Back to blog index

My First Day of University. It Didn’t Go Well.

It’s too late to back out now – today was my first day as a University student of Chinese. After two years of slogging through hours and hours of private lessons I decided it wasn’t enough to be able to speak Chinese, dammit, I wanted to read and write too.

My goals are very modest – I want to be able to read menus and recipes in Chinese. That’s it. I don’t want to be able to read Chinese novels. I have no desire to write long descriptive letters in Chinese. But if, at the wet market, I ask someone what that vegetable is, and they write down the name, it would be cool if I could read it. It would also be cool if, at a Chinese restaurant, I could avoid ordering things that look like beans on the picture menu but are actually eels. 
So last week I went to registration day to pay my fees, sit a chinese test and take possession of my textbooks. Now, having just spent the best part of six weeks away from China and not speaking Chinese, I expected the test to be pretty tricky. I walked into the testing room, all tense and anxious, and a young woman immediately put me at ease as she beckoned me over to sit in front of her. 
“Have you studied Chinese before?” she asked me (in Chinese of course). We had a short pleasant chat, she scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it me. I assumed it was some instructions on which room to take the test in.

“Level 2.0” she said. 
“And the test?” I asked. 
“You just had it!” she told me. 
Oh man, if I knew that sitting having a chat was the test I would have tried a bit harder and concentrated more. Then her supervisor came in, a young lady in a very neat and shiny grey suit covered with embroidered flowers.
“How many Chinese characters do you know?” she asked me. Now, just for your general knowledge, the average Chinese person knows at least 5000 characters. You need 3000 to read the newspaper. Toddlers know around 500.
“Twenty or thirty” I said. She spilled her tea – just coming up to her lips – all over her shiny embroidered skirt.
It had always seemed an impossible task to learn Chinese characters, and most learners of Chinese have a definite preference for either the spoken or written language. I’m a speaker. You can’t shut me up and I will happily chat about nothing, everything, the weather, the government, why I like Chinese food, or why Shanghai taxi drivers are the best in China. But characters? Characters, to me, look like one long string of meaningless, but very attractive, squarish doodles. 
“Hmmm” she said, mopping at the tea on her skirt. The wide gap between my spoken and written Chinese was obviously going to be a problem. I could speak Chinese like….well…like a fifth grader. But I could only read Chinese as well as, say, a completely illiterate person. Would they bump me up, to suit my spoken Chinese? Or grade me down, to the level of my written Chinese? I kind of hoped it would be the latter, because I didn’t fancy my chances of learning a single thing in an advanced characters class. The supervisor launched into a long discussion with me, that I believe went something like this…
“Your spoken language lalalalalala written language lalalalalala class level lalala spoken language lalalala too difficult lalalalalalalala change at the end of the first week. How about that?”
“OK” I said, not really knowing what I just said OK to. I certainly didn’t want to lose face in the middle of an ongoing Chinese comprehension test. What I think she said was that she would place me in a class at the level of my written Chinese, because otherwise I would find it too difficult to keep up, but if that didn’t suit I could change at the end of the first week. OK? OK.
I arrived for my first class today at 8.20am, ten minutes earlier than I have ever been for anything. The School of International Education at Jiaotong University was already heaving with hundreds of students of all nationalities and ages, and I ran up the stairs to Room 405, where Level 2.0 Primary Intensive Reading – according to my schedule – was due to begin.
There were 25 desks in all, facing towards the teacher’s podium in a light, airy modern room looking over the nearby athletics oval. The teacher, an elderly man in a dark blue shirt printed with butterflies, had a round, kindly face, very little hair, and small crinkled eyes, and he was putting the final touches to a powerpoint presentation in Chinese. I noticed he had an old-fashioned hearing aid in his right ear, and he smiled at me as I walked in, revealing a mouth bereft of all but four teeth, three on the top, to the right, and a single snaggle tooth on the bottom, so that when he spoke his tongue found the gaps in his mouth and his words muffled. 
Taking a seat on the far side of the room, the desks began to fill – by the chatter I could tell there were some Korean students, a few Japanese, possibly an American or two, and several Russians. Other than myself and the teacher they were all under twenty five, and they looked serious. They had pencil cases. I dug around in my handbag and found a pencil with a novelty robot lid. It didn’t look very serious.
Teacher Butterfly began, without telling us his name (perhaps I missed it?). A wave of Chinese words washed over me, very fast. Very fast. I wondered when he was going to give the English version of his speech, but he didn’t – he just kept on speaking at a rapid-fire rate. Words and more words poured over my head, swirling around me. I understood almost nothing and felt a rising wave of panic as those near me relaxed back into their seats and listened. Through the jumbled confusion of the words  I concentrated harder than I’ve ever concentrated to work first through Teacher Butterfly’s muffled pronunciation, then to try and grasp a few individiual words. Lesson. Method. Class. Questions. Snatches of phrases began to materialise in my head. No English spoken. Class sizes. Then whole sentences occasionally rose to the surface of the flow of words. If you find it’s too hard, or even too easy, you can change class this Friday. This Friday? I had a major headache starting to pound after only forty minutes. How will I last four more days?
At a signal from Teacher Butterfly everyone took out their textbook. A textbook I don’t have. I looked around, but several others also didn’t have it. Perhaps they ran out? Perhaps I’m in the wrong class, I think. I become convinced of this when my neighbour opens her textbook for me to share and a dense sea of Chinese characters floats up off the page. Surely they wouldn’t put someone with twenty characters under their belt into a class like this? 
“Read the passage, then we will answer the questions on the next page.” says Teacher Butterfly. I can understand about 5% of the characters in the passage. America. China. Person. They. Country.
Teacher Butterfly flashes up a powerpoint slide with new vocabulary on it.
Descendent. Doubles and redoubles. Ancestral.  Foreign citizen of Chinese origin. Prestigious family.
Whoa. I am definitely, absolutely in the wrong class. This is way over my head. I ask my neighbour, a Russian girl, how much of the text she can read.

“Um…all of it…” she says, deadpan. Man, why is she so young and smart all of a sudden?
I rechecked my schedule. Bizarrely, it confirmed that this is the room I should be in for Lesson 1: Room 405. There must be a mistake. 
I struggled through the next hour, translating rapidly on my iPhone, taking pages of closely written notes, trying desperately to rewrite the characters Teacher Butterfly has scrawled on the board in a kind of Chinese running writing, where everything mashes together into a few fluid strokes. It’s hopeless, but I have learnt several new words that might come in useful one day – chái mén 柴门  ‘a woodcutter’s family’  and  jiăgŭwén甲骨文 ‘oracle bones’. If I ever write a Chinese novel about soothsayer woodcutters one day, those words are already memorised.

From what I understood of the lesson we seemed to be ranging from Han Dynasty history, through to ancient methods of divination, all the way through to differences in Chinese characters for copper and gold. I was terrified I would be asked a question, as Teacher Butterfly randomly picked names from his rollcall, but miraculously he never picked me. Everyone else in the room seemed to know exactly what was going on.

At the break, convinced of an error, I raced down four floors to the administration office to check my schedule, but there were already twenty other students waiting. More and more panicked I scanned the master schedule on the main noticeboard, all in Chinese. After 15 minutes of frantic and unsuccessful attempted translation I asked a fellow student for help. “There you go” she said. “Room 405.”

My shoulders slumped, defeated, and I walked back up four flights and took my place again in 405 for another 90 minutes of complete confusion. I realised I had completely misunderstood the supervisor on the day of the test. What she obviously said was “For your level of spoken Chinese we will put you in a class way beyond your level and see if you sink or swim. If you find it too difficult, too bad, you can’t change at the end of the week. OK?” She was getting me back for making her spill tea on her shiny skirt.

By now I was feeling desperately unhappy. Why had I chosen to sacrifice six months for nothing but hideous hard graft, when it was likely I would fail anyway? Why was I the only clueless student in a room full of Russian child geniuses? Despite my catastrophic thinking I had begun to sync with Teacher Butterfly’s rhythm, and I could now understand around half of everything he said. He talked about horses, concubines, turtles, shells, blind people (mángrén 盲人), the difference between odour and stinkiness, and the chinese word for a dog’s bark. Hugely useful vocabulary, especially the concubine stuff.

Ten minutes before the end of class I glanced across to the next desk. The Japanese student there had pulled her schedule out and it was resting casually on her books. It was completely different to mine. I looked around the room – three other timetables, all different to mine.

And then it dawned on me. I’m in the correct room. For Monday’s class. But today, dear people, is Tuesday. Yesterday was Mid-Autumn Festival, so no classes. And as it turns out, on Tuesdays I should be in Room 408 with the normal non-geniuses and regular guys. No doubt they’ve been wondering where the hell I am, a question I’ve been asking myself for the last three and a half excruciating hours.

“What class is this, actually?” I nonchalantly ask the Russian girl, as we stand to leave.

“This class? It’s Level 4.4, Highly Advanced Intensive Reading and Chinese Characters.”

“Thanks” I whisper. A wave of relief washes over my stupid, stupid head, and a phrase from the lesson comes back to me. It’s clear I was a mángrén mō xiàng 盲人摸象 – ‘a blind person feeling an elephant’ which is to say, I was unable to see the forest for the trees. Tomorrow, I’m sure, will be better…….

Please send some good vibes and words of encouragement because you know, I could sure do with some. Or a spare brain, if any of you have one handy. As I walked to the subway it suddenly struck me that there was a positive side to this debacle after all……I mean, I understood almost half of advanced Chinese 4.4…….at least the part about the woodcutters and the oracle bones. Tomorrow’s Chinese 2.0?  It’ll be a piece of cake.

  • http://www.travelnlass.com Dyanne@TravelnLass

    I feel guilty for enjoying the tale of your plight so much. Poor dear, but good for you for sticking it out in the 4.4! And yes, the good news is that the 2.0 will no doubt feel like a walk in the park.

    Good vibes and much encouragement coming at you. I'll soon likely be in the same boat – a sea of Vietnamese all around me, and I have but total of 10 words under my belt. (ah but at least Vietnamese has a western alphabet!)

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Dyanne, thanks for the good vibes! Today I've checked, and rechecked the schedule, so hopefully I'll meet all my new (correct) classmates and the teacher…..

    Good luck with Vietnamese – it actually looks really difficult, even though it does have a western alphabet – I mean, how do you pronounce a word like ngoc?

  • http://www.ephemeraanddetritus.com MaryAnne

    I hope level 2.0 won't be too dull now that you've had a taste of concubines and turtles and woodcutters and all! Bravo for sticking it out through the tough stuff!

  • http://www.unbravegirl.com Sally

    And this is why I haven't bothered to study Chinese… too much talk of concubines & wood cutters. That and I'm way too lazy. Good for you for sticking it out through the class. I probably would have slunk home at the break period.

  • http://lifeinapinkfibro.blogspot.com Life In A Pink Fibro

    I am so relieved about your happy ending. Well done for staying long enough to find out you were in the wrong place! Tomorrow will be better!

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/06272799752169958460 christa @ mental foodie

    Ha, I'd be level 0.1 for my spoken Chinese 🙂 I am not very good at reading simplified Chinese… for some reasons it is very tiring for me to read that, but I have no problem reading traditional Chinese characters. Simplified is not so simple for me… good luck tomorrow!

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    You know, I did seriously consider slinking home during the break. But then I would have to explain why I was home 2 hours early, and it would be too scary to go back. Plus I never would have learned all that really useful stuff…..

  • Anonymous

    i love a happy ending… and you (brilliantly) described a living nightmare! i often have bad dreams of being back in college in a class where i can't keep up with anything and i feel completely out of place. but hey it made for a great story!

    you'll do fine with learning the chinese characters. all you'll need for cooking, shopping and more. keep us updated!

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Oh! Those dreams! You have an exam you haven't prepared for! You've forgotten to wear your pants! The night before I started class I dreamt all my classmates were Chinese, which gave them a *slightly* unfair advantage for Chinese classes…..

  • Em

    Ha! Fab tale. Can't wait hear how 2.0 goes… fill us in. I have next-installment-excitement brewing 🙂

  • Fiona T

    Oh Fiona I felt so bad about finding this post so funny! So brave of you to tough it out and Hooray that you won't have to go through that again. Looking forward to the next installment. Missing you here …. F x x

  • North Berwick Posse

    Ah, at last you know what it's been like for the rest of us mortals all our school / uni lives.

    This describes what every physics lesson was like for me. And that was (allegedly) in English.

    Very funny though.

    Hope you remember your pencil case next time. Maybe you should have got yourself a Hello Kitty one at the Ekka.

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    I'm still working up to a pencil case because I don't want to look like a girlie swot in front of my new, more chilled classmates. Maybe I could buy a whole box of Hello Kitty pens at the Commodities Market and pass them out to everyone as a sort of class bonding exercise. What do you think?

  • http://www.dinglespeaks.com Dingle

    Hilarious! Level 4.4 sounds infinitely more blogworthy than level 2, hope you'll be back again!

    Hmm, you're the 3rd person I know doing Chinese at Jiaotong university this semester..

  • http://www.themuseoftheday.typepad.com/ The Muse of The Day

    I don't know how I arrived at your blog … but I just read your totally hilarious account of your first day at school and I am grading it at a level 4.4. What a gift you have. Thank you for transporting me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Carolina

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Thanks Carolina! So glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the high grade….possibly not deserved, because I just received a short email from my teacher in Chinese, and it took me *half an hour* to translate it.

    It basically said 'Review the text and don't forget to do your homework!'. Half an hour.

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/06536552327023867787 shaz

    You brave, brave, brave soul! You are one amazing lady you know? I have a mother fluent in four different Chinese dialects (including Mandarin), and yet I cannot speak it to save my life and as for recognising characters? I think I can just about manage 3 (the numbers 1 to 3!). In my book, you are absolutely at genius level.

  • http://astrongbeliefinwicker.blogspot.com/ Louise

    I hope you can laugh about it now! You will be able to one day. And it's a great way to make 2.0 seem like a breeze- just remember 4.4…..

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/07357356510646043072 Beau Lotus 涟

    Let me know how much time it'll take one to get to 4.4 from 2.0…I've been thinking of going to the university myself but haven't found the courage yet. Jiaotong is a bit far out for me since I live in Pudong, so I'm thinking of Shanghai Maritime. But was told that it may not have as many levels as Jiaotong.

    I can speak a few Chinese dialects and am actually fluent in Mandarin, but I have little knowledge of Chinese culture etc and certainly need to brush up my written Chinese. Hopefully I'll be inspired by brave souls like you to finally attend classes…

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/11390453342365399230 Fiona

    Beau Lotus, you're already a legend if you can speak fluent Mandarin and several dialects! In awe!
    But seriously if you want to brush up on reading and writing they have courses at Jiaotong and other universities that concentrate mainly on those skills, with very little emphasis on spoken Chinese.