I’m starting to learn to read Chinese characters, and it’s been a fun, if demanding, exercise. It seems as if every time I work out in my head a reason to remember a certain character – “okay, that has a mouth character in it, so it probably has something to do with speaking” – I am stymied by a character that seems to have absolutely nothing – NOTHING – to do with its reality.
The word “ball” is a perfect example. You might think that the character would have something round in it. Nope. The character for ball is: 球.
Yes, I know. Looks like a ball, right?
But, despite all odds, I’m starting to pick my way through my textbook, “New Practical Chinese Reader.” It’s not as fun-sounding as my previous book, “Kuaile Hanyu,” or Happy Chinese, with its pictures of children running through parks, kicking soccer balls, playing ping pong, going to concerts. This next book is just…practical.
But something in reading characters is starting to make sense, especially if I read them in context, rather than trying to identify characters from a game on my ipad, where they just appear randomly. And even the practical book has a couple of ongoing characters. There’s Ma Dawei, a 22-year-old American student, who wears a somewhat creepy trench coat with a mug of something in one hand and the other hand in his pocket. And then there’s Lin Na, a 19-year-old British student wearing slouchy boots and carrying some kind of shoulder bag. There are others, too, but these are the names I most easily recognize.
The reading is exactly like the kind of reading I did when I first learned to read English. Then I would sit on Christine’s front steps, and we would pore over our Dick and Jane books. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!” There was this magical moment where it started to make sense and we started to devour books, one after the other.
Here in Beijing, I’m happy to read just basic stuff. Here’s about the level of character-reading I can do these days (translated into English, of course):
Lin Na, how are you?
I’m very good, how are you?
I’m also good.
These are not profound thoughts, and the chapters that follow move on to important topics like whether their professor is busy, who wants to drink coffee, do you want to eat something (a crucial topic in China), and what country someone is from (an even more important topic).
I’m wondering, though, when we’ll get to humor. There was a rather brilliant moment in the Dick and Jane books when their cat, Puff, was perched on the television set.
“Jane, look! Puff is on TV!” says the ever-playful Dick. (Dick would never wear a trench coat and keep his hand in his pocket.)
Jane, of course, comes running, and sees that Puff is on top of the TV, but not “on TV” literally. It was the first actual joke I ever read, and I remember feeling blown away by the clever word play and my equally monumental brilliance for understanding it.
I am light years from this stage here in China. If the “xiao mao” ever climbs on top of the “dianshi,” it’ll be a miracle. Our TV is flat screen, and Smudge’s adventurous days are long over. Plus, I haven’t learned the characters yet for cat or TV. But maybe soon.