I recognized the tune. But I struggled to sing along.
Most of the 80-member congregation appeared rapt in the choruses of Rock of Ages — all in Chinese. I felt a bit lost.
After completing the third week of my product test of Rosetta Stone's latest language training program, TOTALe, I had decided to venture into the community to see how I was doing. After getting an invite, I stopped by the Tampa Bay Chinese Baptist Church.
Church, with its complex religious words and phrasing, can be a hard place to understand English. Using it as the setting for my first Mandarin Chinese evaluation was like getting plopped into the middle of an NBA game after shooting around on a driveway court for three weeks.
The woman seated next to me, Eileen McDonald, handed me a hymnal opened to Rock of Ages. The lyrics included Chinese characters and the English translation, but with everyone else singing in Chinese, I still couldn't follow them.
I thanked her, anyway: xie xie.
Oh, you speak Chinese? she asked.
A little, I replied, not knowing how to say it in Chinese.
She flashed a warm smile.
On Christmas Eve 1964, McDonald came to the United States from Canton, China. She speaks the Cantonese form of Chinese and learned the Mandarin style as well as English.
McDonald began attending the Tampa Bay Chinese Baptist Church in Pinellas Park three years ago. She, like some of the 10,000 native Chinese speakers in the Tampa Bay area, wanted a greater sense of community and the ability to enjoy the religious experience in their own tongue.
"It's kind of a cultural thing," said Jay Shi, a church deacon from Clearwater. During religious worship, "it's much easier to speak your mother tongue."
Don't I know it.
There I was seated in a Chinese congregation, comfortable and welcomed by the group, but struggling to snag a word or phrase I recognized from my Rosetta Stone lessons.
The Rev. Joseph Hsieh preaches in Chinese but has an English translator. That helped. Even so, I eagerly waited to hear anything in Chinese that sounded familiar.
I lit up when I heard him say shou ji.
That's Chinese for cell phone.
But during much of the service, the Chinese phrases escaped me, other than a few words or short phrases here and there.
It wasn't until the church lunch after the service that I was able to really put my newfound skills to the test:
Ta men zai zuo fan (They are cooking the rice), I said with a big grin.
We bought this from a restaurant, a woman behind the counter said before offering me a plate.
I took the plate and sat at a table next to McDonald, who welcomed me with her now-famous warm smile.
Ta men zai he cha.
Yes, they are drinking tea, McDonald said about the couple sitting across from me.
Zhe che shen me? I said, asking what I was eating.
… It is ground pork, she said.
Wo zai chi mi fan, I said.
Yes, I want rice. I am eating rice, she said.
Not bad, I thought, for three weeks. I can at least eat some rice and ask what things are.
Across the table Sergei Kupchenko noted my fledgling attempts at Chinese. He's from the Ukraine and is married to a Chinese native. Already fluent in English and Russian, Kupchenko is also trying to add Chinese to his language repertoire.
"My wife won't help me," lamented Kupchenko, a St. Petersburg resident.
He's using a competitor of Rosetta Stone's called Pimsleur. The program uses CDs and DVDs, but he said, "There's no feedback. There's no interaction."
The interactive experience in Rosetta Stone's TOTALe is part of the steep cost of the $999 program.
Virtually all of the TOTALe experience takes place online. There are CDs for your car to help reinforce what you are learning, but the core of the program walks you through speaking, reading and writing the language you are studying.
It is impressive that you can learn to read, write and speak Chinese through the TOTALe program. But it's not easy.
The program does not use any English — no friendly voice offering translations. It requires as much analytical thinking to sort out the meanings as it does learning speech, vocabulary and writing.
It wasn't until repeated exercises that I finally understood that hen da meant big and hen xiao meant small.
The aha moment came while looking at the same set of pictures countless times — one of a German shepherd and two children and another of a woman with a toy dog in her purse.
Rosetta Stone has rewarded my efforts with several "stamps" on my TOTALe profile, including "frequent learner." But I've missed a day or two when consumed by work or family obligations. Generally, I spend an hour or two a day on the program.
I know I have to step up my efforts. Next up: I'll be visiting several Chinese businesses. With commerce on the line, they might not be as forgiving as the friendly folks at Tampa Bay Chinese Baptist Church.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.