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Margaret: 宜家家具 – yijiā jiājù – IKEA

November 30, 2011

After a rough week of exams and an even rougher weekend, Megan, my Jersey girl, and I set out for some therapy that only the Swedes can provide.  IKEA, or 宜家家具.  I adore this Chinese name.  宜 by itself means “suitable,” but it is more well-known as one of the two characters that make up 便宜, the word for “inexpensive.”  家 refers to anything to do with “household” or “family,” and 家具 means “furniture.”  Thus, we’re left with “suitable household furniture.”  When read aloud, it sounds something like yi jiā jiā jù.  Genius.

Our first stop, obviously, was the restaurant.  Two plates of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes later, my stomach was full but happy.  For the record: everything tastes the same as IKEA food in the United States and presumably the rest of the world.  Somehow I’d really like to go back there for Christmas dinner.  After about two hours of pushing through 人山人海 (rénshānrénhǎi – mountains and seas of people), I had about 580 RMB worth of necessary materials to IKEA-ize my room.  As usual, I felt a twinge of guilt spending that much at IKEA of all places, but that changed this morning: I woke up warm for the first time in many weeks, the harsh overhead lighting in my bedroom will never taunt me again, my feet didn’t go numb this morning on the ice-like tile, and I had a buddy to spend the night with.  I’ve named him 大王 (Dàwáng) or Big King.  I’ve known a few Americans with this Chinese name.  The English translation in itself is quite ridiculous, but the sound of the second Chinese syllable is really the entertaining bit.

IKEA is a phenomenon in China.  Many urban Chinese go there just for fun, and it isn’t uncommon to see people laying in the showroom beds asleep, with a book open, or cuddling with a significant other.  If you’re interested, check out this LA Times article: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/25/business/fi-china-ikea25.

Lately I’ve been falling slowly into the big black hole of a “Me against China” mood that swallows me from time to time.  Luckily, all of that changed today.  When asked if I feel I’m improving at Chinese, I always answer with a sharp “no.”  Frankly it doesn’t feel like anything.  I still can’t speak basic Chinese in simple situations, usually because I don’t feel confident enough to do so.  Today, however, my jaw dropped when laoshi handed me my intensive Chinese exam.  64 out of 70.  The high score in my class was 65.5.  I looked around at my class of Japanese and Korean students in disbelief.  How could this be possible?  I had always known I was the worst in the class.  My day got even better when I arrived at my speaking class.  Laoshi was rambling on about grades, but I was feverishly looking something up in my iPod Chinese dictionary, almost too distracted to hear 柯小玫, my name, in the same sentence as 听写 (tīngxiě).  So I had scored the highest in the class on my 听写, which literally translates into “listen” and “write.”  Nearly every night I sit at my desk with my book and whiteboard in hand, scrawling out each and every new character, stroke by stroke, and memorizing the sound.  The next day in class, the teacher reads the words aloud, and I write them.  It was no surprise to me I had scored so well on my 听写 – it’s the one thing I know I can do perfectly if I put the time in, which I always do.  I went back to my dictionary, only to hear my name again a few moments later.  I had received the highest score on my oral exam speech along with two other students.  Umm…..WHAT?  I can’t speak Chinese.  I had even awarded myself a 75% on my own performance of a five minute speech detailing the surprise I encountered when I arrived in China the second time to find out that actually not all Chinese people speak English, as I had stupidly and naively assumed after having my hand held for the entirety of my two week trip to China in 2008.  In true Chinese form, Peking University and presumably universities across China have an obsession with broadcasting who in the class are the best students.  Well, as of this point, 柯小玫 is number one, an announcement that was made all the more embarrassing by my loashi’s overly enthusiastic and my classmates’ underwhelming applause.

My exam results made me feel better and worse at the same time.  While it felt good to feel successful momentarily, I quickly reminded myself that I still don’t know how to order food without resorting to pointing at it, I still yell out “left” and “right” from the back seat of cabs because I don’t know how to say “turn,” and my eyes still glaze over blankly when someone tries to talk to me even when they say something that I’m perfectly capable of understanding.  Somehow I’ve managed to “try” my way around Chinese without learning it.  I’ve reached the top of the class with just enough effort to score well but not enough to actually have the language stick.  I guess it’s a good skill to have with regards to organic chemistry or physics exams, things that I will never have to use again, but it’s entirely useless when learning a language.  My test scores have left me feeling rejuvenated and with a clean slate, so these next few weeks, I’m really going to try to apply myself once more.  In fact, I think I’m going to start by looking up “turn” once this is published.

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