I can, for all intents and purposes, speak Chinese. It was my first language. I grew up using it. My parents speak to me with it. I sometimes even speak to them with it. And I took four semesters of it during college.
But I’m not fluent in it.
I can say my name, where I’m from (mei guo), what I’m doing here (gong zuo), how long I’ve been here (kuai dao yi nian le), that I like it here (partially true) and that I look Chinese because I am, ethnically speaking — both my parents are. I can sort of describe what I do at work (something like a reporter, but I fix things that my coworkers have translated from Chinese to English). I can say I want to pay my phone bill at the bank (because that’s where you go to pay bills). I can call the wu ye (apartment super) to say that I have a problem and please come fix, but I can’t say what the problem is. This happened today*.
Me: Hi, there’s a problem with my window. Can you send someone to fix it?
Maintenance lady: What’s the problem?
Me: Sorry, my Chinese isn’t very good, so I don’t really know how to explain it to you. Can you just send someone to look at it?
Maintenance lady: But I need to know if it’s an electrical problem or a water [i.e., pipe] problem.
Me: Um … it’s not really either. My window … there’s water coming in.
Maintenance lady: Water? What water?
Me: Um … like water … you know, when it’s cold outside and warm inside, there’s water?
Maintenance lady: I have no freakin idea what you’re talking about.
Basically, what I wanted to say was, the seals on my window are coming off, so water (from condensation?) gets inside. Apparently, the term for that is “jiao shui” (浇水), which is what my mommy uses to tell me to water her plants.
But upon further research, I have discovered that it’s possible the maintenance guy could have said “jiao shui” in reference to 胶水, which apparently means some kind of glue. Perhaps he was telling me he needed jiao shui, which he used to stick the rubber seals back where they belong.
*In Chinese, of course.