Before I open my mouth, I am expected to be able to speak Mandarin. My face assures me of this. And yet, knowing how most others will perceive me has not lessened the burden of expectation weighing on my mind. After all, while my peers receive seemingly endless praise from local people for a single phrase or sentence spoken in Mandarin, I find my lack of ability in the language constantly questioned, and at times, I cannot help but think that it would be easier for me to allow people to continue to assume I am fluent than to prove them wrong. Despite this, I have tried to push myself to speak Mandarin more frequently and to be more courageous just as I promised myself I would be before arriving in China. Thus, I have sought out spaces to better myself even when it feels as though, just as Michael had to elbow his way to the front of the crowd at a market in Kunming to buy tofu before our trek up Chang Chong Shan, I have had to push my way forward among those in our group who are more experienced in Mandarin so that I can have a chance to speak and so that I can have a chance to use my voice and to learn.
When our Bridge Year group sat down for dinner during our second night in Shaxi, I found myself at a table with all three of our Chinese-speaking guests, and I was absolutely petrified. I didn’t know how I would be able to go through an entire meal without understanding what was being said around me, and I didn’t know how I could communicate with our guests in a positive manner without creating an awkward atmosphere. Once we began to chat, however, laughter and smiles flowed freely. All my worries about catching every word that was said and trying to translate as much as I could fell away with each lesson we received in Baizu hua and with each traditional song that Yuan Laoshi sang to our group. For once, I found comfort in what I did not know, and I could simply listen and be enjoy myself without any language expectations.
After this past week, I am often still afraid to speak Mandarin and embarrassed by the thought of not being able to understand what others are saying to me. As I have been told time and time again, however, I need to be more forgiving towards myself and just, ‘man man xue xi’–study slowly.