Julia Drogen is the yin to my yang, that weird girl who lived next door to me Freshman year who I turned out to have everything in common with, including an affinity for languages and traveling. Although we have studied different languages (Julia speaks Spanish and Mandarin and is learning Hebrew, and was actually discouraged from continuing French in high school because her accent caused a window to shatter), we can talk for hours about languages, cultures, and places we want to go til the sun comes up in one of the cities we are in.
Julia studied Chinese in a city city near North Korea called Dalian (Kim Jong Il actually paid the city a visit while she was there), then again in a city in the Sichuan province called Chengdu. Then she booked it on back down to Cordoba, Argentina where she taught English for a while, and then went back to China to lead a language immersion program for a twenty American high-school students in the city of Zhengzhou in north-central China. She just became an Israeli citizen and is living in a sort of halfway house for international Jewish kids to integrate them into Israeli society and teach them Hebrew. She’s basically a boss.
I took six weeks of Chinese in sixth grade and it was not my cup of tea, so I decided to interview Julia to ask her how she became interested in the Chinese language and culture, what her experience learning the language was like, what living in China was like, etc. But mostly because I wanted her to tell me the yak herder story again.
Disclaimer: I apologize for any mistakes the the Chinese characters upfront, this blog isn’t perfect!
Before everything else, tell me the yak herder story!!
I have lots of crazy stories from China but getting stuck on top of a mountain and being rescued by yak herding nomads definitely takes the cake. I went hiking in Western Sichuan with a Canadian, a Belgian, and another American. We hiked up this huge mountain that was part of the九顶山 Jui Ding Shan mountain range (Nine Peak Mountain). We were looking for a lake AND navigating with a pencil-drawn map by another foreign exchange student who had done it years before. Needless to say with that map we found no lake and after over eight hours of hiking the sun was starting to go down and we were on a mountain top looking at snow covered peaks all around us. I told the guys that we needed to turn back but who listens to the girl of the group? They were looking for the alternate route down since our very helpful map told us there was one.
I got really mad and a little scared because the sun was fading and I was already getting cold. We were out of food and out of water when I started pleading with the boys to go back down the way we came. They just shrugged me off but I could see they were getting nervous too. It was eight hours down the mountain and we didn’t have too much time.
All of the sudden, I saw a dog. Dogs mean humans are near, and from the top of a grassy hill on the mountain top descended a group of yak herders! They were stunned to see a small blond girl run up to them nearly in tears begging them in Chinese to help her. They told us that the lake we were looking for had dried up and that the other route down was too dangerous and not feasible in the dark. They invited us to stay with them in their tents. They turned out to be the men of a nomadic tribe who graze their yak on the top of the mountain a few months out of the year. We slept in their tents under mounds of yak skins on the side of a cliff. The temperature dropped to below zero. They fed us yak meat and got the boys drunk on homemade liquor. It was an incredible experience but had we not spoken Chinese, had they not had been there and been so kind I don’t know if I would be here today.
Wow, crazy story! Okay, let’s get down to it: Why did you decide you wanted to learn Chinese? What intrigued you so much about it?
I have a friend from high school in New York whose mother doesn’t speak a word of English, just Mandarin. When I went to her house to eat lunch one day I was so intrigued by this woman living in a small town outside New York City unable to speak English. I wanted to know what she was about, her exotic smelling food, why her house was decorated so, and I figured the only way to do that would be to learn Chinese. People don’t believe that my Chinese-speaking career came from this but it really did.
How did you tackle learning it? What were your lessons like? What part of the language were you most concentrated on?
I started taking Chinese the day I got to college. The lessons involved memorizing characters and pronouncing different words. I sat day after day at my job at the Tulane University Laundromat memorizing words. Alice, you remember, you sat there next to me laughing! When we got to class we had to do 听写 （ting xie）where the teacher said the word and we had to write the character. Then we had to recite and role-play dialogues in front of the class with a partner. I was terrible at memorizing the characters so I focused on speaking. To my dismay, my professor told me I was horrible at speaking because I couldn’t pronounce the tones correctly. I didn’t believe her. When i got to China for my five-month study abroad no one understood a word of my two semesters of Chinese and I basically started from scratch. In China I learned it just like a baby learns any language, hearing it day in and day out.
What is the hardest part for you about learning Chinese?
Everyone says the tones are the hardest part but after living in China I have really good tones and hardly make mistakes! I think reading and writing is the hardest part – I just can’t memorize that many characters! I give myself a break though because even Chinese people forget how to write even the most simple of words with the thousands of characters a person needs to know just to read a newspaper.
What are some interesting aspects of the Chinese language that people who don’t speak it or study it might not know?
I think most people know it’s a tonal language, but something that I think is really interesting and which ties into the culture is that people don’t use really expressive words. In English we say everything is great and wonderful and amaaazing. If I ask a Chinese person how their wedding was, for example, they woulndn’t say “Oh my god it was so great”, they would just say 还可以吧 hai keyi ba which is just like, “Okay…” I, on the other hand, use American words and walk around telling everyone everything is 非常好 fei chang hao “Extremely good!” Chinese people always look at me like I don’t understand how things are supposed to work in Chinese. I do, hehe, but I feel like it’s hard to express myself fully without my American over-exaggeration!
Did you feel prepared to speak Chinese when you first left for China?
What I felt and what I was were two different things. When I got there no one understood me and I didn’t understand them.
Can you tell us about life with your Chinese host family? Who were they, what were they like? How did that improve your Chinese?
My first time in China I lived with a family of three and the son attended the local university and came home on weekends. The son spoke English but the mother and father didn’t. My host mother was really patient with me and tried endlessly to get me to speak correctly. I would watch TV shows with her and go to the market with her. She felt uncomfortable though with how much attention she got when she took me out of the house. Imagine a small town woman who has never left the countryside walking around the big city with an alien attached to her arm. This is the only way I can really explain to you the feeling. My host father was also wonderful but I couldn’t understand a word he said even after five months of living with him. He spoke the local dialect of Dalian which is standard Mandarin in a pirate accent. I nodded and smiled a lot when he spoke to me. The hard parts were adjusting to eating their food, sharing a small apartment and sitting on very hard furniture. They also called me by my Chinese name 杜巧琳 du qiao lin which was so weird. I had to remember to respond to that name. I would do it all again any day, though. I speak Chinese as well as I do because of them.
Can you tell us some interesting things about Chinese culture that differ from how we do things in America?
Calling someone fat is totally okay. I had a friend come to my host family’s house who was a little overweight for American standards but not obese or anything. When she walked in with me my host mother just stopped and said 你呢么这么胖！ ni nema zheme pang! “Wow, aren’t you fat?!” My friend didn’t understand that much Chinese but turns to me and goes “Did your host mother just call me fat?” I said, “No, no, she said Americans are normally so fat but you aren’t,” trying to conceal my horror. My friend goes, “No, no, she just called me fat,” and walked into my room. I wasn’t mad at my host mother because in China it is totally okay to say to someone that they are fat. Big bellies mean lots of food, which means lots of money. I didn’t want to explain the mistake that she had made because we were in her house in her country but she could see that something had gone terribly wrong. There are a lot of taboo things like that that Chinese do and that Americans don’t but it all boils down to cultural norms.
What do the Chinese think about your Chinese?
If you say 你好 ni hao (hello) to a Chinese person they will tell you that you speak Chinese like a native. They are big on the praise so I don’t know what they really think but when I see their eyes widen when they hear me I get the sense I’m something of an anomaly.
What do you still struggle with the most in Chinese?
I am for the most part illiterate. I never put the time and effort into learning to read and my job aspects have suffered because of it. I can’t even write my name correctly most of the time.
What’s your favorite thing about Chinese?
My favorite thing about Chinese, or being able to speak it rather, is being able to go into a Chinese restaurant and order the “real stuff.”
What’s harder: Chinese or Hebrew?
Chinese is easier. Anyone can argue with me but Chinese has little to no grammar. I can say whatever I want as long as the tones are correct and you will understand me. Hebrew has all sorts of he’s and she’s and to to you’s. Makes my head hurt.
Anything else you have to add!!
I love the ending of your articles “Conversations with Real live Bilinguals” and wish I was one of them. Unfortunately for me I learned all my languages the hard way and it shows. I still want to pretend I’m almost as cool as them and end my debut to your blog with something similar.
Alice 是在世界上我最好的朋友。 我想她很多。他应该来以色例看看我！
Alice is my best friend in the whole world. I miss her a lot. She should come to Israel and see me!
You go girl. Get it.