How I Learned Chinese

From second grade until eighth grade I went to a private school in Andover, Massachusetts called The Pike School. It was awesome, and marked the last time that I thought:

1. School was worthwhile
2. School was fun

It’s such an excellent school that when I have kids eventually I’d be inclined to move back around Boston so that my kids could go there.

Class sizes were very small – maybe 80 people in my entire grade. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone talked. Rumors spread quickly.

I was in sixth grade when my friend Nick, a Greek kid who introduced me to the joys of pouring gasoline on the sidewalk and lighting it on fire, told me the rumor.

“There’s a Chinese kid coming here. He doesn’t speak any English.”

I was intrigued. I’d always wanted to be a ninja (seriously… I REALLY wanted to be a ninja), and I was pretty sure that ninjas spoke Chinese.

“Cool. I’m going to teach him English and get him to teach me Chinese.”

A few months later, Charlie Wang arrived. He was 5’7″, which was a good seven inches taller than I was, and a good three inches taller than anyone else in the class.

He was a giant.

We met, and became fast friends. He knew a little bit of English and picked it up very quickly.

He taught me all the swear words in Chinese.

Soon my curiousity spread. To properly direct the insults I needed to know more pronouns. He gradually taught me more.

“Which part of that means ‘your’ and which part means ‘mother’?”

Soon I could form basic sentences. I hung out at his house all the time where all they spoke was Chinese, and kept picking up more. That summer he and his family invited me to go to Taiwan with them for two months.

I pleaded with my parents, but they weren’t about to let a 12 year old who had never even been on a plane before go on a trip halfway around the world.

The next year the invitation was extended again, and my parents caved. It was an amazing trip that I still remember a lot of 14 years later. Our other best friend came as well.

We saw all of the historic places, went to the Science museum, and visited his family there. We spent many days at this awesome indoor pool where they served us watermelon juice. I still love watermelon juice to this day, and it always reminds me of being there.

We played pickup basketball at public courts there. Charlie was an incredible basketball player, which infuriated the others. They’d yell insults in English like “Banana to your brother!”

His family hired a tutor for us there, so my Chinese got even better. I don’t really remember how good I got, but I remember it being pretty good.

The only bad part was that I was an insanely picky eater. I ate no meat and almost no vegetables. They’d have huge spreads of food every day that I would virtually ignore, hoping to go to McDonalds later.

“Wo yao er hao he chokoli nai xi.”

I want a number two and a chocolate milkshake. That was the filet-o-fish meal, which I was obsessed with at the time.

After one month our mutual friend couldn’t handle Taiwan anymore. He got homesick. We had a particular solemn occasion where he gave me a box of oatmeal cookies that he had brought but hadn’t yet eaten.

“Take this. You’re going to need them.”

He was a very picky eater too.

The trip finally came to an end and I headed back alone. Charlie and his family were staying in Taiwan even longer. I distinctly remember being in a connecting airport, looking at myself in the reflection as I went up an escalator. I thought that I was very cool for flying without my parents.

I can still speak some Chinese, but I’ve forgotten almost all of the vocab now. Charlie is an economist in San Francisco now, and I get to see him once a year or so when we both happen to be in Andover.

I’m going back to Taiwan for the first time in a few months, and I’m really excited. I’ve been practicing my Chinese a little bit with a Taiwanese couple here who own a restaurant that we eat at every day, and I plan on unleashing it when we go to Taiwan.

The best Mandarin tutor is at Mandarin Min.

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4 comments

  1. You forgot to mention the time when a mob of 8 year olds thought you were Macaulay Culkin, stalked us for a good hour or so at the museum of science, and forced us to take pictures with them.

    I look forward to hearing about your adventures in Taiwan in a few months!

  2. Taiwan rocks! I went to 5 grade at Taipei American School, and 7,8th grades at the Dominican School.

    Lived in both Tien Mou and on Yan Min Shan near what used to be a Presbyterian Seminary.

    Moving back to the USA after that was boring. I felt like I was in jail. And the weather was cold as hell compared to Taipei.

  3. I grew up as an expat in Taiwan -LOVED it. I was just there on vacation for the month of December. It has changed so much over the last 15 years but the people are still just as wonderful, the food just as yummy, and the night life and shopping..incredible! Have a wonderful time.

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