Eight Scary Things You Might Not Know About Studying Chinese


This is Jay Chou. He sings and plays piano and cello for me while I study.

I really should be studying for the grammar exam and the oral presentation I need to perform in finely articulated Chinese tomorrow. I have, I will. But first, some completely unproductive catharsis. I give you eight scary things you might not know about studying Chinese:

  • Reading fancy Chinese characters – that’s the easy part. It’s a task of rote memorization which, while grueling, isn’t actually complicated and can be achieved to perfection. Who gets full marks on vocabulary tests? In my class, we all do.
  • The hardest part of learning Chinese is understanding ANYTHING people are saying out loud. Even if we had ears perfectly tuned to “tones” — the prescribed accents Chinese speakers use, changing the pitches of their voices while pronouncing vowels — Chinese might still seem like a handful of short words that all sound pretty much the same. The language has an abundance of homophones. English has them too – words like meet, meat, and mete—but Chinese has many, many more. It’s a language with a “limited sound palette” which is a pretty way of saying that without a sound understanding of context, it’s impossible to tell one word from another without being able to see their written characters (though some of the characters look the same but are pronounced differently and have different meanings because even the easiest things are not easy here).
  • It takes twice as many hours of instruction in Chinese than it does in ANY OTHER LANGUAGE offered at my large, world-class university to be considered an “intermediate” level student. And judging from myself, by “intermediate” level they must mean someone who still bursts into tears when being spoken to at normal conversational speed.
  • There is no “It” as we Anglophones know it in Chinese. Yup, unless we’re talking about a pronoun for animals or other specific objects under certain circumstances only, there is no “It.” We can’t say “It’s raining” in Chinese. We can’t say “It seems like you’re frustrated.” Speaking Chinese is like a Monty Python skit that way. You know Monty Python, the quintessential ENGLISH sketch comedy troupe, who imagined nothing could be more linguistically nonsensical than speaking without ever saying “It.” Haha, welcome to China, ignorant old Pythons.
  • The absence of “It” is just the beginning. Chinese also has no plurals as we know them, no capitalization, no verb declension. In all the materials I’ve ever seen meant to encourage students to choose Chinese, “simple grammar” is touted as a benefit. It’s faulty reasoning. English grammar isn’t simple. We don’t like simple grammar. We don’t trust it. We can’t handle it. We overthink it, tacking on superfluous prepositions and pronouns, getting hung up on details Chinese doesn’t care about while ignoring things it cares deeply about. For instance, if we’re using Chinese to describe someone in the middle of doing a task that can’t last for very long, we use different grammar than if we’re talking about someone in the middle of a task that can last a long time. Simple, right? Maybe, but the Anglos are all back at the beginning arguing about what the concept of “can’t last for very long” might actually mean. And the Chinese grammar that stands somewhere near the place of our dear English past tense – well, it seems scattered and piecemeal to us, chaotic, and as one professor famously says, just plain “evil.” So I don’t want to hear ONE MORE WORD about how Chinese grammar is simple.
  • Studying Chinese brings a sense of contempt for the idea of studying other, less punishing languages. I admit it was not one of my finest hours when I scoffed at a bilingual friend, telling him that, especially here in Canada, “Reading French is like

    Mynah birds, alien experts in mimicking human speech

    grocery shopping. Reading Chinese is a super power.” Nice one, Jenny. Still, the idea that a foreign language could be spoken with some recognition just by sounding it out in letters we’ve known since we were babies, the idea that two languages might share cognates or at least words with the same roots that can be decoded if one is clever and knowledgeable of one’s mother tongue – all that comes completely apart for English speakers studying Chinese. We approach it like we’re mynah birds.

  • It takes a whole community to learn Chinese. It’s not a task for Google Image searching tattoo enthusiasts or loners in dark basements watching Kung Fu movies with the subtitles turned off. Learning Chinese demands a mortification of the ego in every way. Lay down that pride. We sound like toddlers but we speak out loud in a crowded room anyway. We cry for help, rely on everyone, all our linguistic brothers and sisters at arms. Sure, all language classes include group work and partnerships. But in my many years of school, I’ve never seen anything like the camaraderie of a Chinese class.
  • Chinese students – especially people from my Western and girlie demographic – need to be prepared to explain themselves. After all this ranting and venting we need to have answers for obvious questions about why we’re studying this language when there are more attainable languages much closer to home. What’s our problem? What happened to us? 怎么了?My reasons for choosing Chinese are complicated and idealistic. I still believe in them. But lately, I’ve taken to replying with, “What? Why’d I pick Chinese? Uh, who knows? It seems like a long time ago now…”

Anyways, sorry about the shouting. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day. Listen to some Jay Chou music. As for me, as one of my fellow English-people says, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”


The 2016 Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards Long-List


Libraries are good for books and authors. Not only do they buy, circulate, and promote our work, they’re involved in the ever-more delicate process of cultivating readers so the pursuit of professional writing can continue to mean something. In my area, libraries also trouble themselves to run the annual Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards. Our Sistering has been included on this year’s ARC long-list. I am delighted.

Thanks again, libraries.

The Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel of 2015


The AML’s Andrew Hall and me in our kukui nut leis

My career as a novelist is still fairly new but I’ve already been on both the loved up and the snubbed up sides of literary prizes. Awards are a bittersweet fact of life in contemporary publishing. For an essay that says everything I’d like to about literary prizes, I highly recommend this, by poet Kimmy Beach.

Sitting alone, secretly and miserably refreshing Twitter as award long-lists and short-lists are announced without any of our own work on them has got to be a universal experience for writers. It’s certainly been mine. However, I’m grateful to have also stood and bowed my head as winners’ medals have been hung around my neck. For my first novel, it was a weighty pewter disc on a blue ribbon. For my second novel, it was a lei made of kukui nuts. Yes, Sistering was awarded Best Novel of 2015 by the Association for Mormon Letters at their conference in Laie, Hawaii.

In a book-world full of so much good material, it’s hard to stand out. Being part of a group outside the deep, swift mainstream can help. I’m a white Anglophone woman but there’s no P in my WASP. Instead, I am the granddaughter of women who raised their families in post-World War II, post traumatic stressed New Brunswick, both of them seeking new spiritual compasses. Independently of each other, they found Mormonism. It was passed down to me, and while most of my family has let go of my grandmothers’ spiritual legacies, I’ve held onto them. The reasons are personal and religious—which means they don’t have much to do with reason at all. My faith is based in transcendent experiences that began in my childhood and continue today. I don’t usually talk about them in detail, not in public, and especially not on the Internet. But they are real, not the kinds of things I would deny or abandon.

Religious codes that include direction on how to live face criticism. It’s unpleasant but I suppose it does move adherents to keep examining our praxis and to focus on prevailing ideals like love and compassion. Differences of beliefs and lifestyles don’t have to mean discord. For instance, according to my religious beliefs, people shouldn’t be drinking coffee. That’s how I live, but I can still sit at a table and watch anyone drink coffee without feeling the slightest bit of bigotry or enmity between us. This example can be extended to any behaviour contrary to my religious ideals. Regardless of how I believe people should live, my strictest principles are leveled at my own heart. They’re based on the first laws of Christianity which are all about love—love to the point of the losing of the self, which, with typical religious irony, is actually the finding of the self. No matter how differently someone may live from me, I can love them. I do love them. It’s something I’ve learned to do because of my religion rather than in spite of it.20160306_165902

The Association for Mormon Letters “is a nonprofit founded in 1976 to promote quality writing ‘by, for, and about Mormons.’“ It’s not the only organization set up to serve and promote Mormon writing but it is the best fit for quirky Can-lit like mine which tends to get a rough ride in heartwarming “inspirational” fiction circles. The judges were kind enough to call me “one of the most talented” Mormon novelists writing today. The AML are my people. I’d be happy to join them even if they didn’t hand out their awards on the north shore of Oahu.

My husband and I were only out of the country for three and a half days. We left our kids here in Canada, in the care of their oldest brothers. One them is legally an adult, and the other has a driver’s license. Between the two of them, they’re enough man to run our household for a few days—but just a few days.

20160305_154555Outside the Honolulu airport, Hawaii is just as delightful as everyone says it is. Thanks to our Mormon ties we didn’t have to go full-tourist. Friends of ours–fellow Mormon-foreigners, a couple where the wife is South Korean and the husband is Japanese—have been living in Hawaii for years and showed us local favourites like a huge old banyan tree hidden off the side of the road, and a strip-mall restaurant serving massive “Hawaiian-sized” slabs of sushi. On Sunday, we wound up at a church service singing from a hymnal written all in Samoan and witnessing a congregation sending off a woman named Celestial to be a missionary abroad.

Our religious ties were a source of diversity and authenticity. It was our Mormonism—something often thought of as a parochial American backwater—that made this weekend of thoughtful, artful validation of my work possible. It was our Mormonism that spared us a spending frenzy in crowded, urban Waikiki and provided us with a walk through idyllic daily life in small-town Hawaii. It was our Mormonism that gave me something to say as I stood —so low and so small—in the Pacific Ocean, pitching in the currents, my back to continents I’ve never seen, calling out psalms to my husband and the sea and everything above it.

I shouted what, in one form or another, I always shout. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?”