Gosh, do we take reading for granted. I knew it would be tough before we arrived and steeled myself for the challenge, but wow is it difficult to navigate around a city when you can’t read. Chinese words, of course, don’t use the Roman language but instead a series of characters called hanzi. There are the occasional signs in English and sometimes Chinese words are also repeated in pinyin (the phonetic Romanization of the Chinese characters), but not many.
Here’s the sign at the bus stop for our apartment complex. The Chinese characters are in red. The green below it is the pinyin; that’s how you’d pronounce the stuff in red. In English, it translates as “Horizon Cove.” But if I told a taxi driver that I wanted to go to “Horizon Cove,” he wouldn’t understand. I’d have to tell him to take me to “Haiyi Wanpan.”
There’s no cheating by borrowing tidbits of knowledge from other languages, as I’ve been able to do while traveling in Europe. (For instance: I learned in high school that the Spanish word for library is biblioteca; while studying abroad in college I learned that the Danish word for library is bibliotek; after memorizing the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet, I was able to figure out that библиотека was pronounced something like библиотека b–uh–b–L–uh–teka—hey! That must mean library!) No such luck here in China.
To be reasonably able to read Chinese texts, you need to commit to memory some 4,000+ individual hanzi. Yikes. Sure, millions of Chinese schoolchildren manage to do it but it seems like a lot of work. Without a babysitter for Simon, I haven’t been able to enroll in any Chinese classes. So I’m bumbling along, not making much progress, teaching myself critical words on a need-to-know basis. I figured out my first word while still in the Hong Kong airport.
Exit. They say that a good way to learn to read Chinese is by associating the hanzi with a mental image. So I like to imagine a man flailing his arms and legs ( 出 ) while running out a door ( 口 ). Maybe there’s a fire. Maybe he just heard the ice cream truck go by. Not sure, but he’s definitely in a hurry.
My realizations are simple but exciting. One of the first words that I learned to recognize was simply “China,” (中国). China’s name for itself is “Middle Kingdom.” I see the word a lot. For instance, our phone plan is provided by China Mobile, so the top of my phone screen says “中国移动.” Notice the first two symbols?
Anyhow imagine my excitement when I was looking at our gas/water heater, trying to adjust the maximum temperature, and saw this:
Hey! Lookie! At the top of the dial–that’s the word for “middle”! 中. As in, “Middle Kingdom.” As in, “low, middle, high.” Wheeeee. At this rate, I’ll have mastered the 4,000 most used words by the time I’m 100 years old. In the meantime, when I come upon a situation like this, I stand around aimlessly, raise my eyebrows inquisitively, and look at strangers until someone takes pity on me and points me to the bathroom downstairs.