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Give up the fight to learn|
There are three types of foreigner in China; those who visit to learn the language, those work here and pick it up, and those who fail to move beyond the basics.
I'm going to stereotype the expat population here a little, from my six years in the country, and say the third group is the largest. Unusually, I would also say this is the group that sticks around, year after year.
Following that group, in terms of size, are students, who mostly return home after two semesters of study.
And the smallest group is the rapidly growing community of workers with relevant language skills. Listen up: I slot into the third group and I feel no shame whatsoever.
Actually, I haven't always been in the third group. Like virtually everyone else, I once oozed motivation to learn Mandarin.
I had thought about how fantastic it would be to converse fluently with strangers in a second language, and all the improvements it might bring to my life. In essence, I could stop being the "foreigner" and start fitting in.
So I took lessons and I bought books, but I quickly lost interest. I self-studied, but I misplaced my drive to succeed. I even forced myself to copy out hundreds upon hundreds of characters, but I soon looked for something, anything, more interesting to do.
The truth of the matter is, I realized I didn't need Chinese to survive in China. Some would call this lazy; I call it informed.
I recently spoke to a colleague who shares group three with me and asked why he hadn't picked up the language either. His answer was simple but incredibly accurate: "I didn't seem to be able."
It's not like I'm incapable of learning. Since I've been in China I have taught myself how to build websites and not once did I have difficulty with understanding or remembering the new skills.
But the Chinese language failed to produce the same affect. Learning it was like trying to force dry bread down a parched throat - very difficult to swallow and without even an ounce of pleasure. In the end, I just preferred to stay hungry.
And so for a while I felt a little pathetic and embarrassed, until I started to realize the benefits of not understanding.
I recalled a situation that took place in the UK many years ago. I was sitting in the designated quiet carriage of a train across the aisle from a nervous spectacled gentleman in his mid-forties.
Further down the carriage sat a group of guys on a drunken night out. They shouted and screamed until my neighbor did a ridiculously brave thing and asked them not to. Let's just say they were a little rude and it bothered me immensely.
Not understanding the people around me in China protects me from those situations. I can tune out even the most furious noise and I totally love it. And the benefits go even further.
Not listening to the conversation of others means I can hear myself much better. Westerners talk about meditation as an evening activity to resolve the pressures of the day, but my whole day is now free of stress and my concentration is improved.
Never before have I thought so much about so many different things. I challenge life and I know myself better than ever - and I owe it all to my inability to learn Chinese. So this is a message to all those people who want to learn Chinese but can't seem to do it. Give up! Stop feeling guilty and listen to the voice inside that wants to get on with something else. You will never be happier.
I know some foreigners working with Chinese who're fluent in English so that they don't need to speak Chinese while working, and these people live with expats. They may not speak Chinese after spending years in China, just like many Chinese living in China Towns overseas, which made me quite shocked...