Major: Geography and Asian Studies
Hometown: Ottawa, Canada
Study Abroad Program: CET Beijing Summer
In addition to memorizing thousands of characters and perfecting your tones so that they ring out like birdsong, if you aim to speak Chinese fluently you also need to master (at least some of) the thousands of four-character idioms that enrich the language. My first idiom of the summer at CET Beijing’s language intensive program was “‘½Å½q‘½•Ÿ”, which roughly translates as the more children, the more good fortune. As I wrote the phrase out on a fresh deck of flashcards, I wondered if I’d ever find an appropriate social occasion to use it. Later that day, I tried the idiom on a few friends. How was your lunch? I asked. And by the way, does having more children bring greater fortune? It was a non-starter. Thirty years after the introduction of the One Child Policy, the idiom – and the rural society from which it emerged – is a world away from modern Beijing. Few, if any, of my Chinese university friends have siblings. At the end of the day, I stuck the flashcard at the back of the deck, suspecting I would likely never use it again.
The rhythm of my eight weeks in Beijing was set to the academic beat of quizzes, tests, exams and presentations. On weekdays, I was up every morning at six a.m, filling my tea mug with fresh oolong leaves and hot water, and then ambling over to the campus reading room for an hour or two of undisturbed study before class. Characters came slowly at first, and I experimented with different strategies to make the daily blast of new information stick. Within a few weeks, piles of ink-depleted pens were scattered across my desk. I’d written more characters in those short weeks than I had in the past few college semesters combined. But the work didn’t always pay off – I’d spend the day buried in books only to have my quiz returned bathed in red ink. In the evenings, I worked late into the night, closing my books at one or two a.m. only to return a few hours later to prepare for morning class. Some weeks I lost track of time, walking through the dormitory halls, Beijing’s hazy, ambiguous, morning light streaming through the windows, unsure if it was dusk or dawn. But as the weeks whittled away, patterns emerged, the words came more quickly and I developed an eye for finer details – the end of a stroke, the composition of a character.
The team of talented Chinese language instructors who coached, teased and challenged us is what gave me the drive to learn. The morning was filled with four hours of grammar and vocabulary drills, and in the afternoon I sat down to thirty minutes of one-on-one conversation with an instructor. Li laoshi,* a young teacher who specializes in tonal pronunciation, soon became my favorite. Tall and athletic, she walked into the classroom every morning with a smile so infectious that it was hard to believe that it wasn’t her birthday. The daughter of a university professor, she completed an undergraduate degree in physics before deciding that she’d rather make a career of teaching. She was quickly admitted to the top teacher’s college in the country and went into English instruction. No matter the lesson topic, Li laoshi brought excitement and controversy to every lecture. When I first sat down to work with her, my tones were a mess. My highs were lows and my lows were not low enough. She drew graphs all over the blackboard, revolutionizing the way I saw and heard the language. And then she made me sing. The result was astonishing – by pushing me to exaggerate the tones, and repeat the most difficult sequences, I finally felt the true cadence of the language. Li loashi is a gifted educator, but beyond that, I admired the faith she had that my tone-deaf version of the language could be transformed into something better, and that nothing was predetermined, that if I worked hard enough, I’d get there.
The weeks rolled on. Our lessons covered an array of cultural topics - the art of Beijing Opera, dynastic history, Confucius, market reform and environmental conservation. Between lessons, I wandered the city, matching up what I’d read about modern Beijing with the sights and smells around me. Many of the descriptions rang true: the dust of creative destruction that lay upon the city, the demolished courtyard houses replaced with shiny condos, family restaurants pushed out to make room for chain stores. All of it was filtered through a haze of gray particulate suspended between sky and city, and surrounded by the crowds that elbow through train station queues and the tunnels of subway hubs. I was awed by the towering temples of economic growth that loomed a hundred stories above street level. And, just as every traveler before me has felt, I was astonished by the overwhelming scale of Beijing. When the complexity and electricity of the city made me dizzy, I retreated into the quiet friendships I’d made with local Beijingers.
On the last day of the course Li laoshi came into the classroom with a smile more radiant than ever. We raced through the lesson plan and finished with time to spare. Later, over lunch, she told us her happy news. She and her husband were expecting a baby. We all wished her congratulations and I searched for the right word. What could one possible say on such an occasion? And then it hit me: “‘½Å½q‘½•Ÿ”. I expressed my congratulations and with a smile to match Li Laoshi’s I said, you know what they say? The more children, the more good fortune.
*Name has been changed.