One thing’s for sure: learning Mandarin is like cracking your head over a hot jagged stone. Again and again. Hard. It just kills you. Four tones, thousands of characters, stroke after stroke, all ordered correctly, the works. After a full day of studying you take yourself out for a beer or a plate of chicken, thinking you’ve finally come to understand something of this language and how it works, but when the waiter in his thickly wonderful Guizhouian drawl simply asks if you’d like anything else you just stare at him blankly—what the hell did this guy just say?

The words shift not only region to region but family to family. People’s everyday use of Mandarin sneaks up on you, borne along the waves of social exchange by a stranger’s unfamiliar reference, his unknown history, and thus his unbelievable usages. The discrepancies appear most clearly in the details. In my inability to anticipate, to grasp that someone would speak in this way or that, I have floundered with what were otherwise simple constructions, easy phrases:

A man in Jiangxi asks, “That pen, which country’s is it? Like you, is it also America’s?”

In Hunan I hear, “You are so thin and white. Is it because you have seen a ghost?”

In Yunnan, a boy wonders, “For how many days did you sit on the plane before arriving in our China?”

A national pen? Seeing ghosts? Days on a plane?

Maybe this confusion is because I’m a white girl with no special affinity for languages, no multilingual background to compare. I was raised in a California household by parents who openly pined for childhood trips to Hershey Park, who eat their radishes with butter “in the French way”, and who lament a time when you could basically call up the University of Chicago and not apply so much as tell them you’re coming, scoring not only an acceptance on the spot but lunch with the head of your chosen department. Would it have been so easy if you had been a person of color, I recently asked my dad. “It would have been easier!” he exclaimed. “A person of color in 1960s Chicago with my credentials would have been even more extraordinary!”

White privilege is not especially delicious—it’s full of white bread tuna sandwiches and an abiding commitment to the congealing wonders of mayonnaise. It will concede a night of Chinese food made up of comfortably mispronounced, totally American mains: General Tso’s Chicken, Schezwan style moo shoo pork. But in the late 1990s when I told my parents over one such dinner that I planned to study Mandarin, they were aghast. “That is way too hard,” they protested. “You’ll burn out.” “It’ll take forever to learn.” “Are you sure?”

Through middle school and high school, I hid in the back of Spanish classes, hoping the teacher would never call on me, quietly bombing exams and even following my text book’s guidelines for whipping up a tall glass of licuado de banana, convinced its healing freshness would be just the key to—if not the way out of—memorizing verb conjugations. My parents were a blank as far as their own language backgrounds went: my mother recalled a similar wrestling match with French and my father, raised in a predominantly Spanish speaking area of Colorado, chose to study German.

So in China, newly motivated to crack the language of a country already deemed “important” and “game changing”, I found everything thrilling, everything new, and exoticized much of what I came across. The Chinese word for “computer” is literally “electric brain” you say? Fascinating. A Chinese greeting card company mixed up the word “kitty” with “titty”? Unstoppable laughter.

My Beijing language class spent a whole week on the ins and outs of fishing—something I’d never done and had no plans to take up—but I memorized the vocabulary all the same. Then, newly armed with my fishing conversation, I stumbled through an exchange with a taxi driver who seemed to have some especially mournful and plaintive insights as we crawled past Tiananmen Square in evening traffic. Was he pissed about the jam and eager to get home to his family? Or was he lamenting the fate of the students that spring in 1989? I tended to decide it was the latter and, with my rickety, fish-flavored Chinese, probed him for more, took notes and sold a story to a British magazine always eager for the mournful, plaintive individual story within the emerging superpower. Was I seeing the so-called “real China”, was I seeing the China I wanted to see, or was I seeing some weird third China, a convoluted mix of adrenalin and random vocab, of grinding poverty vs. the sudden rise, of foreigners gleaning stories from taxi drivers?

I negotiated a working truce with Mandarin, sliding into a way station of managed use and understanding. But no exchange was flawless and I was often my own biggest obstacle. It was my inability to anticipate the way some questions or statements would be posed that presented my real problem. So I resolved to keep a small notebook with me for language questions, new words and gaffes. I began filling up the notebooks with words and phrases, memorizing one slew and then growing frustrated when a conversation on the same topic with a different person would yield an entirely new set of words. It was like sunbathing on the beach of a vast, endlessly deep ocean. And I was getting burned to a crisp.

Sometimes the words came at the least predictable times. Never when I was reading a newspaper or writing characters out on a note to my downstairs neighbor. Instead, they came while I boiled water for lunchtime dumplings. I would be watching the water rise, creamy foam spreading over the top, and suddenly think to myself, “langfei.” This familiar Chinese term came into my head, but what did it mean?

Langfei, langfei” I repeated over and over, stirring the pot to keep the water down. The wheaty bubbles dissipated with each turn of the wooden spoon but the meaning just wouldn’t come. I had heard the phrase, perhaps recently, and it made sense at the time.

But now, in the new context of lunch boiling in the pot, I couldn’t place it.

Then, just as unexpectedly, another one:


This one was trickier. It seemed to me that most Chinese, to my feeble ears, sounded like either zhi or jue, all the time. I had to listen to it again in my head, try to find the tones, the context.

I poured the dumplings through a colander and transferred the off-white mass of steaming lumps to my plate. I had already mixed a little bowl of hot sauce and vinegar together with a dribble of soy and a few Sichuanese peppercorns. Langfei and zhijue, two Chinese words that came from nowhere. I walked over to my desk, set the meal down and started looking up the words.

Immediately I hit upon langfei, which read “wasteful, lavish.” Then I flipped to the z’s. After some careful combing through a few possible candidates, up popped zhijue: consciousness.

Lavish consciousness.

After a few years of study and life in China, was I any closer to understanding something deeper of the language? Sort of. But just when progress seemed most plausible, an episode like this would unfold. Vocabulary, sometimes sophisticated vocabulary, jostled around inside me. Words started to crowd each other, and came forward while forgetting to bring their meanings. They were like travelers laden down with enormous, empty suitcases.

To be standing at your stove in China, boiling dumplings on a Tuesday afternoon, and suddenly think to yourself, “lavish consciousness” with no idea why. It is a web so tangled as to approach strangulation.

On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, a new slew of books are coming out that tout China’s colossal stature, its remarkable rise, its catastrophic environment, its crippling political system, its unbelievable entrepreneurial spirit. Everything about China, at least under the western pen, tends to be more, better, greater, tougher, faster, scarier, saucier, just bigger all around.

Even the Chinese waistline has become a story. Which has me going back to my notes, my files, my dusty old ruminations on a nation I once thought knew but realize, with every passing year, that I hardly even know my own city block in New York City these days, much less the fate and direction of the Chinese people. Yet I was also reminded, as I grazed through the old notes, of the original turns of phrase that once hooked me, so long ago:

“The fate of Beijingers is intertwined with cabbage,” a 1997 edition of the Beijing Evening News intoned in an investigative piece soberly entitled Chinese Cabbage— An In-Depth Look. “Because when cabbage hits the market, the people have the Six Urgents.”

“The first Urgent are the government leaders: Fearing that people would be unable to buy cabbage, the Autumn Vegetable Headquarters was set up. The second are the farmers: The farmers are busy harvesting so as to collect all the cabbage before the first frost. The third is the Transport Bureau: Over a hundred million kilograms of cabbage must be transported to market. The fourth Urgent are the wholesale vegetable stations: Selling cabbage to the people is a big job. The fifth Urgent is the people themselves: After you buy your cabbage you must stack it up at home. The last Urgent is the Sanitation Department: All those dead leaves left on the ground, somebody has to pick them up.”

To understand this article is to be able to equate urgency with cabbage, to understand that it is within living memory that a lot of people’s lives did depend on the cheap, accessible vegetable. A lot has changed in the nearly 20 years since this article was written. Maybe if I had come from a more diverse background, I would have better related to the piece, better understood that cabbage is, indeed, just the mayo of China. But the misperceptions about China, the facile reporting and slips of language, persist. How else to explain a recent article in the Huffington Post about a group of young Beijingers seen walking cabbages on leashes that was eventually paired with this tidy correction?:

A previous version of this article suggested that teens walking cabbages on leashes to cope with loneliness was a widespread trend in China. The teens pictured walking cabbages on leashes were taking part in a performance art piece.