A couple of weeks ago, I took myself to dinner at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. After a few rotations of the belt, I realized that some of my favorite types of sushi weren’t being offered, so I called the waitress over and asked for a caidan (menu) so I could order them directly.
She stared at me. “Caidan?”
I nodded and repeated myself.
She scrunched up her face and wailed, “Ohhhhhh, wo ting bu dong!” (Ohhhhhh, I don’t understand [her]!).
Another waitress heard her cry of lament and started over to my place at the conveyor belt, but before she reached us, a man sitting a few stools away leaned over and told the first waitress, “Bring her a caidan.”
Immediately, the waitress grabbed a menu and handed it to me.
The problem, as readers who speak Chinese have probably realized by now, is that I had the tones wrong. Mandarin has four of them, and the meaning of words changes depending on which tones you employ when pronouncing them. So, as my first Chinese professor frequently reminded us, we had to learn our tones so we didn’t accidentally tell someone we wanted to kiss them (wen3) when we really wanted to ask them a question (wen4). I was asking the waitress for a “cai1dan1” (which, as far as I can tell, isn’t anything), when what I needed was a “cai4dan1.” And because I had the tones wrong, she literally couldn’t understand what I was saying.
Ten years, people. I have been studying Chinese for TEN YEARS, and I messed up “menu,” a word I probably learned my first semester of Chinese 101.
I don’t think I’ve been pronouncing caidan wrong for the past decade—I think I just had a weird mental lapse that night—but I’ve pronounced thousands of other things incorrectly, and many of those mistakes have been annoyingly recent. My Chinese has unquestionably improved a lot over the past eleven months, both because I’m truly living on my own here for the first time (without school administrators to take care of things for me) and also because I’ve been making a real effort to work on it, something I had let slide during my four years back in the U.S. But although I have days when I impress myself, and sometimes even native Chinese speakers, I often feel like Chinese-speaking Maura expresses her thoughts at a fourth-grade level—on a good day. And she doesn’t joke around, or tell stories, as much as English-speaking Maura does.
I’ve often discussed with other Chinese-as-a-foreign-language speakers how uncomfortable we all get when someone asks us if we’re “fluent.” I usually bat the question away and say that the best I can claim is “proficient.” I can certainly navigate daily life here; I can do my research and converse with scholars who want to discuss it; I don’t freeze up anymore when people on trains want to talk with me. But when I’m faced with an air-conditioner repairman who wants to discuss in depth what symptoms my a/c has been exhibiting, and what he thinks the problem is, fluency feels very far away. (“The air isn’t cold!” I brilliantly explained to him.)
Chinese, of course, is famously hard, and I try not to let my inarticulate moments weigh me down, even though that’s not always easy. (After the caidan disaster, I was basically afraid to say anything else in the sushi restaurant that night, fearing that I would further reveal my inadequacies.) Chinese-language professors always urge their students, “Manman lai”—go slowly, or, basically, keep putting one foot in front of the other. If you learn one new thing every day, you’ll be constantly adjusting and refining your grasp of the language, and pretty soon you’ll improve more than you even realize.
Sometimes, those daily lessons are swift and dramatic. I might pronounce many words incorrectly from now until the end of time, but I’m fairly certain that “cai4dan1” will never again be one of them.