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.