“Chingwen ni, jiao shenme mingzi?” During the next six months, Diane will be in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where she is studying Mandarin Chinese as part of the research for her adaptation of Journey to the West (also known as the Monkey King Epic). From time to time, she will share stories of her adventures in learning and living in Taiwan, starting today.


I am the slowest in my Chinese class at National Sun Yat–Sen University. The other nine students, all men, are twice as quick and three times younger. Our teacher is a whirlwind. I sit there tongue—tied and mostly flabbergasted at the speed of digestion of beh, peh, meh, feh. Fortunately, I sit next to Lorenzo with the curly blond hair. I sit in the very corner so that I can’t be seen. Lorenzo assures me after it’s my turn and I can’t speak. He pats my knee and says, “Anyone over 40 studying Chinese should be praised.”

Lorenzo is from northern Italy, the son of a teacher and a journalist. He’s always in the cheeriest of moods. Our teacher gave us Chinese names. His Chinese name is Shining Heaven. Shah Tien. I asked to be called Gwan Yin (I thought that would give me some courage.) Our teacher laughed and said you can’t have the name of a goddess and named me King Tree/Rain Sound. Wang Mu Ing. We all pay attention since the class moves very quickly. Sometimes it’s three hours a day and sometimes nearly six. Yesterday was the worst. Everyone in the class said the sentence, Chingwen ni, jiao shenme mingzi, which literally means Please, you, are called which name? (Or, what is your name?) It’s the sentence order that throws me. So when my turn came to repeat the sentence that everyone could repeat, I just couldn’t remember it. I couldn’t even remember the first word. I had to simply confess, “I forget.” The teacher kindly said, “Don’t worry. We’re all here to help one another.” I was mortified. Since I don’t blush and I can’t evaporate, I wondered for a brief second if I might burst into tears and thought that would be really awful after taking up everyone’s time by not being able to remember. Most likely I gulped.

So next came what really could not be imagined. We have a ten minute break each fifty minutes. At our break, Lorenzo turned to me and said,
“I have a question for you which is not about our class.”
“Yes, that’s good.”
“Is your name Deeane Wolfsteen?”
“Yes.”
“Do you, did you, are you, connected to a book called Inanna?”
“Yes — yes. Why do you ask? I’m the co–author.”

“Really! Really! I kept noticing your name on the sign–in sheet and it seemed so familiar. At our university in Trieste, we translated Inanna your book from Italian into English in our translation class. How did you write such a difficult book?”

Truly… How unlikely is it that we would be sitting together for a week trying to fathom a language foreign to both of us and meet across the world and he would be so kind and encouraging every day and then we would realize that we actually “knew” one another. We had been connected through another language — Sumerian — the very first of languages, which was written down on clay tablets four thousand years ago. The words lay under the sands of Iraq for thousand of years then were unearthed by archeologists and deciphered by Sumerologists and especially S.N. Kramer in Philadelphia, whose book I read in NYC and then from Philadelphia and NYC our translation of Inanna traveled to Italy, to Trieste, to Taiwan, to Kaohsiung. All most unlikely.

And now I have to measure up and open my mouth and forget about logic and simply enter a new grammatical system with new tones and sounds and letters. Actually, despite my incredible slowness, I find the precision very beautiful — each word has its own sound and I like the artistic movement of the letters. It’s a bit similar to the aging process or maybe it’s the same. Everything seems so miraculous but I can’t as easily do what I find so exhilarating. And I am very grateful to our teacher: “We’re all here to help one another.”

Sometimes, when we are all fanatically repeating the sounds that our teacher is making: boo, too, pooo, gooo, kooo, I laugh. My teacher looks at me quizzically; the others don’t even notice, they are so serious about getting the exact placement of the tongue for the sounds. I am too, but it somehow makes me laugh because we’re adults and I remember when my grandson Judah at two would repeat the sentences I said, in a gulp. That’s the way, children gulp and we position.

Wish me strength. I’ve the will power. It’s just the stamina to keep repeating goo, doo, noo, koo until……they’re all digested.

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9 Comments

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  1. Dorothy Johnson-Laird

    Oh wow! What a wonderful story about languages and connecting across cultures. Be brave Monkey Queen! I wish you so much strength! ~ Dorothy

  2. Nan Jørgensen

    How wonderful you are in Kaohsiung! I lived in  the environs of Taipei, Taiwan for a year, and never studied Chinese formally ( I missed that and went and studied it with my 12 years old son four years ago! Some similarities to your experience. Smile! ) While in Taiwan I learned basic conversational Mandarin in the baby way you describe, and got around and  became fluent–but I never allied it to the elegant writing or the gravity of study.   While there I toured the entire island twice on visits from my aunt for three weeks, and my mother, later, for three, too. I spent Christmas with my aunt in Kaohsiung at a hotel with Peking duck and delights and loved the tour we made when she visited me, all over Taiwan. I recommend going slightly south to where you are to Ping-Tung park for a stay and a tour! Very exotic and restful.

  3. Karen Clothier

    Wow, Diane – you’re so amazing to be doing this!!!  And what a story about Innana!  Hope you’re having fun!!!  

  4. Irving

    This is a wonderful story but not enough credit is given to the extraordinary narrator of this blog through whom ancient literature lives in a world to which it is so relevant despite the fact that hardly anyone knows that.  And each time she learns a character properly, so that she remembers it next day, she should have a tangerine and  new poem in ancient Chinese specially composed for her.

  5. Nwolkstein

    What a story! How exiting to be learning Chinese in such a beautiful place…all I can say is how proud I am of you.  It takes true courage to throw yourself in another place and culture where you don’t know the language or people.  Best of luck, and I hope to visit you very, very soon!

    love

  6. Eli Rarey

    Inanna followed you there! Goosebumps here in LA.

  7. Martyepstein

    Just started reading the blog and find myself fascinated. I am coming to see how we are supported in so many ways. Reading the support through Lorenzo is a confirmation.

  8. Mary Jones

    This sounds exactly like my slow and painful experience studying Czech. I always start off strong, but usually after a week or two I found myself unable to remember the most basic phrases. Good for you for pushing on!

  9. Yi Shun Lai

    Diane! What a pleasure to see this blog.
    Your teacher is my cousin and one of my closest friends. And honestly, I am a nut about storytelling and oral history, so I am thrilled to have this small, but significant, connection to you–and back to my lovely cousin. I am glad you are enjoying her class, and I hope to meet you on your return. In the meantime, I will follow your posts with pleasure, and glean a little of my home country from your experiences.

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