My commute for my new job in Boston is entirely via public transportation. As I got off at the subway station earlier this week, I was approached by an Asian gentleman holding a coffee cup and a dollar bill. I thought he was a panhandler at first, but then he asked me (in Mandarin) whether I spoke Mandarin. My grasp of this particular language is "conversational" at best, and even that is a generous characterization. I answered "a little", and got enough of his response to realize that he was asking me how to buy a weekly pass. I navigated the menus on the ticket machine and managed to confirm, "七 天? (seven days)" and tell him that it was "十五 (15)"...I didn't know the Mandarin for "dollar", but he figured it out.
While I have assisted strangers with my Spanish skills several times before, this is the first time I've been able to use my Mandarin. Many times throughout my life, I've been approached by people who either assume or ask whether I speak Mandarin, and I've hated saying no. There is no greater joy to me than being able to build bridges between people, especially of different cultures, to forge connections that would otherwise not exist. I miss interpreting.
After this incident I found renewed energy for listening to my Mandarin lesson podcasts, but realized I'd left my earphones at home. There's nothing like real-world application to motivate one to learn.