I walk into Starbucks on 46th and Chandler Boulevard. It’s on the other side of town, but I don’t mind. I’m ten minutes early for my second Mandarin lesson, and the place is nearly packed. I hurry over to the only table left and sit down. I lay my notebook on the table and begin studying my lesson from the previous week. Xièxie means thank you. Now how do I pronounce it correctly again? Is it a “sh” sound or “ch” sound…short i sound, or short e sound? More customers walk in and check the place out as they stand in line ready to order their lattes and frappuccinos. They seem to stare at me since I’m sitting alone at a table with two empty chairs. No way I’m giving up my table though! I continue studying. Bù kè qi means your welcome and zài jiàn means goodbye. Hello is nǐ hǎo. Of course, the spelling of these words is only a phonetic representation of how they are pronounced, as it’s Pīnyīn. We haven’t yet focused on Mandarin characters, although they are there written next to the phonetic spelling of each word in my lessons. I try to acquaint myself with the characters, but they don’t quite stick in my mind. I continue to sit and then wonder if I should get something to drink, a hot tea or coffee while I’m waiting. I decide not to. I have to save as much as possible for the trip to Taiwan.
My tutor, Shuchen, arrives shortly with a big smile and warm welcome. Shuchen is as petite as petite can be, but really big on enthusiasm. I appreciate her pep and her obvious interest in why I’m going to Taiwan and helping me learn Mandarin. We focus on learning language that will help me get by in the short amount of time we have before I go on my trip and will later focus more on filling in the gaps. I’m happy with this arrangement and try my best to get the pronunciation down and remember what the heck I’m actually saying in Mandarin. What’s familiar about Mandarin is that it’s a tonal language. I studied Vietnamese for a while, which is another tonal language. This helps, and I’m able to hear and pronounce the f different tones (really five) pretty easily. Shuchen is very encouraging and tells me that being a musician also helps in hearing the inflection of each tone. Right on!
Recently, I got hooked on a Korean drama, “Boys Over Flowers” and watched the episodes online through Hulu. I looked up Taiwanese dramas thinking that it would be helpful in getting Mandarin “in my ear.” There is a Taiwanese version of “Boys Over Flowers” called “Meteor Garden.” It came out in 2001 and appears to have been very popular. Apparently, it stars some of Taiwan’s most popular young actors and actresses. The online streaming was really awful though, so I didn’t watch more than a few minutes of the first episode. Instead, I began watching another Taiwanese drama on Hulu called, “Single Princesses and Blind Dates.” It’s not nearly as good as “Boys Over Flowers” and I can’t say that I’m hooked, but it’s definitely good for listening and trying to learn Mandarin! I wish there was an easier way to learn another language and quickly. As it is, I’ll continue meeting with Shuchen. I’m glad that I found the right tutor and am really enjoying learning Mandarin, despite the difficulty.