Thank you, Chinese!There are a lot of Chinese students at the Graduate School of International Studies at Ewha Womans University, where I attend, and they are often surprised to hear me speak Chinese. I am pretty proficient in the language. I can read and watch news in Chinese. I took intensive language courses in China twice and kept up my studies over the past 15 years.
I have always been interested in Chinese ever since I was young. There had been a Chinese restaurant at the corner of my town run by an ethnic Chinese. I was friends with the owner’s daughter. I would often listen to the family speak in Chinese at their home filled with the flavored smell of douchi, or black bean sauce. I envied my friend for speaking the foreign tongue with so much ease. When I was in middle school, I made a promise to myself that I would master five languages before the age of 40.
Chinese was among the top of the list. I was exactly 40 when I began formal study of Chinese. During my six years of traveling around the world, I spent eight months in China. It had been frustrating to try to get by with all kinds of body language during the journey in China. As soon as I completed my trip around the world, I packed my things for a year’s language course in Beijing.
Chinese was more interesting than I thought. Since I had learned Chinese characters in secondary schools, the written language was not as difficult. The grammar was simpler than other languages. It was also easier to absorb the language because I came from the same Hanja (Chinese character) culture. It was fun to see myself making progress. In just a year, I was able to do well on the Chinese Proficiency Test. But I found I had little use for Chinese while doing aid work back in Korea. It was helpful for making orders in a Chinese restaurant and exchanging money with a Chinese restaurant owner. Otherwise, I began to think the year-long hard work had been of no use.
Then, there was an incident that changed my thinking. While I was waiting to change a flight in the airport in Johannesburg during a business trip to Africa, I heard an anxious voice calling out if there was anyone around that could speak Chinese. A woman in her 30s was running around wildly shouting for help. I approached her and said I was a Korean but could speak Chinese. In a hurried voice, she blurted out that she had missed her plane. She was in a state of panic shaking all over. I asked to see her ticket and smiled at her.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “The plane leaves at seven tomorrow morning, not seven this evening.”
I took her to the airline desk and confirmed her flight schedule. The staff told us that the boarding pass would be issued from 5 a.m. the following morning. The Chinese woman didn’t seem convinced. She wailed that the airline could say different things the next morning because she could not speak any English. So I asked the staff to write down that the boarding pass would be issued the following morning on her ticket. The staff smiled and willingly complied.
The woman was finally relieved and bowed to me as if I had saved her life. She had the appearance of having come from a rural area in China. She left her infant baby and borrowed money to work in Cape Town. She was terrified by the thought that she might not meet her Chinese employer at the airport if she had missed the plane. I can imagine how frightened she must have felt.
She handed me an apple, saying that she had brought it from her hometown in southern China. She told me I must be an angel from heaven. She had been praying for help when she thought she had missed her plane. She pleaded for some kind of help. I arrived at the scene while she was frantically repeating her mantra. She said she would always remember what kindness from a stranger can do for others. Then I heard my name call out from the speaker warning that I could miss my plane.
I had been too preoccupied with the woman’s affair that I had forgotten that I had a plane to catch. I gave her a hug and told her “jia you,” which means “good luck” in Chinese. It was the first time I was happy that I had learned Chinese. I became an angel to someone because I knew some conversational phrases. If there is value in something, there must be greater value if it is done well. My goal is to lecture in Chinese. I am cheering myself on toward that goal. Jia you!
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 1, Page 25
*The author is an international relief worker.
by Han Bi-ya