Students of Chinese tend to be an eccentric bunch. If you look at the popular majors at colleges, most students pick up something obvious, something easy, or something marketable, in that order. Perhaps because it isn't a common subject to be studied, and because even in this age it still has an aura of mystery, I am often asked a number of questions about both Chinese and my choice to study it.
I am sure that most people here who have studied Chinese can agree that the following list of questions comes up with any conversation:
- "Isn't that hard?"\"I've heard Chinese is the hardest language".
Chinese is often used as an example of the prototypical difficult language, almost to the point where it is a code that can not be explained logically, but that must be born into. People's (mis)conception of the Chinese as a closed, xenophobic culture contributes to this in no small measure. The Chinese language, like any other language, is not neccesarily logical, and must be learned through experience, but no more so than any other language. While Chinese does have its hard points (tones, and the wide variation of "j" type sounds used as initials, as well as the three thousand characters needed for basic literacy), it also has its easy points (no tenses, plurals, or cases, and a very wide and intuitive form of word formation). There is a lot to learn and lot of mistakes to be made, but the basic structure and ideas of the language aren't that occult.
- "What are you planning to do with that?"\"That is a great way to make money because China is going to be the next world power."
Students of all types have to put up with the "what do you want to do with that" question, which is often used either as a friendly conversation starter, or as a way for old cantankerous folks to mock these college whippersnappers with all their book larnin'. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who assume that speaking Chinese means that you are qualified to go out and get a job as a high-finance international wheeler dealer. The theory that China is going to suddenly explode into world dominance has been around periodically for the past 100 years, if not longer. The truth is that China already is a major world power, but that doesn't mean it is going to be the official language of Tulsa anytime soon. While speaking Chinese fluently does help, the average Chinese graduate does not have the ability to translate statements such as "The deal on the 14 acre agricultural freeze-drying plant on the Gaoxiung waterfront can only be completed if we get 1.5 million dollars of Malayasian government bonds at %2.3 as collateral"
- "I've heard that such and such word actually means such and such"
This includes such old chestnuts as "opportunity and danger", as well as any number of beliefs about how single Chinese characters explain either the mystic knowledge or misogynist backwardness of Chinese culture, depending on the ideological basis of the questioner. (The following short explanation deserves a writeup of its own, written by someone with more skill than I): This is based on the idea of hui yi, that all of the components of a Chinese character have semantic meaning. Most modern scholars believe that the characters consist of a semantic part and a phonetic part. Thus, the word for slave does contain the word for "woman", but as a phonetic element, not as a semantic element. The fact that this is believed by many Westerners, who thus read meanings into Chinese characters that are not there, is excused in large part that many Chinese people believed these etymologies in the past, and many of them, even the educated ones, still believe them. Also, the word "dao", used in "Dao De Jing" and the like, doesn't refer to an ineffable mystical reality, but rather to a road, like the one you walk on.
These are, in my experience, the three most commonly asked questions, although there are many others. If you have been a Chinese student, you can /msg me with additions.