Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Trying hard to fit in

on June 8, 2014

The Chinese are not shy about being direct. No such thing as political correctness. I knew my Chinese language was poor, but that fact was constantly driven in almost on a daily basis by all kinds of well-meaning people.

In the registration office, a clerk asked us to fill forms. Name, Mai Tai-Chi. “Mai? (買)” asked the clerk. “Are you sure you didn’t forget a horizontal stroke? You do mean Jia (賈), right?” I was a bit taken aback. I mean, I do know how to spell my own name. “No, no, it’s Mai.” The clerk shook his head. “Are you sure there is such a last name as Mai?…”

The Chinese character Mai = to buy, is a very rare Chinese surname.

The Chinese character Mai = to buy, is a very rare Chinese surname.

 

The Chinese character "Jia" is a much more common surname.

The Chinese character “Jia” is a much more common surname.

Address. Chinese addresses are nothing as simple as American ones. You start with the province, then the department, then the city, then the closest main road, then the side street, then the smaller street off it, then the alley off that one, then finally the house door number. Hmmm, alley, how do I spell alley (xiang)? Oops, I had said that out loud. The clerk said, “The word xiang (巷) is just like the word gang (港) as in Xiang Gang (Hong Kong = 香港), minus the prefix for water.” I looked at him, “Well, how then do you write gang?” He stared back, “Ah, my goodness, if you can’t even spell gang, how do you expect to be able to study in Third Year Middle School?” So much for the vote of confidence.

Someone then walked us to class, Saadia and me. The schools in Taiwan, the country with the highest population concentration in the world,  were in a totally different league than even the CES Noyer-Durant. There were 27 classes of Third Years, and each class had between 55 and 60 students. This particular class had only 55 students, (plus the two of us, that made it 57) and was ranked a B class. After First Year, students were streamed into classes with other students of similar achievement levels. Eight of these classes were ranked A, meaning their students were all expected to make it to high school and college. The B classes had to work hard, and maybe some of the students there might make it to either academic or vocational high school. The remaining classes were ranked C, and were also nicknamed the “fang niu ban” or “roaming cow classes”. Meaning that the teachers allowed the students to graze at will in the wild pastures, hoping to keep them out of trouble.

A class C primarily does not expect its students to study beyond Middle School level.

A class C primarily does not expect its students to study beyond Middle School level.

Carrying our book supplies, we were ushered into the classroom in the middle of class, interrupting them. Great beginning. The grand entrance. The teacher introduced us as the new “qiao sheng” (Chinese students from overseas) from France, further confirming our status as being different. Ah, and I so wanted to melt in the crowd.

I was assigned a seat where a vacant one was available. Good. I tried to listen to the lesson. Oh, this was a Chinese literature class, my luck. The teacher wrote notes on the blackboard. Everyone started copying them down in their textbook. Their textbook? It was allowed to write in the textbook? Oh, was that why they were made of cheap paper? Disposable textbooks? All right, let’s copy them. Hm, what is that? How come I can’t read this? Oh, I see, just like our tutor in the beginning, she was writing in “cao xie”, or “grass style (hand-written draft)” characters. We had been learning to copy characters exactly the way they appeared in books, meaning in  “print” (kai) characters. When writing by hand, people generally would slur the strokes, for instance, four dots in a horizontal row might become a horizontal line, while two oblique arms on either side of a vertical stroke might become a blurry convex arc. I stared at those unrecognizable squiggles on the board and my hand stayed frozen in mid-air. How was I to copy these?

The character "long" =dragon in formal print style

The character “long” =dragon in formal print style

The character "long" = dragon in "cao" = grass/draft style

The character “long” = dragon in “cao” = grass/draft style

My neighbor on the right looked at me and took pity. “Here,” she whispered, “I’ll copy them for you.” And copy them she did, in “hand-written” characters, just like the teacher. Now I had the notes, but I still couldn’t read them. Well, Chinese literature promised to be fun.

At the end of class, the teacher gave out her assignment. Hm, I wondered, where do we note the assignment down? I looked around me. No one was writing anything down. In France, we all had a school planner with tabs labeled with the days of the week. We used to write our “lecons” (reading or memorizing work) and devoirs (written work)  in there. I could not bear not to write it down. So I pulled out a blank notebook I had brought with me. Embarrassed to do something no one else was doing, I placed the notebook on my lap and started writing the assignment down, in French,  since I did not know enough Chinese to do so in Chinese. No sooner did I do so than I heard from    behind me, a voice in an intentionally loud whisper sneer, “Oh, she’s trying to show off that she knows English!”

A "cahier de textes" is a school planner where students write down their assignments on the due date. It is a ubiquitous part of the French student's school bag yet completely absent from that of the Chinese students.

A “cahier de textes” is a school planner where students write down their assignments on the due date. It is a ubiquitous part of the French student’s school bag yet completely absent from that of the Chinese students.

My heart sank. What a great start. Again, I was the outsider, the one who was different, and now I was a show-off again although that could not have been further from the truth. This time, it was not a matter of catching up with the spoken language, since I was passably fluent in it. It was going to be an impossible uphill battle with the written language.

I did learn one thing that day: all Chinese students have a tremendous memory and can remember all their assignments by heart.


One Response to “Trying hard to fit in”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    Oh yes, I remember that first day in 9th grade Chinese school. How bewildering and overwhelming… You are describing it very well. And the anxiety of starting over in a new and strange environment once again.

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