I am infamously known amongst my friends as a “banana Chinese” - one who is Chinese by blood, but barely knows the Chinese culture or language. Although my parents are of the Hokkien and Cantonese descents, I have never been taught to speak either dialect. Attending a private school and transferring to a government school in Malaysia also means I have never been taught Mandarin in school.
When I switched to a government secondary school, I was much more surrounded by Mandarin speaking students from various Chinese schools and a few of them have become a part of my high school circle. Here and there, I learned to pick up a few Chinese phrases from “Hello, how are you?” to “Where are the toilets?” (sometimes the latter is more essential than you might think).
I quite value the language now as an undergraduate in Malaysia. There have been countless times I wished I could read or speak Chinese - the time I got into a car accident and the other driver couldn’t speak English or Malay, when I’m ordering food in areas that are more dense with Chinese, when I’m aimlessly clicking all over TaoBao.com trying to make a purchase from mainland Chinese e-tailers, when I read job descriptions that require Chinese… you get the picture.
More and more Malaysians regardless of race are enrolling their kids in Chinese schools. I’ve had a Russian classmate who was learning Chinese and could read and write the language. I came across videos of Africans living in China who could speak and sing in Chinese. I felt like a disgrace to my own lineage. Every single time I meet a stranger and they assume that I speak the language because of my race, they have this genuine look of shock on their face when they find out I don’t. I hated it, but I can’t blame them. Wouldn’t you assume a Hispanic in America speaks Spanish?
So I set out with a mission to learn the language.
Slightly over a month ago, I purchased a book titled “Reading and Writing Chinese” by William McNaughton. I purchased a book on Chinese which is not written by a Chinese. The irony.
As you can see written on the book cover above, it has thousands upon thousands of Chinese characters - the book is about 1.5inches thick. I began going through the characters and just… just how was I going to finish this book!?
I bought myself some Chinese exercise books with large grids that kids use in Chinese schools and started to do a minimum of 15 characters a week. I figured I could finish the book in 18 months if I kept that pace.
I hit that goal on a pretty regular streak and thought about it again. If I could do 5 characters a day - that’s 35 characters a week - I could finish the book in less than a year!
Today, almost a month has passed since I got the book and I’ve learned 104 characters. Next time I update this blog in relation to this life-long mission to learn Chinese, I’ll be sure to include some Android apps that I use to learn Chinese on the go. Wish me luck!