my car on the way to work. It is slow going, but very rewarding. Even successfully asking "what is your name" elicits genuine joy in the faces of my friends. Some of my pronunciation leaves much to be desired, but I am making slow but sure progress thanks to Ken and Jenny over at Chinesepod.com. If you have an interest in a flexible online system for learning Mandarin, then check it out.