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Written by: Edwin Maher

I was so determined to learn, I hired a tutor who started with a 90-minute lesson. At the end of the first session, my head was thumping and my ears were ringing. That determination had been crushed but I agreed to a second lesson.

It was no better. The changing tones, the Pinyin sounds of the alphabet and my efforts to repeat them accurately were dismal. At least there was no ringing. This time, my tutor’s sounds simply went in one ear and out the other.

I explained that I would try to absorb his teaching over the next few weeks, and contact him when I was ready to resume. I never did. I was disappointed with my attempt, full of self-doubt. Was I too old to learn this difficult language? Should I simply give up? These and other similar questions came to mind. But maybe one of those ‘inner’ voices was trying to reach me. ‘Keep trying’, it seemed to say.

I decided to stop taking the CRI shuttle bus, not because of seeing the same foreign experts each day, but reasoned that if I used public transport, perhaps I could absorb better the sounds of the chattering Beijingers and maybe tune my ear to their changing tones. It was time to attempt the buses again. Surely I wouldn’t repeat my Tian’anmen Square fiasco.

The next day I left my apartment at the Friendship Hotel, with instructions on how to catch a 717 bus to Muxidi then the subway to Babaoshan where CRI is located. Getting aboard was an experience. I just allowed myself to be pushed by the human mass behind me.

This was peak hour and I had entered a whole new world. Unlike the CRI shuttle, this public bus was filled not only with a cacophony2 of voices, but people packed like a tin of sardines. I nearly lost my balance as I reached for the handrail, but with no room to move, there was little chance of falling over.

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My appearance brought curious stares from passengers. They were probably asking themselves, why would a foreigner who could afford a taxi, choose to use a crowded public bus? But how could I reach the conductor to pay my fare? More to the point, I wondered, how could she reach me and the other new passengers. It was fascinating to watch as she squeezed her way along.

I looked and I listened. As the conductor approached, I said ‘Muxidi’ to which she responded something like ‘ee kwai’. I panicked, and stared into my wallet, taking up precious seconds of her time collecting fares. Someone next to me looked at my hand of RMB and pulled out a ¥1 note. I had forgotten even the most basic words.

The helpful passenger stood next to me and made sure I got off safely at Muxidi. The others probably breathed a collective sigh of relief. The subway train came and I got off at Babaoshan, my mission completed. I had done it.

Getting back that afternoon was a different matter. I left CRI confidently, took the subway to Muxidi, but couldn’t remember which exit to use. Taking a chance, I looked for the bus. When it arrived, I asked the conductor in the one Chinese word I had been told would get me out of trouble — ‘Yoyibinguan’, which means Friendship Hotel.

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The conductor beckoned me aboard, but ten minutes into the journey, I had a feeling I was going the wrong way. The skyline wasn’t slightly familiar. At each stop, a recorded voice was obviously naming the stations in Chinese, followed by five English words, ‘get off the bus now.’

I started feeling anxious but stayed on, thinking the Friendship Hotel would appear soon. After almost 40 minutes I feared the worst. This time, everyone got off the bus. It was journey’s end. I realised my tones must have been wrong and the conductor thought I had said the name of another hotel which was near the final stop. I hailed a taxi, and when I said ‘Yoyibinguan’, I could tell from his reaction he knew where to take me. After all that travel from Babaoshan to Muxidi and now to this now unknown (to me) locality, I wondered where I was.

I soon found out. Less than one minute into the journey, the taxi passed a familiar landmark. It was the CRI building. I was back where I had started.