Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Learning German

on June 8, 2015

Goethe Institut, AmmanHomework was again at a minimum, and allowed much time for other endeavors. It was that year that I began to produce poetry in large quantities, and decided to learn German at the Goethe Institute.

I was still harboring a feeling of inferiority because my classmates in Paris were now taking a second modern foreign language, namely German, as well as a classical dead language, namely Latin, while I wasn’t. I knew that the UK had a cultural center called the British Council, and France had the Centre Culturel Francais, but now I discovered that Germany had a Goethe Institut! As expected, they offered German language classes, so I asked Papa for the permission and tuition fees.

There is one expense Papa always agreed to. And that was anything toward education. We never spent much on food: Mama always cooked and Papa loved home-made meals best. Neither did we spend much on clothes: Mama made all our clothes. However, education was a different matter. Papa drummed it into our heads: education is the best investment there is. “I won’t leave you anything when I die,” Papa had told us since our tender childhood. “You can be robbed of anything except the knowledge in your head. Therefore the best investment is in your education.” And indeed, when it had been needed, they had even sent Saadia and me to Paris for that purpose!

So he agreed immediately. I signed up for the Beginner’s class, although I had studied quite a lot on my own already. I figured that I must have been a bad teacher to myself, so I might as well start afresh. Our teacher was a good-looking statuesque German woman who put me immediately at ease. My classmates were all adults who were there in preparation for work in Germany, or for other business purposes. I must say that although many things can be self-taught, nothing beats a live teacher for foreign language. At least you know how to model your accent and intonation. So I happily drilled my verbal greetings, followed by questions and answers about where I came from and where I was going (assuming one was in an airport). Then we started working on questions about how many languages we spoke. The teacher asked each one of us in turn, “How many languages do you speak?” The man on my right answered, “Drei! (Three!)”  The teacher was surprised and asked which three languages he meant.  “Arabic, English and German!” replied the polyglot proudly.guten tag

I nearly choked. Here he was, in German 101, barely able to answer correctly very basic drills, and he claimed to speak the language! I knew way more, having covered half a book of German grammar, and yet I dared not tell anyone I knew any German! Ah, the difference between Middle Eastern braggadocio and Chinese modesty! We had been raised to despise bragging. If anyone praised us for our school work or good manners, or anything else, my parents would immediately deny it, “Oh, no, not at all! She got lucky, that’s all!  Your daughter, on the other hand, is so smart!” Whereupon, the other mom would also put down her own daughter. The way to brag was to put down your child for something unimportant but throw in a fact about something you wanted to show off: “Ah, I really don’t know what to do with my daughter! She doesn’t even know how to cook! All she does is study or read books and bring good grades… tsk, tsk, tsk! What to do with such a daughter!”

But to go back to the Goethe Institut… I really was now in seventh heaven, and would proudly carry my blue hardcover textbook two or three times a week onto a “service” car on my way to the institute. In Jordan, at least in those days, there weren’t many bus lines, but there were instead “service” lines. They were really just taxis that ran along specific routes and stop anywhere along it. They could seat two passengers on the front seat (bench) and three on the back one. At home, I’d diligently write all homework neatly in a copybook and practice my oral drills out loud.

Next thing I knew, Saadia found a Russian Cultural Center, located also quite close on Jabal Amman. She asked Papa for the permission and the tuition for Russian language classes. How exciting!  Russian! I had always been curious about Russian, from the day we learned to sing Moscow Nights back at the Ecole St Sebastien. In my attempt to read Anna Karenina in Chinese, I had enjoyed reading the Russian names that covered entire lines once they had been split into Chinese characters. I jumped up. “Me too, I want to learn Russian too!” But Saadia immediately put a stop to it. “No, you learn your German and I learn my Russian. You may not learn Russian too!” Papa agreed with her, as he always did. So, I did not get to attend Russian classes, but I would secretly flip through Saadia’s Russian textbook, and call her “maya sestra”, answer “spasiba” when appropriate, and accompany her to the movies at the Russian Center. I thought Papa just always favored Saadia. But now, come to think of it, it was possibly that paying for yet one more class might have been weighing too much on his budget.

russian alphabet

I was growing up but still considered myself a child, Chinese-style. You are not an adult until you marry. Mama did not believe in talking to us about adult matters. She did not even discuss what dishes she planned to cook, let alone our family’s monthly budget. Papa would discuss any topic with us, from literature to politics, and from science to geography, but he never discussed home finances. Therefore, I knew our family budget was very tight, but just how tight, I wasn’t sure. Aunt Lily, back in Paris, in our daily conversations, had expressed very clearly her opinion and the facts of the life of a diplomat from Taiwan, “Penniless Diplomats, that’s what we are, penniless diplomats, slapping our faces swollen to appear fat!” (Translation: if you are wealthy, you can afford to eat well, and therefore to get fat. If you are poor, you cannot be fat. So you can slap your own cheeks until they swell up and then go out and pretend it’s obesity from too much rich food.) Then she would go on describing the ceiling-to-floor golden curtains at the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence, while she had to entertain at restaurants, because our apartment just would not show well.

Another result of the segregation of generations is that we generally classified anyone we met into child (our generation) or adult (older generation). One did not cross that gaping canyon between the two generations. So when one day, one of my classmates in the German class offered me a ride home, I thought that was such a kind gesture from that elderly “uncle”. Thinking back, that guy must have been in his thirties. But to me, a 15-year-old with the Chinese age-old distinction of generations, since he had a bulging abdomen and a balding skull, he belonged to the Uncles group, and only meant to spare me the trouble of walking, catching a “service” car, and paying the fare. I learned very fast that Jordanians did not see the world in the same light I did. The “uncle” proceeded to tell me that he had learned some Chinese words. And, with an inane grin, he went on to say some garbled sounds. “What?” I did not understand it. “oh, eye-nee…” repeated he, of the foolish grin. “Sorry, I am not getting it,” I kept saying, until suddenly, after his tenth or twelfth attempt, I realized he was trying to say, “wo ai ni,” or I love you. By then, he was red to the ears. I, on the other hand, was totally furious for being such a fool and having subjected myself to such an idiotic situation. When we reached the water tower circle, I got off, thank him drily and nearly slammed the door in anger. I swore never to take a ride again with any “uncle” from my class.

2 Responses to “Learning German”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    I agree that Fawzia and I were inspired by the French educational model where students learn one or more foreign languages in high school. I don’t remember the exact details of how the two of us ended up studying German and Russian during our stay in Amman, Jordan. I think we found out about the cultural centers and their language classes and we became all excited. I recall that Fawzia and I talked about us already knowing French and Chinese and English and some Arabic. We mused about learning yet another language: we dismissed the other Latin languages – Italian and Spanish – as being too easy. We thought that German and Russian might be interesting and challenging enough with their alphabet and grammar rules. I had a romantic notion that I might read “War and Peace” in the original language. To-date, the closest I have been to “War and Peace” was watching the Russian movie version, very enlightening. I have no recollection of Fawzia wanting to study Russian as well, on top of the German class! I certainly do not recall telling her to stick to her class, but I am clearly not one to remember anything precisely! I do remember that when I asked Papa about taking a class at the Russian cultural center (run by a Communist country!), Papa had to seek permission from his superiors at the Chinese Embassy. Just to clear the way! I recall that my Russian language class was taught by a woman from Kiev who spoke only Russian and used a textbook that was written in Russian and ARABIC! As soon as we got past the cyrillic alphabet, I started having trouble keeping up with the lessons while my fellow Arab students seemed to take it all in stride. Most of them were planning to go to Russia for advanced professional schooling in engineering and medicine. Apparently there were scholarships available to Arab students. I mentioned my difficulties to Papa, most likely during our family dinner conversations. I frankly do not recall Mama having any interest in our dinner conversations, she seemed to leave our intellectual pursuits to Papa. Papa happened to know that one of his colleagues, Mr. Zhang, had actually studied Russian in the USSR. All of sudden, the two of them agreed that Mr. Zhang would come to dinner one evening a week and tutor me on my Russion lessons afterwards. I was very grateful for the help, I think it helped me navigate the rest of the semester, although I never gained any mastery! I had great fun learning to sing the lyrics to “Moscow Night”, I still think it is a lovely song.

  2. Saadia Mai says:

    About finances in our home: as Fawzia recalls, we were teenage girls but we were treated as advanced children not treated as young adults. There was no discussion of the household budget and expenses: it was solely our parents’ responsibility. Actually, it was abundantly clear that Papa was the wage earner and Mama the manager. I don’t know how much money Papa earned but I do know that he and Mama were challenged by the expenses of providing for five children. For example, Papa was only able to buy a used VW bug instead of a larger, showier vehicle. It was adequate for Papa for driving to and from the embassy office. But when our family went out as a group, I recall that the three of us older kids filled the back seat, and the two little sisters had to crouch in the trunk! I was aware that Mama was an excellent household manager, with a keen eye for bargains: she shopped at the local market and haggled skilfully. She sewed new outfits for us children. I think she skimped and saved to provide the 5-course meals that Papa expected, and clothe and educate all of us, and very likely still save some for a rainy day. Fawzia is correct in saying that Papa had a sweet spot for educational endeavors: he was always ready to spend money on anything educational that our heart desired. I think Fawzia talked Papa into paying for piano classes for the two of us.

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