Attainment, Home and Away

It came and went as quickly as the build up from the western new year—that’s right, CNY as usual saw the largest annual migration, with Dongguan ranking 2nd emptiest city during CNY.

Hooray for the holidays that came so quickly after celebrating Christmas and the Western new year, it wasn’t long before we began to saw preparations in place and the start of celebrations for the year of the pig. Some people hung red lanterns and pasted those auspicious signs on their front doors; some wrapped up jiaozi and some spent time pressing peanut cookies and stuffing sausages… And in true fashion, most Chinese people went home for a week or so and most expats went home or traveled elsewhere.

And so here I am, I have found myself vacationing in one of my favorite hometowns (yes, I’m lucky to have a few to choose from), Barcelona. The sun is shining and bathing the beautiful city in this incredible golden light that amplifies all colors.The majestic Mediterranean Sea and the skies above it both seem to be competing in their dazzling blueness; the lush gardens of Montjuic, thriving in the crisp winter air, shimmer in all shades of green; the ochres of the medieval churches and the multi-colored mosaics of Gaudi’s numerous masterpieces complete the harmonious picture of the white-washed city.

This time I’ve been wise though. I’ve brought along my Chinese textbooks. Long holidays without practicing have in the recent past proved to be disastrous for my language acquisition progress. However, actually opening such books, well it’s not easy, I tell you. I’m surrounded by numerous temptations: patisseries on every corner, the luring fragrance of freshly baked croissants and churros with hot chocolate; charming boutiques, blending perfectly in the narrow alleys of the old town, seducing the eye with their exclusive handmade goods; street artists and musicians scattering the air of creativity all around.

How is it that with only a few weeks of formal Spanish training, I am already able to understand almost everything around me?

I’m also a little discouraged, to be honest. Language-wise I’m once again confronted with the unfairness of it all. How is it that with only a few weeks of formal Spanish training, I am already able to understand almost everything around me? I can pick up a newspaper at the local cafe and get the gist of what’s happening in the world, I understand what the couple next to me is quarreling about, it’s no trouble interpreting the signs on the street and in the shops…While after years of hard work, all of this somehow still eludes me in China! It would be enough to make me cry, if it wasn’t for that special golden light which might be the best medicine yet against any sort of depression.

And then I realize that even though it’s easier to understand the Spanish, or even Catalan, around me, when it comes to actually speaking, the advantage is still to the Chinese language. I know perfectly well that I should ask for “La cuenta” after my meal at the restaurant, but the words that come to my mouth are “[买单]” instead. Looking at the sumptuous fresh dates by the counter at the greengrocer’s and wondering whether I could buy just a couple rather than the whole box, I hear myself asking the lady “[怎么买的?]”(“How do I buy them?”) as the equivalent Spanish phrase eludes me. Accidentally bumping into a stranger, I automatically offer a “[对不起!]” rather than “Sorry!” Even my husband, still in the early days of studying Chinese, keeps saying “[谢谢!]” to all the kind Spanish people around, even though he knows perfectly well that a “Gracias!” would be much more suitable.

Also, I have to admit that I’m never as tongue-tied when in my dearest Dongguan as I am here, in Barcelona. My communication skills in Mandarin are way better than my communications skills in Spanish, which is as it should be, given the respective time and effort spent on acquiring each. So, with the fairness and order in the world once again restored, I can finally relax. Time to go out and savor a late meal of the best local “pintxos,” to be found just around the corner. And who knows, maybe a glass or two of sangria could help loosen my tongue and make my Spanish flow a little better…