Mandarin, Sweet as Juice | Teen Ink

Mandarin, Sweet as Juice MAG

December 18, 2017
By NightBulb SILVER, Sudbury, Ontario
NightBulb SILVER, Sudbury, Ontario
7 articles 2 photos 20 comments

Favorite Quote:
Life is a blank canvas: it's up to you to paint the picture.

If life can be compared to a multi-course meal, every experience has a flavor. Mistakes are like an unpleasant mouthful of salt, while the sweetness of success is a candy we never want to stop savoring. Summers are often aromatic, smoky and pungent. And yet nothing could quite compare to the bitter dryness that filled my mouth as I stood motionless, trapped between the edge of a desk and a teacher’s arm, having forgotten my own name.

“Hey,” said the girl standing next to me, whose name I couldn’t recall either. “Don’t worry. Take your time.”
And so I did. But just as flour cannot replace baking powder just because they look alike, mumbling a few syllables I’d learned that day was not an adequate pronunciation of my newly assigned Chinese name. The teacher smiled at me awkwardly, indicating that I was completely off. I simply had to hope that I had not said anything too embarrassing before the strained silence passed, and we moved on to the next student.

So went my first day of the STARTALK Chinese language and culture program, a month and a half of intensive summer Mandarin classes in the heart of Manhattan. We were 10 students and 15 Chinese teachers spending all of July together on the fifth floor of Hunter College, tall windows providing a thrilling view of the building next door and not much else. I would disembark the train every morning at 8:15, then walk the 25 blocks to the college, a sesame bagel in hand from one of the breakfast carts along Lexington Avenue, often topped with cream cheese and the aromas of sewer gas and smoke rising from the subway grates in the sidewalk.
Learning was tough, at first. I knew next to nothing about Mandarin tonalities and had no previous experience learning the language. I chose it mainly because my goal was to teach and work internationally, and to do that, I wanted to take on one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

Learning Spanish in school had been relatively easy, since my fluency in French had provided a life jacket to ease my way into navigating the waters of another Romance language. It was sweet. The first days of Mandarin, however, were like falling straight into the deep end of the pool, only barely knowing how to stay afloat; like biting into the bitter white pith of an orange rather than the sugary flesh. And why was I really doing it, anyway?
As the classes went on, I slowly found that I was making connections. Just as my 10 years of playing piano have allowed me to perform for others, just as my years of painting and creative writing have led me to become published in Teen Ink and editor-in-chief of my school’s literary magazine, I knew that the STARTALK program would allow me to speak Mandarin not only in the classroom, but with people in my day-to-day life. As the teachers helped me build up the confidence to not only present in front of the class, but talk to people such as museum-goers and waiters, I soon began tasting the sweetness I had been craving. I am confident that Mandarin will allow me to speak with and listen to more people, to understand more cultures and traditions, and, like a new ingredient in my life’s feast, help me to explore new flavors and ideas that only exposure to this language would permit.

So what did my summer really taste like? Frozen lemonade from the stands in Central Park, the bubble tea from the shop down the street, and the smoky breakfast cart bagels. Best of all, it tasted like the Chinese food that, for the first time, I did not order in English.

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