I still remember my first day in China, it was September 1st 2007. I’d landed into a hot, humid, hectic jumble of a city; Beijing. I had just begun what was to be a year of volunteering in a town way off the beaten path in the north east of Xinjiang.
As far as I can recall, the only word I knew in Mandarin at that point was “hello”, and even that was something I’d picked up off another volunteer at the airport. Whilst in Beijing we had a 2 hour crash course in Mandarin, where we learned how little we knew and forgot everything else. Oh, except for one thing; we learned that in Mandarin there are four tones and a neutral tone, by which the same syllabic sound could have four different meanings… Cue mass panic. I remember looking around the room and seeing that everybody was thinking the same thing: “Tones?! How the hell am I going to work tones out?!”
To expand on that – each of the above words have the same pronunciation but different inflections (also 麻 is generally used to mean hemp, rather than rough). So the sentence 妈妈骂了吃麻的马 (mā ma mà le chī má de mă) actually means “mother scolded the horse that ate hemp”. Bit of a mouthful!
The daunting prospect of being sent to small town China was looming ever closer, but after getting over the initial panic about our Mandarin, we were started to become a little more confident in communicating.
Once our orientation course in Beijing came to a close, we were put on the 46 hour sleeper train to Urumqi. It was an experience so different to any journey any of us had taken before that we were all kind of excited. The carriages were separated into open compartments with three level bunk beds on either side and a table and pull down seats by the aisle. After spending the first afternoon on the train playing card games and watching the arid landscape rush by we swaggered in to the dining carriage, eager to try out our Mandarin.
It was a disaster.
First off the carriage staff, in their limited English, asked one of the guys if he was a girl or a boy (he looked a bit like Halle Berry). He went a nice shade of maroon, but as we basically couldn’t speak any Mandarin we had no idea how to respond. Anyway, after that debacle was over, we managed to order food without getting any unidentifiable animal bits, which we were pretty chuffed about. Before we could celebrate our victory, however, they asked us to pay the bill. We discussed the figure amongst ourselves, with our senior Mando speaker (who knew about five words instead of two) deciding it came to the total of 1 yuan (10p). When we handed over the money the carriage staff burst out laughing, and used a calculator to tell us it was 25 yuan each. We couldn’t leave the carriage fast enough, and scurried back to our compartments with our tails between our legs.
“Oh dear, this is going to be a long year” I remember thinking. Looking back I only wish it’d gone slower; it was one of the best years I’ve had, and is what brought me to Beijing all this time later.