"Don't be afraid, you are in China!"

A view of the Great Wall of China
When our laoshi delivered to the class the odd statement "Don't be afraid: you are in China!", the first thing that crossed my mind was to imagine this sentence out of its context.

Admittedly, out of nowhere, it does make China look like some kind of shelter, and said by a Chinese person, you will inevitably think "Wow, Chinese people have a really great concept of their country!"

I am slowly appreciating the fact that Chinese people truly love their country, and every time a foreigner mentions Zhong Guo (China), the face of the local shines with a smirk, let alone when foreigners confess their own love for the Red Dragon.

However, the sudden burst of vigor didn't belong to such a patriotic context, but was simply a way to reassure the class that by living in China we naturally have all tools we need to learn the language properly and quickly.

Our teacher insists, and rightly so, that we need to go out and speak to as many people as possible.

After having overcome the initial shock of moving to such a different culture, I'm starting to getting to grips with Chinese mentality and outlandish lifestyle, so I took my teacher's advice and started talking to people in shops, streets or wherever I had the occasion.

The result so far hasn't been very remarkable as most people don't understand what I'm saying. Did I think learning Chinese was like learning any other language? Not quite.

Last week the government was conducting a population census in Shanghai and when the officer came to my place in order to "count me", I took it as a great occasion to sport the sentences I had just learnt and introduce myself. Wrong guess, little did I know that it was going to be source of greater frustration.

The man only understood I was from Italy, he didn't understand I was here to "study", and when I showed him the character and told him I was studying Chinese, he looked at me puzzled: "Are you studying Korean?!"

I get it: I need to look after my pronunciation.

The trick is to understand the difference between tones, they are four, and the same word can have four (or more) different meanings, according to the tone. Admittedly, to me the tones sound all pretty much the same, but our teacher promised us that they are completely different. It must be, otherwise people would understand at least some of the words I say.

I'm not even starting mentioning how hard learning the characters is, and now we are talking about a "simplified" Chinese, courtesy of Mao who thought the traditional characters were too difficult and imposed to make them "easier".

We learn about ten characters per class, and at the beginning (the very beginning, let's say the first ten characters), I was thrilled: "It's not that difficult after all!" I kept repeating to myself. After thirty characters (I know, just three classes) I had already changed my mind.

Not only the difference between tones is almost undetectable to foreign ears, but many characters are hopelessly similar, with only a couple of strokes marking the distinction between them.

While I'm increasingly less afraid of Shanghai life, I'm starting getting worried about communicating with locals. But I guess, like everything, it's only a matter of time.


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