No place like a 'meet-up' to practice Chinese

By Tamara Treichel ( China Daily ) Updated: 2009-04-08 08:55:48

I glanced at my "Meet-up Reminder" for the Beginners Chinese Language Meet-up. "A chance to practice, socialize, and gain confidence in conversation! Goal: Make three new friends speaking only in Mandarin."

No place like a 'meet-up' to practice Chinese

Sure, I scoffed, stuffing a notebook into my purse. I had RSVP-ed online because I needed to hone my conversational skills. Taking a Mandarin class once a week was not enough. Anyway, it was free, so I had nothing to lose except face.

In Washington's Chinatown, I soon found the venue - Teaism, the tea lovers' answer to Starbucks. A roped-off space was reserved for meet-up members. I felt like I was entering a Forbidden City.

I was greeted by a Chinese native speaker, Evelyn. "Huanying (welcome)!" she exclaimed, handing me a sticker and a ball pen. I timidly traced "Tamara" in pinyin, deciding that my zhongguo zi (Chinese characters) still looked too wobbly. Others, however, had produced name badges with characters. I noticed three Da Wei (David). An American who could confidently converse in Mandarin was wearing a T-shirt which philosophically proclaimed in Chinese characters: "White People Don't Understand Chinese." He was the walking antithesis of the statement on his T-shirt. Most participants were audacious Americans like him or ABCs (American-Born Chinese).

We all sat down on sturdy wooden stools around a big square table and started chatting. Since my listening comprehension was limited, I often had to follow up on what the other person was saying, and I shamelessly overused the word shenme (what?). The feel of the meet-up could best be described as organic: Conversations grew like branches out of trees.

A woman from Taiwan addressed me. "Hen piaoliang (very chic)," she said, tugging at my green sweater. "Xie xie (thanks)," I answered, forgetting the Chinese way of shrugging off a compliment with a meiyou (no, it's not). A discussion followed about whether green tea was called lucha or qingcha.

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