A Humbling Education

  • Share
  • Read Later
About a month after I turned 21, I experienced a second infancy. I had enrolled for the summer at Middlebury College's Chinese School in the U.S. state of Vermont and signed a pledge that for nine weeks, on penalty of expulsion, I would not speak, listen, read or write in English, my native tongue. I couldn't speak a word of Chinese. When my teacher gave me a card with my new Chinese name, Zhai Shuzhen, I couldn't pronounce it. I didn't even know how to say hello.My fellow students—other college kids, an Australian banker, a French diplomat, and two FBI agents preparing for an assignment tracking Chinese triads in California—were just as pitiful. Since we couldn't introduce ourselves, we befriended one another through mimed expressions of pathos and solidarity. It mattered little that we couldn't relate the details of our lives outside the language school. No one could have much of an identity while babbling along with the drills on a tape labeled Sounds and Tones of Mandarin Chinese.Soon enough, though, we moved from bleating ba, da, fa, ma, to actual speech. By the second week we had all mastered the question, Ni jia zai nar? (Where is your home?) Answering with any precision was another story. Our geographic vocabulary was limited to a book of dialogues written by the Chinese School's director, a professor at the University of Utah. At lunch, while advanced students conversed about adult subjects like sports and movies, we were proud if we could reply: My home is not in Salt Lake City.Western students of Mandarin, particularly older ones, often complain of the drudgery involved in learning a language so foreign. But that summer, the piles of flash cards and hours of grammar exercises ultimately weren't as important as the sense of play Mandarin forced us to develop. We couldn't take ourselves seriously and so eventually, we stopped trying. We acquiesced to the bodily tics that make new students of tones into involuntary interpretive dancers, waving our arms up and down in patterns our voices couldn't yet produce. We repeated the same simple phrases over and over. In class, where teachers occasionally granted us a short reprieve from our language pledge, we invented inane stories to help us remember the shape of characters. The word yao (to want), which contains the character for woman underneath a shape that looks like a hat, became, in the imagination of a Canadian classmate, a girl wearing a lampshade on her head because she wanted to party. We were all class clowns.About halfway through the course, while driving back to the institute after a hike, I was pulled over for speeding. Back in the school parking lot I ran into Teacher Li, a fearsome woman from Taiwan who carried a stick she used to smack the desks of students whose wrong tones made them say kiss when they meant ask. Why, she now demanded, did I look so sad. I was driving. Driving fast, I blurted out, surprised I'd actually used an adverb, and a man wearing blue clothes gave me a small piece of paper. Humph, she nodded, Was his name Brian? Teacher Li, it transpired, also drove fast. That day, I learned the Chinese words for radar, big fine and damned Vermont fuzz, with proper tones, of course.The following year, I moved to China to continue my studies. As was the case for many of my classmates, even as my language ability improved, my Chinese persona remained more youthful than the person I was in English. Little Zhai, as my teachers in Harbin called me, didn't worry about getting all the words right. She made dumb jokes and wasn't shy or easily embarrassed. The more boldly I stammered through basic conversations, the more people seemed to attach themselves to me as unofficial teachers. In Beijing, a woman once invited me home for dumplings when I said excuse me after bumping into her on a crowded subway. A Harbin cop took me driving in his new Mercedes, and a couple I met in line at a bank included me in their family bowling nights. Each invitation was an opportunity to make mistakes and collect new words: home cooking, special privilege, gutter ball.I now speak Chinese, in life and in work, on a daily basis. The experience continues to be humbling. A recent reporting trip brought me back to Harbin and I wandered into the dorm where I had lived eight years ago. On the third-floor landing I met the woman in charge of delivering hot water thermoses during my days as a student. Your Chinese has improved, she said after we'd caught up. I smiled to myself as I started to walk away. But you can keep studying, she called after me, After all, Zhai Shuzhen, you're still very young.