Thanks one and all for your comments, emails with suggestions on how to tackle Chinese characters, and general all-round supportiveness. You’ll be relieved to know that the rest of this week’s Chinese classes were not, on the whole, a fully-fledged disaster!
Teacher Zhao speaks only in Chinese, peppering it with the occasional English word we may not otherwise understand (‘preposition’, for example). By applying just a normal amount of concentration and brainpower to the lessons, I can understand all that is said, answer questions, and even occasionally drift off into a daydream and come back to the right point in the lesson without too much trouble.
My class is like a miniature United Nations – a Swede, a Dane, an Austrian, a Columbian, a couple of Germans, an American, an Englishman, an Indonesian and an Australian – only twelve of us in all, which seems a perfect number for very relaxed learning. Even better, we are all at exactly the same level of speaking and listening skills, and after our first dialogue practice yesterday Teacher Zhao called us ‘all very excellent students’. From a Chinese teacher, (to whom praise does not come easily) that’s like awarding all of us the ‘student of the year’ prize. I don’t expect she’ll say it again this year….
Reading is taken by the diminutive Teacher Wang, who looks like a tiny bird, her hair pulled back in a bun and her tiny frame swamped by long black pantaloons and a Hello Kitty t-shirt enlivened with purple sparkles. She flits around the classroom and alights at a desk to ask a question, then flies off to the blackboard, where long, long ribbons of Chinese characters appear from the point of her pen. I like her very much.
Chinese Characters is the final lesson for the week, and today we met Teacher Zhou for the first time. Luckily for me, character lessons only occur twice a week, because that’s all my brain can cope with. I learnt the names of all the strokes today, the simple strokes, and the composite strokes, and the order in which they’re written, then we practiced three characters. I approach writing a new character like copying a circuit diagram, that is, I have no idea what goes where or in what order, and the end result may be benign or lethal, depending on where I’ve misplaced a dot or a dash. This class will be the most difficult by far for me, and I haven’t yet warmed to Teacher Zhou, who is very young but has seemingly already developed a completely hands-off approach to learning.
But you know what? I’m looking forward to next week. Better go out and buy a pencil case and some sharp pencils.
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.
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…….