People ask me all the time why I wanted to learn Chinese. Living in China, I also get this question a lot when I first start talking to people, and I often just give answers like:
“Because I’m interested in the culture.”
“Because I’m interested in foreign languages.”
“Because I wanted to get the chance to travel the world and experience a different culture.”
But when I really think about why I wanted to learn Chinese, this answers actually only scratch the surface.
I was interested in the culture, and I was interested in the language itself from an academic point of view. In particular, Chinese characters intrigued me. I wanted to know how they were put together and how the writing system worked.
I also quite liked the sound of Chinese and I wanted to find out something about ancient Chinese culture – the history, the literature, and how the Chinese language fitted into all of this.
But after living in China for the past few years, and doing jobs that put my language skills to use, so many people have asked me about my motivations for learning Chinese that I started to do a lot of soul-searching and I’ve uncovered some much more deep-seated reasons for why I wanted to take up Chinese, which I want to share with you now.
1. Because I wanted to take on something completely new.
As a teenager, I often felt impatient. It was as if I was waiting for something to happen. I didn’t know what, and I didn’t know when.
Looking back, this impatience seems a little immature, and it seems very passive. After all, if you want something to happen, it’s up to you to make a decision and do something!
But what I knew was that I needed to try something new. This drove me to try to ‘break the mold’ and try to find a completely new project to take on. Something different to what I had been doing before.
That project was Chinese.
2. Because nobody else around me was doing it.
I was the only person in my school who wanted to study Chinese at university.
Then, I was only one of a very small number of people at my university who was studying Chinese.
I was always good at languages, and I could have taken up another European language, but I figured that a lot of the European languages have similar roots, and I had already studied French and Spanish. If I wanted to get better at them I could just take trips to the country, or study them on my own. It probably wouldn’t be that difficult.
I remember one guy at school, when he found out about my choice of subject, asked me very bluntly: “Why the **** do you want to learn Chinese?” I can’t remember what I said at the time.
But I didn’t care.
In fact, I quite liked being the only person who was learning Chinese. It set me apart, and it meant that I didn’t feel like I was competing with a lot of other people. I could concentrate on my own goal.
It was almost like some kind of secret code that I was learning to crack, except that there were more than a billion people somewhere in the world who were able to understand it.
3. I wanted to experience something different and I wanted adventure.
I had a great childhood, I did well at school and I really had nothing that I could complain about.
But life was very predictable and very, well, ordinary. I wanted adventure and I wanted to experience something new.
I knew that by studying a language degree, I would be able to integrate myself in a completely different culture and get the chance to travel.
And that certainly turned out to be the case. While I was studying Chinese, I studied in Taiwan, as well as in Qingdao and I’ve worked in Suzhou and Beijing and travelled all over China.
I’ve experienced all the sights, sounds and tastes of living in a foreign country. I’ve learned about how people from a completely different culture think, and dealt with cultural differences which at times have been frustrating and difficult.
But one thing’s for sure, it has never been boring.
I’ve had the chance to travel to places that I would never have visited if I hadn’t decided to learn Chinese. I’ve travelled China quite widely, and seen a huge variety of cities, landscapes, cuisines and sights. I’ve climbed some of the Chinese mountains, been to the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors and seen the giant panda.
But most importantly, I’ve been able to do much more than a tourist who didn’t speak the language would be able to do. I’ve been able to ‘get inside’ the culture, build closer relationships with the people who speak the language and find out about the culture from their perspective. I’ve also met some interesting people and had some pretty crazy experiences – like being on Chinese TV several times!
4. I wanted a challenge.
People talk about how Chinese is “the hardest language in the world to learn.”
I heard things like “it will take you years before you can even read a newspaper.” “It’s impossible for a non-Chinese to become really fluent.” “There are more than 50,000 characters, you’ll never remember all of them.”
But to be honest, I didn’t really pay that much attention to these claims. I was interested in learning Chinese and I had already decided that I was going to do it, so I was just excited to get started.
It wasn’t that I was really confident that I was going to be good at it and I was going to get fluent. As I had never learned a language like Chinese before, I really had no idea what it would be like. I just didn’t think about these things that much before I started.
This is probably the longest explanation of why I wanted to learn Chinese I’ve ever given.
In fact, I almost picked Arabic. Learning Arabic would have been a completely new challenge and an adventure as well, but something about Chinese culture attracted me.
So what about you? Why did you decide to learn Chinese? Can you identify with any of my reasons, or do you have difference ones of your own?
I’d love to hear your story! Leave me a comment below.