"Gloves," or Words to That Effect
The one word in Chinese I will never, ever forget is 手套 (shou tao) or "gloves."
I forget many other words of course. I forget words all the time. But if there's one word that I will always remember - even into late-stage Alzheimer's - it will be 手套.
Before entering into my mighty struggle with 手套, I was familiar with handful of other words. 你好 (ni hao or "hello") as you'd expect, also 謝謝 (shie shie or "thanks"). Yet 手套 was the first word I tried to say correctly every time, and also the first word I had real difficulty with.
I have a clear memory of riding a scooter with my wife in Taichung 台中. We were leaving a bus station when I innocently asked how to say "gloves" in Chinese.
"手套," she answered.
I couldn't hear it then, but she spoke the first word with a falling/rising tone, and the second with a falling tone. I'd only been in Taiwan for a few months, and the tonal differences between words went over my head every time.
"Shou tao," I repeated in two, perfectly flat tones.
"No, that's not right," she corrected me, "Say it like I do - 手套."
"Shou tao," I said a second time, succeeding with the first character, but failing on the second.
"Still not right," she said patiently. "手套..."
We continued on like this for twenty minutes or so, while I grew more and more frustrated with the Chinese language, with what I falsely perceived as her "patronizing attitude," and with the feeling of alienation that such exchanges produce. By the end of those twenty minutes I was still no closer to being able to correctly pronounce 手套, and my wife, sensing my obvious frustration, decided to change the subject.
Naturally I, being the pain in the ass that I am, refused to let the torture stop there. I had a bee in my bonnet about "people saying things about me that I can't understand," and I was determined to know enough Chinese to catch the drift of coworkers' gossip. We later moved on to a study of the phonetic characters, which proceeded something like this:
"ㄅ ("bugh")," my wife intoned.
"Boo," I repeated.
"No, not like that," she corrected. "And keep your tone the same. Don't go up or down. Try again - ㄅ."
"ㄅ," I imitated, but with my voice rising at the end.
"No that's wrong," she said, "But much better."
...and so on, until I could put the phonetic characters together. ㄅ and ㄤ for "bang," ㄌ and ㄢ for "lan," ㄉ and ㄧ and ㄥ for "ding." It was slow going, but I began to feel like I finally had a way into the language. It wasn't all random noise.
Yet the tones were still tripping me up every time. We moved onto storybooks similar to the alphabet primers seen in the States, wherein each phonetic character was used to introduce a Chinese word.
"Shr," I read aloud from the book, keeping my tone even, then: "Shr, ou." Then the falling/rising tone next to the phonetic characters, "Shr... ou... 手.... tao?"
"No, that's still not right," my wife corrected gently, "It's 手套. The second tone is falling."
This, after a half hour of fighting the book, and of making my mouth form unfamiliar sounds. I felt like the Chinese word for "gloves" was mocking me. I felt like I would never learn Chinese. I felt stupid. I felt hurt.
"FUCK!" I yelled at the wall, throwing the book across the room. Why did Chinese have to be so hard? Why couldn't my mouth - and my brain - work the way I wanted them to? It wasn't for lack of effort on my part. I'd set myself a schedule, and I'd stuck by it for months. An hour of practice after work, every day.
My wife did her best to console me. Of course it was hard for her to understand. She'd begun her study of English at a very early age, and in the midst of Chinese speakers. Her learning curve had been a lot shallower than mine, and her earliest years of English study were a distant memory.
Goddamn 手套. I started to hate that word. Every time I had to use it I grew incredibly self-conscious. It didn't help that everyone I worked with knew that I was trying to learn Chinese, and that they corrected me at every opportunity. They were quite relentless about it. The pressure was at times intense.
"Maybe you can go to the university and take a class?" my wife suggested.
I thought it over and it seemed like a good idea. It also occurred to me that my wife and I might be going about things the wrong way, and that university professors with years of experience might just know a little more about learning and teaching Chinese than we did. A short time later I was enrolled in a Chinese class at Tung Hai University 東海大學, which was only a short distance from where we lived.
"亞當先生 ("Mr. Adam")," said my instructor on our first day of class, "念這個字給我們聽 ("Read this word aloud for us.")
"Shr," I said.
"Ou," I added.
"手," I carefully pronounced, seeing the tonal marker.
"Te," I continued.
"Ao," I said.
"套." I affirmed, with a falling tone.
"很好 ("Very good.")," said the instructor, and the lesson continued on. I listened to my classmates struggle with the same words I had been struggling with for months, and though they had my sympathies, I was glad to know I was pronouncing things better and more consistently than they were. Towards the end of my first semester the teacher was even using me for a model, asking the other students to speak words as I did.
And I can't lie. It felt awesome. Before long we were writing characters, and I could read bits of signs on the road. I learned the names of foods, and I could order different things in restaurants. I started to understand snippets of what my kindergartners were saying in school, and I could use Chinese as a shortcut to help them understand certain English words. Taiwan was like a book that was opening up before me, and after each day's study I understood a little more of what that book contained.
Chinese New Year arrived, and after completing my first semester at the university we were in front of our apartment, about to drive our scooter to the train station.
"It's cold today," said my wife.
"Yes," I answered, "We should put on our 手套."
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