Learning Chinese again

Towards the tail end of last year, I find myself picking up Chinese again. I converted one of my notebooks into a learning journal. And in this journal, I noted down new words I came across, or words that I recognize but might find challenging to reproduce — I write them over and over again, placing one stroke carefully next to another, an exercise I hope will help me commit these words to memory.

Why learn Chinese? Why now?

As a kid, I had turned away from the Chinese language because of how much effort it took to read in that language. I was able to quickly scan a block of text of similar length in English and the impatience I constantly felt while plowing through Chinese created a fair amount of aversion…I guess you could call that relationship strained. I grew up speaking Chinese at home with my family, but most of my classes in school — from kindergarten in fact — were conducted in English, a result of Singapore’s bilingual education policy . English felt like a breeze and on hindsight, that was unsurprising.


A few days ago, I learnt about the heritage speaker” or the heritage learner”, terms used to describe those of Chinese descent who might have grown up listening or speaking Chinese at home (and so have no problems conversing), but could really do with some help in the reading and writing department because, for example, they were raised in a non-Chinese speaking country (eg. US, Canada). Singapore doesn’t fall into that category but the way I was schooled had me thinking in English most of the time, with Chinese feeling like a chore and gradually falling away. Chancing upon stories like this and this, and looking through forum posts of other heritage speakers wanting to pick up the language again, I feel somewhat comforted about unearthing this demographic group amongst Chinese language learners. Previously, all I came across were materials serving complete beginners. Now simply by entering heritage learners/speakers as search terms, I found myself face to face with resources that were catered to people like me, offerings that spoke to me.

Everyone has their own reasons for picking up a language (again). A majority of the stories that I’ve come across from heritage learners often seems to feature an element of longing — wanting to connect with some aspect of their heritage or culture through the language. I sense the earnestness in that reaching and that touched me deeply.

It’s been three years since I moved to Canada. And had I not moved here, I doubt I would have picked up Chinese again. Being of Chinese descent never really resonated with me. It never was a good-enough reason for me to hone my mastery of the language. Though it’s clear now that identities solidify out of necessity, out of self-preservation, or simply from being gestured at regularly (as the person of color, as of Asian or Chinese descent, as Oriental Other), whether intentional or not. Maybe this recent interest in the language speaks of a desire to be tethered to something with deeper roots. And maybe it is a way of navigating between clubs of belonging. And maybe, just simply — distance had made room for pining.

Bill Porter, hermits, and classical texts

Learning about Bill Porter and his work was a major turning point.

Bill Porter, who goes by the literary name Red Pine”, is a well-known American translator of Buddhist and classical Chinese texts like the Dao De Jing. I first learnt about Porter via this documentary where he was featured revisiting the hermits of Zhongnan mountains in China. Porter had visited the Zhongnan Mountains earlier and subsequently published Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits” in 1989, a best-seller that documented the lives of the Zhongnan Mountains’ Taoist and Buddhist monks and nuns. As I watched the documentary, I was in awe of how Porter learned the language and came to be good enough to understand, communicate, and more impressively, to translate.

Witnessing someone like Bill Porter wield the language so effectively, while sharing a culture and history I’ve always felt I should be familiar with — that brought up mild pangs of embarrassment. The same kind of embarrassment that arises when being caught in an awkward situation of 華人不會說中文. But alongside that embarrassment was also a feeling of encouragement, and I felt inspired to reacquaint myself with the language, and to get better at it.

Besides the Dao De Jing, one of his translations that got me interested in learning more about Chinese is The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, a translation of the poems of Han Shan (which translates literally to Cold Mountain”), a largely mysterious buddhist-monk-mystic from the Tang dynasty.

I am sometimes wary (and weary) of the Western gaze, but what a surprise to have the result of that gaze and attention draw me back to the language and culture. What a meander…and what a wonderful and peculiar feeling it is to come full circle into something that has been within reach all along, close by all this time.

I have a feeling that if something was to keep me going, it would be this longing to get closer to the original texts and contexts in which these ancient Chinese and Buddhist writings were made.

The Experience of a Language

Languages are conduits. The myriad ways in which words are strung together and delivered convey much more than just the message, it also conveys a temperament or a disposition.

For most of us living in a modern society, we are tucked into a world of language. I spend a lot of time online these days and it’s a noisy, attention-grabbing world out there. I am quite the sensitive sponge and because most media come across as alarmist, sensational, and highly opinionated, being constantly on the receiving end of that can get old pretty quickly. I got extremely tired, and sick, of what’s available to me in English. At some point, I could only stomach novels and reading anything non-fiction felt quite impossible; stories, on the other hand, helped me to stay. This fatigue had the same effect on my writing as well — it was hard for me to put pen to paper without cringing.

When I realised how reading in Chinese was a breath of fresh air in terms of cadence and nuanced expression, and how writing in this language afforded me the same, it became clear that I had surreptitiously found a way around my own blockage.

. . .

I’m making slow progress, slowly reading and occasionally writing in Chinese. I like the way expressing myself in Chinese in writing teases me out of regular thought.

I’m not particularly goal-driven, though I do hold loosely some ambition and hopes of eventually being a faithful and discerning receptacle to these ancient Chinese and Buddhist texts that encouraged my learning in the first place. I want to work towards being skilful enough to translate them into English, purely for interest. I know this will certainly take years, decades really, and I’m curious to see where this will take us.

Even if this does not eventually bear fruit, there is little pain involved and I’m not attached to the outcome. For now, as it is, this process of learning offers me respite and new possibilities of expression so that I may continue to take in, receive, and express myself in ways that are slower, and consequently, more honest and more true.

February 15, 2024