I'm rediscovering the difference between learning a language while living in the country where it is spoken versus learning it somewhere else. Put me in a social situation with someone who speaks putonghua with a clear accent and I can have something like a conversation: I can talk about where I'm from, why I'm here, what I did during the day, and give my (simple) opinions on various topics. I like talking to KC's Chinese tutor because she speaks so clearly and it is a boost to my confidence that we can actually TALK. But put me in a situation where I need to get something specific done and I'm not so great.
For example. I need my coffee fix every day, but I left my grinder in Seoul. It was made for 110 volts and I didn't want to buy adaptors for every little household appliance; figured it would be easier to buy a new one when we arrived. But I couldn't immediately find a grinder so I went to purchase some already-ground coffee, not knowing the word for "grind" but figuring I could wing it at the Coffee Bean. The woman understood "grind," then asked me in Chinese what kind of coffee maker I had. I understood the question but didn't know how to answer it; we usually use an Aeropress which was still arriving via airmail and in the meantime had borrowed a Bialletti from my father (one of those you put on the stove). The Bialetti doesn't use a filter so the grind can't be too small. In any case I had no idea how to describe either machine so I just gestured and tried to explain it was not like the machine they had there. I didn't know the words for "coarse" or "fine." (I do now.) I ended up agreeing to something I didn't quite understand and got my coffee a little too fine, but the Aeropress arrived and it's all good.
Or the other day: I took Max for his health check. He's required to have one before entering kindergarten, and it took place at a local women and children's hospital. If I hadn't lived in Korea the system would have been seemed weird and chaotic, but because I was familiar with it in theory I could figure most things out through observation. I went in and told the woman at the information desk that I needed a youeryuan jiancha. She handed me a ticket, told me to pay the cashier and then go through a set of doors and wait. I did as I was told and entered a large waiting area with dozens of people and a small indoor playground. I had a number but wasn't sure if I was supposed to check in. From Seoul I'm used to butting in to get a nurse's attention; the nurse was very kind and told me to sit and wait. We didn't wait long before entering a room where Max was weighed and had his height, head circumference and chest measurements taken (not much privacy, the kid before and after us were also in the open room). We were then told to go to room 125, but after fighting for the nurse's attention in that room (because there didn't seem to be a line) she told me I need to go and do something which I didn't understand. Some body gestures and a few words of English later I got it: blood test. But where? She gave me directions I thought I understood but I ended up somewhere random and another nurse helped escort me to the blood drawing area. But then the blood guy (I know there's a name but I can't be bothered to look it up -- language centers already overloaded) told me I have to pay for the test first. So back to the cashier where I paid; then back to the blood station where I figured out (through observation and pathetic hanzi skills) that one line is for children. Max got his finger pricked and it was over faster than I expected. (I like having blood drawn by people whose job it is to draw blood all day. They are fast and inflict relatively little pain. Max did very well.) We then went back to room 125 where the nurse told me something that I didn't understand, referring to one of the papers I was carrying. The kindergarten had told me that the a urine test would be involved, so I deduced that it was that test we were missing, (and confirmed using my dictionary and some scrutinizing of the test sheet) which was perfect because Max was doing his "I need to pee" dance. But where is THAT test done? Asked the nice original nurse, who escorted me back to the blood area. Realized that the urine test windows were right next door. Oops. Took a plastic cup, did the pee thing in a cramped bathroom, went back to now-familiar room 125. Now a different nurse was there, one who spoke some English, and asked me where the results are. Oh, you mean I have to wait for the results? Since I'm already there, she feels Max's stomach and organs and looks him over. OK. Back to urine. Find the results. Take it back. Where are the blood test results, she asks me. Oh, I have to wait for those too? (I'm used to those blood tests where you get the results in 2 weeks). Go BACK to the blood and urine area, where sure enough Max's results have already come out and are sitting on the table waiting for us. Go back to room 125. Hand over the results. The nurse finishes off the paperwork and tells me to give it to the teacher. The people next in line are already nudging us over. I take Max home. This, my friends, is how I learned the words for "blood test" and "urine test."
(I also know the names of many infectious diseases in Korean because Max had all his vaccinations there.)