Learning a foreign language can be an arduous journey, but it all starts from the first step. For many international students in PKUSZ, their first steps in learning Chinese are already behind them, but they could never be forgotten. We set out to hear international student recall their first attempts at Chinese. For those just beginning, remember you are not alone!
Good morning (早上好)
It should come as no surprise that most interviewees said “你好nǐ hǎo” (“Hello”) and the similar “早上好zǎo shàng hǎo” (“Good morning”) were their first Chinese words. As Juan Diego Sanchez, PKU School Transnational Law (STL) student from Spain, observes, it is quite common to see Chinese people greet each other with “早上好” and a smile. Emily Michalzik, STL exchange student from Germany, added that “你好” is a very powerful phrase and can be used in many occasions besides greetings. For example, when she is in need, “你好” can easily help get someone’s attention. Thus she cannot live without “你好” in China.
The second most shared response is also not surprising: “谢谢xiè xiè” (“Thanks”). Since Chinese people emphasize courtesy and etiquette, it is necessary for international students to know how to express gratitude in Chinese, and saying “谢谢” is of course the easiest way. But Sina Hansen, STL exchange student from Norway, holds a different opinion on learning “谢谢.” She says that she learned “谢谢” first because she found it the easiest to pronounce. Although this might be true for Sina, pronouncing “谢谢” correctly doesn’t seem to be such an easy task for other international students, according to their responses.
Have You Eaten? (你吃了吗？)
Something that confuses new beginners is that Chinese people have various ways to greet others besides nihao. Frank Hepworth, STL student from Germany shared that the first word his Chinese teacher said to him was “你吃了吗? nǐ chī le ma?” (“Have you had a meal?”), and he was at a loss. It took Frank a long time to fully understand the meaning of “你吃了吗” because it is simply a greeting but not really asking what one has eaten. Functionally, it is equivalent to “Such a nice day today isn’t it?” But anyway, thanks to the Chinese teacher, “你吃了吗” has made a very deep impression on Frank’s mind.
Becoming a Local
Sophie Becker is also from Germany, but she has a different story to share. When she first arrived in Shenzhen, she went shopping with her friend in Luohu. Many salesmen there crazily gave away flyers to her and she was very terrified. Then her friend told her to say “我不要wǒ bù yào” (“I don’t want it”) to avoid receiving the flyers, and it worked. From then on, Sophie becomes very experienced in saying “我不要” to avoid troubles.
Another interesting response was from Camilla Serafini from Italy. Her first Chinese word was “洗手间xǐ shǒu jiān” (“restroom”). She learned this because she wanted to find a toilet and she needed to ask for help. It was a bit embarrassing at first but later on she found this word very helpful and Chinese people very friendly. Camilla now loves this word very much and she even names her chatroom “洗手间.”
The survey ended in the late night and many international students were gathering around Mirror Lake drinking beer. When a group of guys were asked to recall their first Chinese word, they unanimously replied with “干杯gān bēi” (“Cheers”) and they did cheer. For many international students, beer is as important as learning toilet. Therefore, saying “你好” and “谢谢” is outdated, and the new fashion along Mirror Lake is “干杯”—Let’s cheer for PKUSZ!
The journey of learning Chinese still goes on, and many interesting stories are yet to come. But in retrospect, the first steps can tell a lot. Do you have a different story to tell?
Written by Jiang Dongyuan