Switching from Russian to Chinese

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Next morning, the day before I cross to China, I lock myself in my hotel room and prepare to ease into the language that I learnt poorly more than thirty years ago, and have rarely spoken since. My Mandarin notes and textbooks, squashed into my rucksack, spill out like ancient scripts, still covered in my tutor’s red biro, and stained with the rings of coffee cups. Beyond my window, through an opening in the shoreline flat-blocks, a section of the Amur gleams, with Heihe lying beyond under a clouded sky. A Russian patrol boat is crossing the gap.

The only sounds in the room are my own. I return to my makeshift table. It’s a relief to leave behind the complexities of Russian grammar, the dual aspects of verbs, the exacting cases of nouns, the sheer length of words. Chinese, which lacks verbal tenses, genders, even the singular and plural, seems suddenly, radiantly simple. I shift my table to the light of the window and the glint of the Amur, and my exhilaration rises. The vocabulary flows back. Sometimes I have the illusion that I am not remembering, but learning anew. I anticipate the stark thrust of Mandarin replacing Russian wholesale. A change of language feels like a change of person. Sounds and structures dictate emotion. New concepts emerge, while others die. I have the illusion that I become more aggressive in Mandarin, and that my voice descends an octave. Perhaps I will need this. I have no idea what dialects may be coming my way. Yet for a long time I hear Mandarin returning, and imagine all will be well.

But as the hours go on, this happy remembrance stiffens. The unfamiliar structures start to weigh on me. There are words I have clean forgotten. Perhaps it is all too long ago. The blessed existence of Western borrowings (in Russian there are many) is all but absent. Mandarin is a tonal tongue – its words change meaning with their pitch – and the language turns, in my memory, to an echo of discordant gongs. I remember finding it easier to speak than to understand: the reverse of what I wish. Suddenly I miss the pliant beauty of Russian.

By evening a self-induced dementia has set in. When I go down to the hotel restaurant I mistakenly ask for the lavatory in Mandarin, then order a meal in Russian and chat to the bewildered waitress in a deranged mixture of both. Often my poor grasp of either leaves me suspended in mid-speech. I have no idea what is going to come out of my mouth.

I had a similar experience years ago in Beijing in 1988, where I managed to contact an old classmate from my Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84. She worked for the Romanian broadcast service of Radio Beijing (which has a larger audience now than it used to in those days). I had first learned Romanian (fairly well) while in the U.S. Army at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, so she and I were both in the advanced Romanian language class at the University of Bucharest. Our classmates included her Chinese broadcaster colleague, 4 young East German translators/interpreters, and 2 other American Fulbrighters, and we spoke mostly Romanian to each other during that year. However, when we met again in Beijing, after my wife and I had spent a year in Guangdong teaching English and I had put some effort into learning basic Mandarin, I had a hell of a time keeping my new Chinese phrases out of my once-fluent Romanian when talking with her and her travel-agent husband, who knew Italian and English.

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Filed under China, language, Romania, Russia

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