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Lessons in Learning Chinese: Willa Dong

This week on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series, we feature Willa Dong. She’s got a very interesting story to tell from her experiences in Asia, as well as her experiences as a Chinese language learner. In her own words:

I’m a 25-year old public health researcher who is originally from Maryland. After college, I spent a year in China doing research on rural women’s access to health care, which included a two month stay in a village in Hebei. This project solidified my interest in women’s health issues in China, so I went back to school to pursue a degree in public health. Since fall 2011, I’ve been living and doing research in Shenzhen.

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How long have you been studying Chinese?  In what context?  For what purpose?

Because my family is Chinese, I’ve been immersed in Mandarin since I was born. When I was less than a year old, my parents sent me to Beijing so that my grandparents could help raise me. I’ve also lived with several relatives so Chinese was pretty much the only language spoken at home. Like a lot of other Chinese-American kids, I attended Chinese school one afternoon a week from when I was 8 until 16 or so. In terms of formal Chinese language education, I’ve taken one semester of third year Chinese during college. However, the two years I’ve spent living and working in China so far have primarily been in Chinese-heavy environments. For me, simply going through everyday life in a Chinese environment has also been valuable for improving my Chinese.

Do you have a certain philosophy for how you approach learning Chinese?  Do you have any grand 想法s about it all?

I’m not sure if I have a philosophy, since people have many reasons for learning the language. However, no matter what the purpose is, it’s important to engage with the language on a daily basis in order to keep it up.

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most?  (this can be specific study resources, methods, activities, social aspects etc)

I love how improving my language skills has helped me connect to people around me while I’m living in China, not just casual conversations but on a deeper level. A few weeks ago, a few of my American and Chinese friends  and I went out to dim sum together. Over the next few hours, we had intense conversations on everything ranging from food to gender roles and politics.

What mistakes do you see other language learners make?  What should people NOT do when studying Chinese?

I’m not really sure what mistakes other language learners have made. For myself, it’s mostly been not taking advantage of all the resources I’ve had to improve my language skills. Chinese is a difficult language to learn and requires a lot of personal accountability.

Any favorite words or phrases? (there are loads which don’t have equivalents in English)

Since one of my biggest interests is food, 馋 (chan2) is naturally one of my favorite words. Especially because of how frequently I am 馋 in China.

Funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes, misunderstandings, surreal moments etc.

Embarrassing Chinese mistakes? You don’t say. There was that lunch when my friend wanted to get his leftovers to go, and both of us without thinking asked the waitress to “带走” (take away) his sandwich, instead of getting it “打包” (get to go), resulting in a perfectly good half of a roast beef sandwich getting tossed out. Or the time I was at a workshop and when the lunches were being passed out, the organizer asked if anyone needed a 清真 (halal) lunch. I didn’t know what that word meant so I decided to chance it and raise my hand to ask if it was vegetarian. Because I am ethnically Chinese and don’t have much of an accent, everyone gave me a look that roughly translated to “Are you an idiot?!”

Any memorable milestones? Any, “Aha!”, or eureka moments?

Like that dim sum conversation I mentioned earlier, there have been quite a few memorable milestones.

  1. Being able to network with Chinese activists at a conference earlier this year.
  2. Discussing qualitative research methods in (broken) Chinese.
  3. Talking to bartenders about LGBT culture in China.

Looking back on this past year, I felt like I was actually living in Shenzhen rather than simply observing as an outsider. And while I feel more and more comfortable living here, these “milestones” are also a reminder of how much I need to continue working on my Chinese.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

Because I work in a Chinese-speaking environment for my research, the payoff for me is pretty immediate. Even learning a few very basic public health words, such as incidence (发病率), patient (患者), and 措施 (measure), has made reading Chinese reports a lot easier. Also, I like to set aside a little bit of time each day, for about an hour, so studying isn’t so daunting.

Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?

Of course, it’d be anything my great aunt would cook for us growing up, but the one dish I could eat anytime, anywhere is 甜水面, from Sichuan.

Do you have one last tip for something that our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese?

My Chinese tutor recommended that if I came upon a sentence that used a specialized public health term particularly well, I should note down the sentence in a spreadsheet. I feel like this advice could also apply to general Chinese as well. Learning words in context is a very powerful way of linking the character to its precise meaning.

Thanks Willa for a great favorite phrase as well as all those links to great resources, a better look at what 甜水面 is as well as a glimpse to what your experiences have been while learning this language!

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