It’s surprising to consider that in Trinidad and Tobago – a Caribbean country miles from China – one could meet a young local like Meghan Ghent, with impressive fluency in Chinese and an insightful understanding of Chinese culture.
Meghan was born in Trinidad at the end of the 1980s. Like many Trinidadians, she is of mixed descent, herself a combination of European, Indian, African ancestry. However, she has no Chinese heritage at all. In only three years of study in Britain and one year in China, she has managed to achieve near-perfect proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if a Chinese person had a conversation with her without seeing her face, they would find it hard to believe they were communicating with a non-native speaker. When she sings a Chinese song, her vocalisation is clear and flawless. Along with her love for the language, she also enjoys Chinese tea, Chinese poetry and Chinese music. Since 2013, she has been working as the secretary of the Confucius Institute at UWI, St. Augustine.Just how did she become so familiar with Chinese language and culture in such a short time? With this question in mind, the T&T China Times interviews Meghan Ghent.
Can you talk about your earliest experience of Chinese culture?
I once heard Dashan say that almost everyone’s first encounter with Chinese culture comes through food. So that was pretty much true for me as well. None of my family are Chinese, but my grandfather seemed to have a particular interest in Chinese food culture. I don’t know where it came from. He loved to cook Chinese finger foods, like fried wontons, and he taught me how to use chopsticks when I was very young. I became quite good with them too. When our family would have Chinese food for dinner, it would be him and me using the chopsticks.
You’ve reached a high level of proficiency in Mandarin in a very short time. Do you think there is a particular trick to learning Chinese? Are there any study methods you can share?
When I first decided that I was going to study Mandarin, I didn’t really know anything about it at all. But I actually gave myself a small head-start through singing. I used to be in the choir at my old school, and we sang in different languages a lot in competitions, which always required us to make sure our pronunciation was accurate, and we learned the rules of it through singing. In the months before starting university, I began listening to Zhang Huimei’s music, and it was that way I learned to pronounce the sounds of Mandarin properly. I would definitely suggest listening to music and singing along as a good study method for learning Mandarin.
Another, of course, is through being really strict and cutting yourself off from English. I had studied in the classrooms of my university in Scotland for two years already, but I found that I progressed about three times as quickly once I was in a Chinese classroom. Our teachers did not use English (or Russian, or Japanese) in the classroom at all. One teacher told us to purchase a Chinese dictionary, because we needed to learn to “use Mandarin to explain Mandarin”. When we had a problem communicating something, we weren’t allowed to use gestures or mime or point at objects; we had to find a way to talk around what we wanted to say before we were taught the words. This was also a great way of getting us to stop translating in our heads, and to start thinking in Mandarin.
You once lived and studied in China for a year. What was your overall impression of China? Which aspects were good and which were not so good?
My year in China was a tough but extremely valuable and productive experience. During that time, I lived in Dalian, a small city by Chinese standards, with relatively few distractions, so I found that I made fast progress in my work. In addition, not many of the people I met spoke English. Even the other international students in my Chinese class were mostly from Russia, Japan and Korea, so we had to communicate in Chinese only. I made some good friends among them as well; I would often go to buy meat pies with a Japanese girl, a South Korean girl and a North Korean girl, and the four of us became informally known as the Meat Pie Club. （“馅饼俱乐部”）
There were times, though, when it could get very lonely, and even frightening, as I was alone in a culture that was very different from my own. In addition, I encountered some problems with my residence permit, and had to spend three months without my passport, while all my friends went off travelling. That is when I would look to strangers for company. When in Trinidad I don’t often talk to strangers, but in China I did almost nothing but that. It helped that the people I encountered were by and large very friendly, and very patient to listen to me struggle to express myself sometimes. I had long and amusing conversations with old ladies in the mall, young children on the train to Shanghai, the fried rice man on the side of the road near where I lived, almost anyone. I particularly loved spending time with the Dalian taxi drivers. They always had interesting stories to tell, and often taught me new words— though of course, not all of them could be used in polite company. Sometimes I think about going back to China one day and conducting an informal study of the habits of taxi drivers in each province.
Do you have any advice or points to note for Trinidadians who want to study Mandarin in China?
If the opportunity ever does present itself for you to go to China to study, I’d very much encourage you not to miss it. It will help your Mandarin progress so much faster to be surrounded by Mandarin speakers on a constant basis. Do not be shy either; one of my teachers used to say that studying a foreign language requires a thick skin (“脸皮要厚”). That develops with time, so don’t be afraid of embarrassing yourself— and you probably will. If you are truly interested in learning Mandarin to an advanced level, it’s also worth taking the HSK examination while in China. I had intended to do that myself, but missed the application deadline. Still, it can give you increased access to scholarship and employment opportunities should those be what you’re looking for. It’s also safe to say that the vast majority of Chinese people don’t know many Trinidadians, so the people you meet will probably be extremely curious and full of questions for you. Take this as a good thing: at the very least, this will make you extremely fluent at explaining where you are from.