I’ve been studying Chinese for an embarrassingly long time. I started in high school, where I was required to take two years of a foreign language to graduate. After two years of two hours of Chinese a week, I walked away from high school with a firm grasp of both “nǐ hǎo” and Chinese pronouns.
I decided to continue my studies in college. Armed with my trivial knowledge, I miraculously managed to test out of the first term of Chinese. I’d been studying Chinese for two years, and my professor thought I was only prepared to skip ten weeks of classes. I enrolled in the level 2 class, and over the next ten weeks, I doubled my knowledge of Chinese. After that, I forgot it – all of it – then I took one more term of Chinese I was utterly unprepared for years later. After that, I did something I was even less prepared for. I came to China.
A NEW START
I flew to China fantasising about having conversations with native speakers and achieving fluency within my first year. I was just going to soak up all the Chinese around me. Except there wasn’t that much Chinese around me. I was teaching English, making friends with my English-speaking colleagues, reading English books, and watching American TV shows. Being in China did not immerse me in the language.
I do have far more opportunities to practice here if I seek them out. Being in China is certainly very motivating, and I was never completely delusional about how easy it would be to learn. I’ve had a Chinese tutor since my second or third week here, and I’ve studied independently off and on. I just wasn’t achieving the progress I had dreamed about on the plane over here.
FINDING THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM
I resolved to do better. I was going to spend more time studying Chinese. I wasn’t going to do anything differently; I was just going to do more of it. Somehow, though, telling myself over and over again that I’d study Chinese after I got home from work didn’t motivate me to study more. If anything, spending the whole day reminding myself I was going to study when I got home exhausted me.
Something had to change, and I had an idea how to do that. I had a horrible, awful idea how to do that. Since I was too tired to study after work, I was going to have to wake up earlier and study before work.
CREATING A NEW HABIT
I’m not a morning person. I haven’t been a morning person since before I went to college. Waking up earlier was no small step for me, but I couldn’t think of any other solutions. I eased myself into it. I set my alarm just ten minutes earlier. That, along with the fifteen minutes I usually spent watching random YouTube videos while I drank my coffee, allowed me to spend a respectable twenty-five minute studying Chinese in the morning.
When I got used to that, I moved my alarm up another ten minutes and then another ten minutes. I now have time not only to study half an hour of Chinese but also revive my long-dead yoga habit.
I expected to hate waking up earlier, but I’m much happier now than I was when I was sleeping in. Finding time to get exercise into my routine has boosted my mood. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it. The feeling of heading to work with all of my personal goals already accomplished is just as good. I now go to work more alert and in a better mood overall.
It’s only been a month, but I know my new morning routine is going to be around for a while. For one, January is one of our busiest months. Kids are out of their public schools for the winter holidays, so they enrol in extra English classes. I also got sick right in the middle of our busiest month. If I can keep my routine up through all of that, I can continue no matter how busy I am.
I know I will continue because I’ve come to understand why I wasn’t reaching my goals in the past. Before, I didn’t have a set time to study. The question “Should I study now?” was constantly on loop in my head, and because I can’t (and won’t) constantly study Chinese, I got into the habit of answering “Ask me later.” Now, I study in the morning every morning without question.
JUST DO IT!
Getting rid of that question was just as important as nailing down a specific time to study. My old yoga habit died when I got sick and took a week off. Once I got out of that habit, I had to ask myself if I wanted to start it up again today. I always planned to start up again tomorrow, when Lazy Aly would magically wake up as Super Aly and do all the things I didn’t feel like doing today. This time, even when I got sick, I still did an easy stretch routine to maintain my momentum without taxing my sick and healing body.
Super Aly never woke up, but it turns out I don’t need her. When goals become daily routines, you don’t need super willpower to maintain them.
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Aly is an avid reader and language learner. She spends her free time devouring books at her favourite coffee shop, puzzling out Chinese, and stuffing her hard drive full of pictures of China.