Thinking of trains and facing language fear
Only five months to go until I leave for China. I’m excited to travel to China, to visit a new part of the country and feel that inexplicable thrill I get whenever I step off the plane in Beijing. But as I start to think more about my trip, I realize that I’m facing an extreme case of language fear. Chinese isn’t as central to my life as it once was; I no longer take classes, I don’t have friends who I speak Chinese with regularly, and I haven’t been to China in almost three years. My language skills simply aren’t as strong as they used to be—and that scares me.
I’m not scared about not being able to get around; I am confident enough in my Mandarin that I know I’ll have no problem asking for directions, getting to the train station and buying a ticket. But I’m scared about what will happen once I get on the train. Will I be able to connect with people the way I used to?
Growing up where I did, I never had the opportunity to travel by train, and my first train trip in China taught me how different train are from other forms of transportation, especially airplanes: the trips are generally longer, you get to see the countryside from the ground, the cars are often crowded, people stand or sit on little folding stools, and it’s loud and lively. It’s an atmosphere that fosters interaction, I’ve had some amazing conversations on trains. One time a friend and I asked a little boy where his mother was and he told us that he ate her. (It was extra special because he used the passive voice—“她被我吃掉了”(she was eaten by me)—something we had just learned in class and heard in action for the first time.) A train was the first place where a child called me “Aunty,” which aside from making me melt also made me feel accepted. I once had a long discussion with a group of men wanting to know everything about houses in Canada—unfortunately, I don’t know the average square footage of houses here, but it was fun trying to figure it out. Most of the time, people have asked me where I’m from, how old I am, what I’m doing in China—they’ve asked the questions that people everywhere ask when they want to connect.
Thinking about taking the train in China again very soon, I’m scared I won’t be able to have those same interactions. I find myself thinking about random words and realizing I can’t remember how to say them in Chinese. I see characters that are familiar but I can’t quite name them. I overhear Mandarin on the bus and my brain is too slow to react.
What will happen to me when I’m finally there? Will everything come rushing back to me magically, in that it’s-like-riding-a-bike kind of way? Or will it be slower, more like riding a train that’s taking the long, slow route?
I’ll let you know in five months.