Yao Lan Hua, a 23 year old foreign exchange student from the province of Anhui, China, had dinner with us recently. After a delightful evening together, which included a short refresher course in Mandarin, I was flooded with memories from my pleasant experience of attempting to learn that language.
Seven years ago I took on this challenge, not realizing at the time it would become one of the most daunting of my life.
I had just returned from a trip to Mainland China convinced that I could become conversant in Mandarin. I knew it would be difficult, but I never doubted that I would succeed.
I would have to do this on my own. I had no friends in my community that spoke Chinese. Attending college was not a option.
I researched the two primary methods of learning a foreign language, Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur. Rosetta Stone required the use of a computer. Pimsleur contained 90 lessons on CDs, each 30 minutes in length. I could play these while exercising, driving, or flying. Downloading the lessons onto my iPod would give me freedom to study anywhere and at a moments notice. I chose Pimsleur.
Over five years, with intermittent lapses, I worked my way through all 90 lessons, repeating some lessons up to 10 times.
I became rather fluent at talking to myself, to the point where they were ready to take me in for a diagnosis. Carrying on a conversation with others was more of a challenge.
Regardless, I pressed on, purchasing Mandarin dictionaries, teaching manuals that taught me how to write and recognize Chinese characters, and DVDs that enabled me to audit conversations in Mandarin while spinning on my stationary bicycle.
The steeper the hill, the angrier I got. The more frustrated I became, the harder I pursued my goal.
I stopped listening to music altogether. My iPod became dedicated to learning Mandarin. Audibly repeating the phrases and words was a vital part of the learning process. I tried doing this in bed before falling asleep at night, but LeAnna soon put a stop to that. She reminded me there were other beds in the house. Additionally, she requested I stop attempted to chat with the help in Chinese restaurants. She found it embarrassing.
The studying was not arduous; it was pleasurable. It gave me an endorphin high. It was something I looked forward to. It stretched me like nothing has before or since.
It gradually dawned on me that the only way I would ever be able to master the Chinese language would be to move to Beijing (where they speak the most pure form of Mandarin) for a year. That was a choice I was not prepared to make.
Rather than being left with a sense of failure, I was able to accept the fact that regardless of how many hours, and regardless of how much energy I poured into this goal, I would never accomplish it.
The journey, not the destination, was the intrinsic reward.
I came away with an even more profound respect for the Chinese. One cannot fully appreciate their culture until one understands their language.
Becoming fluent in Mandarin (unless the Lord calls us to ministry in China!) is something I’ll only be able to do in glory, but for whatever reasons, I’m at peace with that, feeling that I’ve been more than rewarded by the experience itself.
WHAT GOALS HAVE YOU PURSUED THAT YOU DID NOT ACHIEVE AND YET WERE ABLE TO WALK AWAY FROM FEELING AS THOUGH YOU STILL SUCCEEDED?