Last night I began my first Mandarin lessons.
From 19:00 to 21:00 every Monday and Wednesday night until the end of July I will attend class at Culture Yard, a just-opened educational center begun by my friend Ilya. Located just two minutes’ walk outside of Beixinqiao Exit C in the quintessentially Beijing Shique Hutong, there’s nowhere better to have a Beijing cultural experience. It’s the same place where I had a tasty New Years Eve dinner, though at the time it was half-finished, but full of friendly Russians and Israelis and Chinese. Ilya wants to turn Culture Yard into a central location for all kinds of cultural education: foreigners learning Chinese, Chinese learning English, screening Chinese films, hanging out and meeting others learning other things. It’s a great place and I hope it succeeds.
I am actually the only student in any classes, for now. My class last night was taught by one Chinese teacher named Brendan, or more fully, Fang Chao (Chao being his given name). In a couple of weeks more students will join but since I was interested in starting immediately they were kind enough to set up for me to begin this week.
It is clear that I have a lot to learn. For now it’s going over some very basic stuff (ni hao ma, etc. etc.) focusing especially on understanding the differences between the tones and how to pronounce them. Both Ilya and Brendan said my pronunciation (effort) is surprisingly good, but I have the problem of trying to enunciate too much, especially from my chest or diaphragm as if I was speaking my normal loud English. Brendan explained that Mandarin is spoken much more lightly and thus flows much more easily. When I was speaking I put a lot of force on each syllable to make sure I was getting the dips and the rises in each syllable down so my tones would become second nature. The biggest challenge will be to learn to speak from my mouth, not from the chest. Doing so is much easier when you get the hang of it.
In addition, I was very hungry the whole night. In the future I will need to leave work about thirty minutes early so I can make it there in time to down a bowl of noodles.