|Many teachers do not realize the impact they have on their students’
lives as teaching, especially in the case of the United States,
is a profession too often looked down upon and underappreciated.
I would imagine that Professor Peter Lorge, whose intro to Chinese
history course I took my freshman year at Brown, has no idea just
how much he change the course of my life by simply teaching. Whenever
someone asks me, “Why did you want to learn Chinese?” (a question
I probably get more than most people) I easily reply, “I took a
really great class on Chinese history freshman year and so I decided
to learn the language.”
That in fact is the reason why I am in
Beijing and the beginning of my journey that took me down a path
only two years ago, I would have never even conceived. Perhaps
if I had taken an influential German history course or a class
on Russian culture, things would have been different. I could
be in a different part of the world right now with a completely
different world view. Yet it was vast history and rich culture
of the Middle Kingdom that first sparked my interest and so I
took on the seemingly daunting task of learning Chinese.
My sophomore year I signed up for a two-semester, full year course
of Beginner’s Mandarin and whenever the usual “What classes are
you taking this semester?” inquiry would arise, I was often met
with one of either two responses when I added the inevitable,
“…oh yeah, and Chinese.” One was admiration, taking a language
like Chinese was considered exotic and brave, as if I’d just told
them I was going to explore uninhabited regions of the Earth.
But in some ways, it was like that, at least more me. Unlike the
other foreign languages I had taken before, Chinese would be the
most “foreign” to me, especially as I am a Nigerian and the ties
between Africa and China are few and far between. Which brings
me to the second reaction—confusion.
That was something that was often asked after I told people that
I was studying Chinese.
“Why not?”, I would reply.
“I heard it’s really hard.”
Hmm, that is a good point, I would think to myself.
In the 1950s, pinyin, the Romanization system used for Chinese
characters, was introduced to someday replace hanzi, the ideographical
system of reading and writing Chinese. Pinyin is easier, true,
but it’s not Chinese. Characters and the idea of having to learn
a completely different form of writing and spelling was by far
the most daunting task in my mind when I first started learning
Chinese (little did I know that it would be tones that would soon
become the bane of my existence). I had never encountered a language
that did not use the Roman alphabet, even my native tongue of
Igbo, a sub-Saharan Nilotic language used some form of Romanized
letters and symbols. It is a known fact that you must be able
to recognize at least 5,000 characters to read the newspaper.
After our second week of Chinese, we had just managed to master
how to both write and say “Ni hao”. The idea of some day being
able to speak the language was at that point impossible.
The Chinese language department at Brown has some of the best
Chinese teachers in America from the mainland. Their specialty
is to doggedly harass and grind their students into robotic 4-tonal
automatons. Rote memorization is the basis for learning Chinese
and after having experienced similar teaching styles in Nigeria,
I soon learned I had a knack for the language. This didn’t stop
Hu Laoshi from making me pronounce the word for “to go” (qu4)
repeatedly for minutes in front of the whole class until I said
it perfectly. (Qu will always be the thorn in my side and until
this day, I can never say it right on the first try.) Degradation
and persistence seemed to be an effective combination for learning
Chinese and by the time I came to China to study, I could hold
conversations with regular “non-foreignized” Chinese people about
anything from American movie stars to the works of Lu Xun. Learning
Chinese in China for 8 months did more for me than the two years
I took it at Brown. Whereas Brown taught me how to speak Chinese,
China taught me how to prattle off in Chinese and argue about
prices and my cell phone warranty. I don’t feel comfortable with
a language until I can fight using it.