Thursday, July 12, 2007
which was something like an American undergraduate liberal arts program except that there were no classes in mathematics or any of the physical sciences.
Of course, the emphasis was on foreign languages – and there were about 400 students in my English department, (100 in each of the four graduating classes), while there were other, usually much smaller, departments for German, French, Cambodian etc.
But we also took classes in history and political science, writing, and physical training. and these classes were all taught in Chinese – so it really wasn’t an intense foreign language emersion.
There was only one native English speaker in the entire English department, a humorous, overweight fellow who presumably could not find better employment anywhere else (his salary and living conditions were not spectacular – and neither did he seem interested enough in Chinese civilization to learn the language - but he did end up marrying a Chinese girl and moving to Hong Kong)
Every morning we got up at 6:00 AM, and after washing up, everyone tried to find a spot outside to read aloud in English. We were told this was the only way we could master English pronunciation . So everywhere you looked, you would see students reciting – and it sounded like monks reading scripture in a monastery.
I wish I could say that my experience at this school, after all of my previous mishaps, had been a happy one – but this was not the case -- for once again, I just had a hard time fitting in.
To begin with, I had gotten a head start on the other students by following English lessons on the radio broadcasts for several years, so I started out at the head of my class, making me an object of jealousy.
This being a communist university, the idea was that students were supposed to learn as a class, not as individuals, so it was the job of the best students to help the worst., and I’m afraid that I did not appreciate being teamed up with a student who couldn’t speak any English at all.
Having spent so much time as a farm laborer and then as a low-level nurse, I wanted nothing other than to excel in English and begin a real career -- but this eagerness just made me enemies and the topic of malicious rumors.
Then, during our evening meetings, students would stand up and accuse me not helping others. At first, I could not understand why only I had been targeted, but soon one of the male students told me that they had talking about me all along, and that was why he could not study with me.
(I had wanted to study with him because he was a top student – not because I had romantic feelings about him or anyone else)
And then to compound the problem, the entire country was moving into another tumultuous period with the decline of the old guard, culminating in 1976, with the death of Zhao En-Lai in January, the horrific Tangshan earthquake in July, and finally the death of Mao in September.
There was much unrest concerning what would happen next – and our school was assigned to publicly denounce Deng Xiaoping on a daily basis.
(Note: regarding the Tanghan earthquake, perhaps readers in the West are not aware of just what a enormous catastrophe this was. Over a quarter of a million people died in Tangan, and since it wasn’t that far from Beijing, we felt the tremors ourselves. I remember how the doorway to our classroom began to weave back and forth, as we waited for it to quiet down so we could all run out of the building. Then, we spent the next three months living and studying in covered trenches dug into the earth near our buildings which we were afraid to enter)
Very little serious studying was done in that year – and much of our time was spent in political meetings and demonstrations in Tiananmen square.
Meanwhile, I had very little incentive to remain at the top of my class – it only got me into trouble – and I had already been criticized many times for being too self centered. So for better or worse – my grades began to decline, I became a mediocre student, and I did not care any more.
Being a bad student wasn’t all that serious – since almost nobody got thrown out school for test scores. But I do remember an attractive young woman being dismissed when she became pregnant (and her boyfriend was thrown out as well)
Still, it did sting when a special class was assembled of the best students, and I did not make the cut.
Fortunately, the rumors of my romantic entanglements were just that – rumors . Even though I had already broken up with my boyfriend from the farm, I had no interest in anyone else. There was one boy, from an older class, who was interested in me, and he asked an intermediary to arrange a date for us before he graduated. He was a smart, attractive young man whom I had noticed when he was playing action roles on a local stage. I would have loved to know him, but I politely refused his date. ( Believe it or not, but a year later, after my graduation, on the first day of my new job, I sat down at my desk and noticed a young man sitting across the room – and it was him. I didn’t know what to say so I pretended not to recognize him – for by then I had already begun dating someone else)
The Language Institute was a boarding school (like every other school I’ve ever attended) so I slept in a dormitory room with 6 or 7 other young women, and then went home to visit my parents on weekends, just like I’d been doing almost since I was born. During these years, my younger sister was the only sibling who was still living with them – but eventually, my older siblings were allowed to return fom the countryside and stay with my parents again, even my oldest brother who had spent 10 years living in a cave. He finally got back to Beijing in 1978, and then he then spent several years living in my parents’ apartment.
(perhaps this is a good place to talk about some unusual details of residential property ownership in the People’s Republic. Officials were assigned a certain square-footage of apartment space based on their official rank. My father qualified for enough space for two apartments – and that’s what he got before he was arrested. After my mother returned from the countryside, she was given a single apartment, then in the mid 80’s the family got a second apartment, but it still fell short of the square-footage to which we were entitled. Then, five years after my father’s death, the government paid my mother a lump sum of cash to make up the difference. So, in a way, the family now owns two apartments, but there's a 70-year limit regarding everyone’s property, and sometime around 2050 there are going to be a whole lot of people who lose ownership of their homes)
Meanwhile, my father had resumed his career, not at the Friendship hotel any more, but with a similar, high level job with the Beijing Foreign Language Institute (which, as already told, helped me get into language school)
When it came time for me to graduate, I was assigned a position as language teacher in Beijing People’s University, but I refused to go !
I had never wanted to be a teacher. In the distant past, teachers had been highly respected, but during the Culture Revolution, I had seen them get treated very badly.
In the final year of study, all students had done a residency at one of the various jobs for which graduates would be qualified, and I had done my residency at the foreign tourist bureau. Tour guides got to travel all over the country – they got to talk directly to foreigners – and so they also got a lot of extra experience in perfecting their language skills – and that was what I wanted to do. So I went to my father, and he helped me to get the assignment that I wanted.
I suppose that some readers may see me as a spoiled little girl who will never do what’s she's told (beginning with the time when I walked away from elementary school) and who relies on the indulgence and prestige of her parents to get what she wants.
But I’ve always just wanted to excel and enjoy doing whatever I can do best.
Who doesn’t ?