Two Years In Beijing

你好!两个去年我们住在北京,和现在我可以说和写一点儿中文。

That is probably half grammar errors, but I did type it entirely from memory, without needing to look up any words. And I even corrected a couple of characters where the computer suggested the wrong character. So it turns out I can learn languages, even if its not a particular area of strength for me.

My Mandarin is still barely strong enough to explain simple ideas to someone who is trying to understand what I am saying. I can follow maybe half of a basic conversation, and I am proud when I am occasionally able to make some basic concept understood to a native speaker. And despite this progress, after two years in Beijing, I still feel like a foreigner in a way that I didn’t in India. I don’t really have any personal connections with shop keepers or service people here like I did there. Some of that has to do with being in a city – Beijing has a thousand times more people than Mussoorie, and that scale translates into anonymity – but it is partially a reflection of the degree to which I don’t interact with anyone outside of the school community.

At the same time, everyone else in the family is feeling pretty well at home by this point. Rohan is the most localised, having arrived at less than a year of age means he doesn’t remember anything else, and he is a little 北京人 (Beijinger) in his own words. Asha is keeping up with him on the language front, and is able to carry on conversations with her predominantly Chinese-speaking classmates.

If it seems like I am focusing overmuch on language, I think part of the reason is that this was the greatest single aspect of culture shock that I wrestled with – and continue to wrestle with. India – for all that there are over 600 languages scattered around the country – is still a product of it’s colonial history. The British left deep scars on the country, and for all that they may have done that resulted in a stronger, more unified nation, the legacy of English in India is profound. But it means that almost anything official involves someone who speaks English, and English labeling on products is pervasive.

China, on the whole has been great – I’m still here two and a half years in, and despite some stresses and disappointments, it’s an incredible place that has changed how I look at the world.

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