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 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 least the part about the woodcutters and the oracle bones. Tomorrow's Chinese 2.0?  It'll be a piece of cake.

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