Tuesday, May 23, 2006

China Stories Pt. 1: The College Years

So as I mentioned, I studied Chinese and lived in China. I have never really written about it, so I thought I would throw a few things down here about my China experiences.

I began studying Chinese at Middlebury College in the fall of 1986. It was just about the time of the tenth anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong (or if you prefer, Mao Tse-tung; same guy). Despite having been asked a lot, I am not entirely sure why I started studying Chinese. I think it was because it was exotic. I had been reading books about Buddhism and Chinese history, and it was so profoundly foreign, I thought it was cool. Plus, it seemed like a cool thing to be studying. I think I thought the ladies would find that interesting. (They did not.)

First-year Chinese is a pretty intense experience, and Middlebury is among the best places to study it. It takes a lot of work-- the Professor asked some people to drop it. I was proud of the fact that I was doing it, and I knew I would feel a great sense of accomplishment when I got through it.

If I remember correctly, at the beginning of the year, they told us that by the end of the year we would know something like 1,200 or 1,500 characters, and we would read this book which did NOT look like "See Spot Run" in Chinese.

In Chinese, words are represented by characters or combinations of characters, which are pictograms. There is no alphabet, there is no way to look at a character and phonetically know how to pronounce it (until you know a lot of other characters, and then you have some clues). The grammar is different. And there are tones.

In Mandarin Chinese, which is the most widely spoken and the one most commonly taught as a foreign language, there are four tones: high, rising, falling and low. The inflection completely changes the word. It's as different as saying "cup" and "cap."

I've never worked so hard, before or since. Through the darkest coldest winter I ever experienced, I spent long hours repeatedly writing out these complicated little characters, and repeating the sounds with the proper tones. I spent night after night visiting the language lab, getting to know the staff there, plus the Russian students. There was a mutual admiration between the Chinese and Russian language students, since we collectively looked down upon the students of French, Spanish and German-- the "short bus" foreign languages.*

I was aided enormously in the task of learning Chinese by the absence of any social life to speak of. Not having anywhere else to go or anything better to do was a real leg-up. I left Middlebury after my first year to go to the University of Pennsylvania.

I studied Chinese at Penn for another year and a half, and then I applied to spend a semester in China. I debated whether to go to Nanjing or Beijing. Nanjing was good - a little smaller, more temperate city. Maybe a better program. But Beijing was where things happened - the seat of government, the center of power. A big city. I opted for Beijing.

I left for Beijing in January of 1989.


*Speakers of said languages, please don't take offense, I kid. I remember how hard Spanish was - from high school. Again, kidding! As I like to point out, how hard can Chinese really be? There's 200 million kids under ten that can speak it just fine.

14 Comments:

At 1:52 PM, Blogger k said...

I think I thought the ladies would find that interesting. (They did not.)

But don't they NOW?

 
At 1:11 AM, Blogger leomange said...

i think if i were a lady i'd find that interesting... but i guess that's one of the many things (not the least of which, the genitalia) that distinguishes me from the ladies...

and holy crap! did you say january of 1989??? tell me more (please!).

 
At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Kirin said...

Finally* a great post..keep it coming.


*refers to the frequency of your posts, not quality.

 
At 5:44 PM, Blogger Kyahgirl said...

so glad that some unnamed person managed to convince you to post this! very interesting

 
At 5:48 PM, Blogger 'nilla said...

hmm the comedian gets to a serious topic. this should be good! can't wait to see the rest.

 
At 11:19 PM, Anonymous MakeOut Kate said...

you know where i left for in january of 1989?

third grade.

 
At 8:09 AM, Blogger Christine said...

It totally would have worked on my friends Amy and Kesh, but they were linguists...

Me, I just rode the Italian "short bus" to a major. It was pretty easy, thank you very much.

Although I CAN call you "fat-ass" in Russian, and tell you my name and "I have a dog"...actually I don't.

 
At 12:00 PM, Blogger Shananigans said...

I have a great admiration of people studying languages radically different from their own, it’s hard! Chinese, I can’t even imagine. I thought Finnish was difficult. My professor used the phrase “…but that’s metaphysics” frequently when explaining things like accusative and partitive object cases. Thanks for sharing, look forward to more. :)

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger evicious said...

Hi there, I know you don't know me and I don't know you but I ran into your blog via Kristie, who also doesn't know me and I don't know her except she had one awesome post about firemen and butt workouts, both of which I can appreciate so I've been reading her blog here and there. Anyways. Did you say Jan. 1989, Beijing? Were you in Beijing in June, 1989? June 4, specifically? I would love to know what that was like...

 
At 8:28 AM, Blogger Misha said...

I'm a Chinese linguist, too! But I learned it thru a far different route - the U.S. Air Force. I'm sure you met some of us military pukes while at Middlebury. I traveled to Japan and Korea, but never made it to China, ironically. I know alot of people that were there when Tienanmen went down.

I bet we could trade some stories...

 
At 9:41 AM, Blogger Green said...

I just found your blog from Kristy at SheWalks...

Consider yourself added to my daily reading!

 
At 10:52 PM, Blogger pdxWoman said...

well, i can see where this is going. i was in hong king, macau and just across the s. china border in june that year. it was overwhelming that far away from beijing, so i can only imagine the rest of your story...

 
At 11:47 AM, Blogger slopmaster said...

Makes my little trip to LA feel pretty insignificant. My friend is getting married to a chinese girl and he's learning some, but at one point you hit a wall that you can't climb over without actual lessons.

 
At 12:47 PM, Blogger D.A. said...

As a student of "Chinese" for several years, I would have to say that studying Chinese can be quite comedic.When you first start out and you have no idea how the tones work, and it sounds like you are singing instead of speaking. Any comedic thoughts on China's recent Dog Killing Spree?.

 

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