Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Great Con: Chasing Chinese

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most….When we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. Marianne Williamson

Learning a foreign language, especially one as challenging as Chinese, is a tricky thing. The key trick is confidence, with a generous serving of perseverance for those times when your mind cries out in protest against reliving the early days of childhood. As an aside, there is nothing like maintaining a strict language pledge to empathize with screaming babies who, like yourself, are hamstrung in the verbal game.

China may have bestowed me with many things but topping the list has to be confidence. Despite running through a laundry list of doubts each time I stumble over an old grammar pattern, the confidence I have in China is so pervasive that it colors the dull grays and reds that otherwise dominate the Chinese palette. My travels in Western China—dancing in Qinghai, getting “arrested” in Tibet, motorcycling to distant villages in Yunnan, volunteering in Sichuan— are when the seed was first planted. But it is the warm reception I have had from regulars folks throughout my western travels and back on the Eastern seaboard that makes finding my way in (what was and in many ways still is) an alien culture such a confidence boosting (and endlessly enthralling) experience. By warm reception, mind you, I don’t mean Israel’s unparalleled hospitality. We are talking China, so we are talking a huge range of reactions, from staring at my watermelon, asking for a photo together, taking my passable accent as suggesting my Chinese is far better than reality suggests, and more than anything, displaying a depth of positive energy and intrepid kindness that gets overlooked in panoramic discussions of China’s billions.

Which brings me to what may or may not be the first and last comment on the strictly academic component of my summer. Classes start in earnest tomorrow (June 16) and I have been placed in the highest level. It is not so much a comment on my Chinese mastery as a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of my classmates have only studied the language for one or two years. Having completed the second tier course now being offered in my previous stint in Beijing in January, and with not enough advanced students this summer to have multiple higher level classes, my “honor” at making it to the top of the hill is simply a technicality.

Technicalities aside, placing near the top of my program marks a dramatic change of pace for someone who has grown well used to struggling fruitlessly near the bottom of every language class I have been in since biblical Hebrew lessons in first grade. At every step of my Chinese studying career I have struggled with the reality that despite committing twice the amount of time into my studies as most students, my progress in the language has been stilted at best. Now I am viewed by teachers and classmates alike as someone with the sort of Chinese skills others aspire towards. Even while recognizing the untold distance I am from any real degree of fluency, there is something to having much expected of oneself that, confidence-wise, promises to benefit my progress this summer in and of itself.

1 comment:

  1. Sammy, you are such an anav. Way to rock Chinese, dude!

    I hope you have some kind of vocab quiz to stick on your fridge when you get home.