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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

How Old Is Your Backpack?

Ni de bei bao ji sui? I asked a random lady on the main street of the Shaxi Old Town in my slow, yet carefully thought out Mandarin. She had her young baby strapped to her back, and was carrying a bright, red umbrella to shade him from the sun.

Let me preface this by saying that I do not usually approach random strangers on the street and ask them personal questions. However, I was feeling particularly bold that day as our group was split up and challenged with completing a scavenger hunt. Our scavenger hunt tasks ranged from finding out how old certain trees are in the center of the village to finding a farmer on the outskirts of town and asking him or her about what types of crops they grow. Every task required us to explore the unique and beautiful old town, find our way around,  and interact with locals with our shaky Mandarin skills.

I was placed in a group with Braulio and Owen, the intermediate Chinese speakers, and was undoubtedly nervous to begin. Even though we had already been in China for about a week, I had yet to have a very long conversation in Chinese without a safety net. Without having one of the instructors or higher level speakers by my side to help out when I became flustered and confused, I lacked confidence in my ability to communicate fully in Chinese. I understood that for this activity I would really have to stretch my vocabulary, focus on pronouncing the right tones so that people could understand me, and speak quickly and confidently so that the locals did not become frustrated with me. It seemed like an overwhelming and even impossible task.

My group had decided to start with something easy, something that we could all express in Mandarin with ease. All we had to do was find the youngest person in the village and find out his or her age.

So there I found myself, in the middle of a small, rural, Chinese village, chasing down a lady carrying her baby, and yelling qing wen, qing wen! “Please, may I ask you a question?”

The lady stopped and looked at me, puzzled and curious as to why a young, blonde girl was trying to speak to her in Chinese.

Shen me?, “What?” She said in a calm and gentle voice. She seemed patient, so I took a deep breath and continued; ni de bei bao ji sui?

She tilted her head and scrunched her face, seemingly to suppress a small laugh, and said the one phrase I dreaded most; ting bu dong,  “I don’t understand.”

My mind was racing with a million thoughts of what I could have done wrong. Were my tones off? Did I speak clearly enough? Did I ask something inappropriate or offensive?

I decided to ask the question again, this time speaking even more slowly and paying special attention to my pronunciation; ni de bei bao ji sui?

The woman could not control her laughter. I sunk a little inside and was about to turn and walk away when she pointed to my backpack and said with a giggle, Zhe shi ni de bei bao, “This is your backpack,” and then pointed to the baby on her back and said, Zhe shi wo de bao bei, “This is my baby.”

I immediately realized my mistake and we both began to smile and laugh together. Though at first I was terrified to make mistakes, I realized in that moment that the language errors I make are just a part of my journey of learning Mandarin and living abroad. The more mistakes I am willing and open to make, the more I will be able to grow as not only a Chinese speaker, but as an individual working to learn about herself.

Plus, I can certainly say that I will never ask anyone how old a backpack is again.