Cypress Books recently caught up with Adam Moorman of Mandarin Rap Podcast. Read on to learn how he learned Chinese, which figure from Chinese history he’d like to meet, and what he’s reading right now.
When did you first start learning Mandarin and why?
I first started learning Mandarin in 2004, when I moved to Taiwan to teach English. I had no prior knowledge of the language, but I did study Spanish and Portuguese at university so I have always had an interest in languages. In a year and a half there, I picked up basic ‘taxi Chinese’ and took some private lessons. I didn’t make a great effort with the language, as I planned to return to Europe. I didn’t realise that within a year I would be back, working as a VSO volunteer in Guizhou Province. I spent two years there, and that’s where I really began to study Chinese. It was possible to get around mainly in English in Taipei, which is comparatively international. However, Guizhou Province was much less so, so speaking Chinese was pretty essential. The only downside was that there is quite a strong dialect there, so I picked up the accent and a certain amount of bad habits and dialect words without really realising. It was quite embarrassing to later discover that I had essentially learnt the ‘wrong’ words for lots of things.
In 2008, I moved to Xi’an where I spent the next five years teaching English at university. I learned most of my Chinese there, and really loved the city. I like the hot, dry climate, the amazing food, the historic parts of the city and the laid back people. Their city was the greatest in the world for centuries, which seems to give them a unique mentality. They never seem too bothered or worked up about anything.
During those years, one of the main ways I built up my Chinese was through studying ChinesePod. The American host John Pasden was definitely a role model in terms of his Chinese, and that was also the case for a number of my friends who were learning the language. He always sounded so relaxed and natural when speaking, which is hard to do in a foreign language. Similarly. His interactions with the Chinese host Jenny seemed effortless, which is another really inspirational thing for a learner.
If you could have lunch with any figure from China’s history, who would it be?
Although I am very interested in Chinese history, I’m not sure I could choose one historical figure to have lunch with. It would be fascinating to meet Zhuge Liang, but I think any mere mortal would be intimidated in his presence. Instead, I’d quite like to spend a few days in Tang Dynasty Chang’an, during its heyday. It would be good to see the city in all its glory and get a feel for how people lived. I’m sure the food in any noodle restaurant would be just as good as it is today.
What’s your all-time favourite chengyu?
For a long time, I found chengyu a pain. They seemed overly rigid and a bit contrived, especially when I imagined an English equivalent of someone using load of old idioms. This was one of my many errors in learning Chinese, and I now realise how important, commonly used, and colourful they are. Probably my favourite one is 夜深人静, or ‘all is quiet at dead of night.’ I think it conjures up a really good sense of everything being quiet in the middle of the night, and I think the character 静 is a particularly beautiful one, in terms of both appearance and meaning. It’s really nice when used in a person’s name, too.
What are the biggest challenges in teaching Chinese?
People constantly say learning Chinese is hard, and research suggests it’s true. But to me, most of the difficulties are mental barriers that we construct ourselves. Therefore, in terms of both teaching and learning Chinese, ultimately, a love of the language is by far the most important thing. That is what inspires a teacher to be creative and enthusiastic in class, and also what helps a student keep going through all of the many challenges along the way. Languages are beautiful and should be enjoyed, and it’s especially true with Chinese. I think that learning Chinese requires great flexibility of thinking from English speakers. Some people can’t handle that, and find it difficult. But those who are prepared to change their thinking and reassess what they know will learn the language well, and be greatly enriched as a result.
What are you reading at the moment?
I used to read a lot, but with two young children it’s very hard to keep that up. That said, I still tend to read two or three books at a time, it just takes me an insane amount of time to finish them now. I also do quite a lot of re-reading. At the moment, I am reading a Chinese translation of a book of Murakami’s short stories called 去中国的小船. I don’t know if there is an English title. I also just re-read a book called The Monastery on Jade Mountain by Peter Goullart, who in my opinion is one of the most enlightening and entertaining Western writers on China.
I do like Eileen Chang, and also Yu Hua who are very well respected. But to be honest, I think when reading in a foreign language it’s important to really prioritise enjoyment. In English, I’m quite selective about what I read, but in Chinese my standards are much lower. One of the most entertaining things I’ve read is 侯卫东官场笔记 /The Diary of Civil Servant Hou Weidong. It tells the story of a young guy who works his way up through the Chinese bureaucracy with all of its office politics, scandal, corruption and sex. It’s like reading a trashy TV series – not exactly fine literature but so entertaining.
A big ‘thank you’ to Adam for sharing his experiences! Find out more about Mandarin Rap Podcast now.