Every time I meet somebody in China I get the exact same set of questions.

“Where are you from?”

“The US.”

“How long have you been in China?”

“Almost two years.” (It’s true. Counting my semester abroad in Hangzhou in 2011, it’s been 20 months).

“Your Chinese is so good!” (They’ll say this to any foreigner who makes any effort at all. It’s encouraging, compared to the blank stares I’d get when I tried to speak French in Quebec, but I have to remind myself that they may not mean it).

“Thanks, my Chinese is okay I guess, but there is still a lot that I can’t understand.”

My biggest motivation for moving to China was to improve my language skills. After four years of studying in college classrooms, I was convinced that the only way to take my Putonghua to the next level was to put away the textbooks and absorb the language the natural way, through my pores, by eating and breathing and living it 24/7.

So has it worked? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. As with any skill, the more I learn the more I am aware of what I do not understand.

I’m at the point where I can carry on a basic conversation with just about anybody, accomplish tasks like opening a bank account or finding my away around a chaotic bus station, and live comfortably in a house full of Chinese people. I’m totally pro at navigating a bubble tea menu. But at the same time, I quickly find myself lost in meetings at work. I can’t follow a Chinese comedy show. I have trouble understanding people on the phone. My knowledge of chengyus is crap.

Sometimes after a frustrating day of failed communication, all I can do is hole myself up in my room and watch an episode of The Simpsons, feeling satisfied that none of my Chinese friends could keep up with the American humor, even with subtitles.

Every once in a while, however, something happens that reminds me how far I’ve come.

I find myself translating for an expat who has been living in China for decades.

My boyfriend jokes with his friends in a Wechat group message and I read over his shoulder, laughing as easily and genuinely as I would with my American friends.

I realize that I’ve stopped dividing my friends in my head into “English-speakers” and “Chinese only.”

I meet some foreign exchange students who are just beginning to learn Chinese, and I see how much I’ve improved since I first arrived in Hangzhou in 2011. I remember how it felt to enter a bar or a restaurant or a room and not understand a single word, and I realize that this is no longer the case. The veil has been lifted.

I do understand.


Except for a few words here and there.

And chengyus.

And cultural references.

And formal phrases.

And nonstandard accents.

The fact is, I will probably never become completely fluent in the language and culture of China. There is just too much depth, too much history, too many phrases and metaphors and characters and dialects. Even Chinese people do not know them all. I’ve spent 20 months of my life in this country, and I’m only just beginning to feel comfortable here. All I can do is keep trying, and keep reminding myself that no matter how frustrated I feel, I have improved. The progress may be slow and hard to see sometimes, but it’s real.

And when I feel really discouraged, I can always go out and order a bubble tea (cold, no ice, low sugar, with coconut jelly, I’ll take it to go but I don’t need a bag). Instant confidence booster.