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ImageThis summer a terrible thing happened. My wife became friends with my Chinese teacher. They go shopping together in the mall. Serena has been trying to get my wife to wear the same tantalisingly short skirts and hot pants that she wears to my lessons. They talk about diets and Chinese parents and men. Men! Yes, and women, too. And women’s legs!

It used to be that my Chinese lessons consisted of me telling my teacher things about my wife and my teacher telling me things about her husband.

Then I would go home and tell my wife things about my teacher.

It worked well for a while and I suppose I should be glad that I’ve known at least some happiness in my life, however briefly. Now I try as much as possible to say nothing to either of them, although the talk at home is all of Serena.

The first pair of hot pants Lanying came home in were so short she couldn’t sit down. She had to take them back to the shop the next day and get a more comfortable pair. I told one of my colleagues about it. He shook his had sadly. “I can’t say anything,” he said, “that one of us won’t regret.”

Lanying talks every day about my Chinese teacher. Yesterday she told me something Serena’s husband had told her. “He likes looking at legs,” Serena told her. “He thinks there should be a law against women wearing long trousers.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!” I said. “But that doesn’t mean he likes other men to look at Serena’s legs.”

“No, of course not. He likes looking at other women’s legs.”

“Not that Serena doesn’t have good legs,” I said diplomatically.

“Serena has great legs.”

“She does. But, you know, in general, a man doesn’t like the world to see his wife’s legs.”

“Exactly,” said Lanying, “no matter how good his wife’s legs may be. ”

“Between a man and his wife, of course, it’s quite all right. But in public, it’s a different thing.”

“But I suppose a man gets bored of looking at the same legs all the time,” she said, “and needs fresh legs to look at.”

“Fresh legs. Indeed.” I’m always happy when I can agree with my wife.

“She is still very young,” Lanying said. “She wants to please him.”

“Yes. I’m sure that’s the reason she wears hot pants all the time.”

“But, really, I think her skirts are too short.”

“So you won’t be buying any short skirts?”

“Definitely not. I’m not a teenager any more.”

Once again I was able to agree. “I’m glad you understand men so well,” I told her. “You don’t try and please me, at least.”

“I dress only for myself,” she told me.

We were walking along the River Thames at the time and I noted that although winter was well under way, the day was exceptionally fine.

“It’s going to be cold on Thursday,” she said.

“Oh, that’s a pity. I suppose you shall have to put away your hot pants and get out your winter clothes.”

“You shall have to get out my winter clothes. The box is too heavy for me.”

“I will be only too glad,” I told her.

And I felt gladder than I’ve felt for a while. The warmth of the sun was very pleasant on my face and the rolling of the waves in the river made a beautiful sound that covered our words and seemed to promise a beautiful English autumn ahead, leading into an even more beautiful English winter.

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“How would you describe the way you speak, Joseph?” Mingzhu asked me the other day over dinner. “Are you posh? You sound very posh.” 

“I’m not so much posh as educated,” I said. 

“When I first came to England,” said my wife, Lanying, “I was very surprised that not everyone spoke clearly like Joseph. I couldn’t understand most people at first.” 

“But after a while don’t you find yourself talking like them?” Mingzhu asked. 

“Yes. Yes. There was one office I was working where they all came from Essex and Joseph said I was picking up all this Essex slang. I didn’t know it was slang I just heard it and copied it.” 

“Exactly,” agreed Mingzhu, “because as a foreigner speaking English you don’t have anything to fall back on. You just copy everything. You don’t have your own roots in the language.” 

“That’s why the work environment is so important,” said Lanying. “You have to choose your colleagues carefully otherwise you can end up using totally unsuitable expressions.” 

“I know,” said Mingzhu. “A lot of my colleagues are from Essex actually.” 

“And do you find yourself talking like them?” 

“Yes. Inevitably. One of them who sits opposite me is very funny. He uses lots of swear words. He can’t have a conversation on the phone without swearing. But in a funny way.” 

“A lot of people in England talk like that,” said Lanying. “On the train you hear swearing all the time and in these impenetrable accents, like Cockney and Brummie and Geordie. But Scottish is the worst. I can never understand people from Scotland.” 

“Well let me tell you something,” said Mingzhu. “The people in my office are all English and they complain all the time that they can’t understand people from Scotland, so you’re not alone there.” 

“The other day on the train,” said Lanying, “I was with my Chinese friend, Yin. She was was visiting from Switzerland. There were some German tourists in the other seat and they wanted to know if the train went to London Bridge. They asked some Scottish people but they couldn’t understand what the Scottish people said. So my friend, Yin, told them in German.” 

“They must have been very surprised to see a Chinese person in London suddenly switch to German.” 

“But why? That’s what Chinese are good at.” 

“What is?” 

“Lanuguages. We are great at languages. We can learn anything.” 

Mingzhu looked at her a moment. 

“Yes!” persisted Lanying. “We are very good at languages. We are great actually.” 

“There’s a word in English for that.” 

“What?” 

“For what you just said.” 

“What word?” 

“Up your own arse.”

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Lately I’ve been writing in the staff canteen. It’s the only place I can go at lunchtime that’s warm.  Spring has been slow to arrive in London.

But our building has become so crowded that it’s hard to find somewhere to sit every day. It’s playing havoc with my routine.

Today I wasn’t writing my novel, I was writing some Chinese. I had a bit of an epiphany last week and decided to intensify my efforts. Most of the time when you’re learning Chinese you’re just practising characters. You write the same ones over and over again and if you try and learn new ones you forget the ones you thought you knew, so you constantly have huge holes in your knowledge. If you want to write anything fast you resort to pinyin, which is the romanised form of the language that’s used for word processing.

Last week I started to write something in pinyin that I intended to type up later when I got home. The way a Chinese word processor works is you type the word in pinyin then select the character from a pop-up screen. For instance if you type “ta” you can choose from 54 characters that have that sound, with the most common ones being offered to you first.

But sometimes I wanted to write “she” and sometimes “he.” In Chinese the pinyin is the same (“ta”) but the characters are different. To avoid ambiguity it’s actually quicker to write the characters than to mess around with pinyin. So I found myself writing in characters instead. I had a few gaps in my knowledge and got tripped up a few times, so that’s why I’m practising again, trying to plug those gaps. The Chinese call them stones in your path. There are always stones in your path, whether you are reading or writing — characters you don’t know and can’t guess.

But the stones in my path today were the two people who sat opposite me and started having a business meeting. Their voices were so loud you’d think they were two politicians on a podium. I couldn’t help but listen. Their voices penetrated the deepest recesses of my brain. But as to what they were saying, I have no idea. One was American and one was English but they were speaking a language I could barely understand. Okay, maybe I understood the odd word here and there. “Leverage,” for example. I’ve heard that one quite a lot recently. If I hear it again this week I’m going to scream.

I’ve found the people who talk the most impenetrable language use the most penetrating voices.

But I suppose I shouldn’t let it get to me. Leverage needn’t be a bad thing. I could use a bit of leverage to clear the stones in my path.

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During Christmas in Bamberg I read a really exciting book and as soon as I got back to London I rushed out to various bookshops and tracked down other titles by the same publisher. There were not many so I bought them all. It seems they are now out of print.

It’s a shame because the series was really promising and this story in particular was terrific. A remarkable thing about it was that it was told in so few words. I don’t mean it was short, although it was. I mean the vocabulary was very limited.

It had to be limited for me to be able to read it because it was in Chinese.

But, although the authors used only 300 words, the story moved along at a very fast pace and introduced many surprising twists on the way to its satisfying denouement.

This proves, if proof were needed, that you don’t need sophisticated language skills to write a good story. You don’t even need a large vocabulary. You just need a little bit of imagination, a solid structure, and the determination to pique the reader’s interest with every sentence.

I wish more writers would make an effort to do that!

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My boss wants to send me to China. But he doesn’t want me to tell anyone yet. That probably means nothing will come of it. But, just in case, maybe I should spend more time practising Chinese.

“He speaks Mandarin,” my boss keeps telling everyone.

But I don’t. Not really. Last week I was ill and I went to see a Chinese doctor.  I sat in the waiting room and listened to four Chinese people having a conversation. I could only pick up a word or two here and there. Sichuan cuisine. Prawns. Squid.

“We’re talking about food,” Lanying told me.

“I know. Sichuan cuisine. Prawns. Squid.”

“Hey, he speaks Chinese!”

“He taught himself,” she told them.

“But I don’t speak it well.”

“You speak it very well,” they said.

But I couldn’t even understand the conversation, let alone join in.

I practise for one hour a week every Friday, talking, reading and listening. I no longer have time to practise writing. Every Friday I’m reminded of words I’ve forgotten through not practising enough.

If you don’t use a language every day you forget it.

I spent so much time learning Chinese that I’d stopped reading English books and I was forgetting how to write in English. This time last year I decided to stop learning Chinese, read two English books a month, and spend five hours a week writing a novel.

So far everything has gone to plan. I’m nearly at the end of the 2nd draft of my novel, I’ve read at least 24 English books and I’ve forgotten lots of Chinese.

Lanying has never wanted me to learn Chinese. “I want to read your novel,” she reminded me last night.

Well, I will take a week or two to think about my next steps. The novel needs another draft before I can allow it to be read. And there’s another novel that I want to write.

So maybe I will have to make Lanying speak to me in Chinese. Usually whenever I say anything she gives me a blank look and stays stubbornly silent. Either that or she bursts out laughing.

Now I will tell her “如果你要看我的小说, 你就要说汉语!”

If you want to read my novel, you’ve got to talk to me in Chinese!

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