"I Speak Chinese … Right?": A Perfectionist’s Language Learning Struggle

China

Sometimes I can be a bit of a perfectionist. 

To some people, that might sound like I don’t give my work the good ol’ stamp of approval until it’s absolutely perfect, but that’s just a misconception. No, nothing I make is perfect – because as we all know (I hope), perfection is an unrealistic standard. So whenever the perfectionism-bug hits me, I either painstakingly submit a less-than-perfect version of whatever I’m creating or … I just give up entirely. That’s perfectionism for you. 

The perfectionism plague showed up in all different areas of my life, from when I used to rip almost entirely blank pages out of my school notebooks because I wrote the date wrong, to when I would spend hours tweaking an article that really looked more or less the same before I went down the editing rabbit hole.

Always got to have a go-to study/work café – while studying abroad in Shanghai, mine was Flying Cafe.

Nowhere is that rabbit hole deeper than with language learning. Having been raised bilingual and with the privilege of learning foreign languages in school since the primary days, you would think I’d be a confident language learner. And yet still, it was always so hard for me to wrap my head around how confidently and nonchalantly other people would say they “spoke” or “knew” another language other than their own. 

Let me explain. I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese now for about 10 years – give or take a few months. At the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, my dad sat my two brothers and me down in the living room and broke the news: we were going to move halfway around the world to Hong Kong, China. Apparently, he had started to explain that his company needed him there at the moment, considering everything going on, but all I can remember is breaking into tears (I didn’t want to leave my school friends … in sixth grade – always gotta add that touch of drama). 

We were only supposed to be in Hong Kong for about a year – that was the deal. Five years later, I found myself staring out the plane window on a rainy, 100% humidity Hong Kong day, holding back tears and wishing we didn’t have to leave (again, the drama continues). 

I mean, who would want to leave all this?? *Booked my return tickets real quick.

Those 5 years impacted me in more ways than I could probably count, but for the sake of continuity in this article, let me stick to the one that matters here: Hong Kong opened the door for me to start learning Chinese.

Right from the get-go, I got switched from the Spanish track I had been on since primary school and into beginner Chinese – If we were going to live in Hong Kong, I was going to learn Mandarin (Even though Cantonese is actually the local language – a topic for another time).

I can’t really recall if it was a slow burn kind of passion or more of an at first sight thing, but either way, I fell in love with the language. I didn’t know it then, but my Chinese learning journey would take me from 12 to 22, from college semesters in Boston to a summer abroad at a Chinese university in Shanghai, and even to the topic of my college essay. A long, hot and cold relationship, to say the least. 

The Fudan University campus in Shanghai, China.

So what does my Chinese learning journey have to do with perfectionism?

Well after 10 years of studying, practicing and speaking Chinese, I still find it hard to say that I speak the language. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous – even to me, as I’m writing it out right now … I mean, 10 years?? That’s got to count for something. 

And it does. At this point, I say I know Chinese, but I’m always aware of what that really means for me in the back of my head. When I say I “know” Chinese, it means that I have a deep history with the language – I’ve spent hours studying it in classrooms, filled countless notebooks with my character scribblings and used it everywhere from late nights in the back of a taxi cabs in Shanghai, to Chinese restaurants in Paris. But it also means that sometimes I don’t practice for months, that I don’t really remember how to tell a taxi driver where I want to go without a little YouTube refresher, and no, I don’t remember how to write half the characters I once thought I had permanently committed to memory (regardless of those countless, cover-to-cover filled notebooks gathering dust in my closet).

A terraced rice paddy I visited while backpacking through China – right outside of Guilin.

The term “imposter syndrome” has gotten a lot more attention in the media recently, and thank god for it, because it’s been able to explain a lot of the anxieties I, and others, face when we work towards our professional and personal goals. It’s the feeling that you get when you’ve reached some level of success in something you’re doing and suddenly you feel like you’re getting away with some sort of lie. 

Sometimes, I get hit with imposter syndrome when I claim to speak Chinese, like I’m a phony in a world of real language learners. But I’m learning to let that feeling, and that perfectionism, go. So I’ve gotten a little rusty with the study discipline post-grad and my Chinese is less-than-fluent – so what? What is perfect fluency anyways? Hell if I know. 

The truth is that language learning is much more of a continuous and fluid process than we ever give it credit. You can’t truly “know” a language, because that implies we’ve stopped learning –  and we’re always learning! The fact that English is its own class in American high schools is proof of that on its own. 

So I’m beginning to get more comfortable with that process and realizing that, like most things, language learning is a journey, not a destination (as cheesy as that sounds).

Yes, I speak Chinese, but I’m also learning Chinese; to me, the two coexist.

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