Thursday, December 25, 2008

School Days

Basic Conversation I Textbook

Vocabulary List from Lesson 9
My First ESL Student, Mrs. Wang
(She is giving a speech at my wedding, attesting to my good character and assuring Joshua's family that I will make an excellent Chinese daughter-in-law despite my white skin.)

After we completed our two weeks of phonics training, our life soon settled into a comfortable routine of school, homework, church activities, and work. Lynne had an early Chinese class and then spent most of the day in the air-conditioned (or heated) faculty lounge preparing for her English classes and doing her Chinese homework. She taught several English conversation classes in the afternoon and usually didn’t come back to the apartment until evening. She almost never did homework in our room because the apartment was too noisy for her to concentrate on studying.

I would go back to the apartment after breakfast and do two or three hours of homework. For the first three months, my Chinese class was from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, so I would go to class after lunch. I didn’t really like that first class because the other four students were not really interested in learning Chinese. They were in class to keep their student visas so they could teach English in private English schools where they made lots of money, which they spent enjoying the night life in downtown Taipei. We didn’t have much in common because their main focus was not Chinese.

Our teacher was Miss Hsieh (or Miss Thanks). She was barely out of college, 23 years old, and she enjoyed practicing her English with the Americans in the class. She was a nice woman, and she was a decent teacher, but she frequently let the class get away from Chinese into English. Because I was desperate to learn Chinese well enough to understand what was going on around me at home, this situation was extremely frustrating. I determined that at the end of the first three-month term, I would transfer to another class, preferably in the next book. To that end, I corralled a couple of my night-school roommates, who were studying German and French, and traded Chinese tutoring for Western language tutoring in the mornings. We all improved in our respective language studies after a few months of regular tutoring exchanges.

I began giving private ESL lessons to different people in the church. Three evenings a week, I taught English to an elderly couple, who were preparing to immigrate to America because all their children had US green cards. The husband was a famous architect in Taiwan who had designed the Sun Yat-sen Memorial in Taipei. He had spent some time in America where he was very uncomfortable about not being able to speak the language. I could sympathize with him, and the two of us hit it off really well. Eventually, he wanted to help me with Chinese, so I was paid three evenings per week to help him for 30 minutes with his English and to allow him to help me for an hour with my Chinese. I protested this in a discussion with his wife, but she assured me that they could afford it. She told me her husband was so lonely without his children at home that it was worth it to him to pay me to talk to him. Mr. Wang, my “student”, was the one who finally helped me break the code in learning Chinese characters. The majority of Chinese characters are composed of different repeated parts like visual building blocks. Some parts show meaning and others show sound. If you memorize the characters by learning their parts, it is easier to remember them. Once you become familiar with the building blocks, you can even begin to figure out words that you don’t know.

As soon as I understood the logic of the characters, I went ahead of my class in the first book during my tutoring exchanges. I was confident that I could be totally fluent in Chinese by the end of nine months; in November I formally requested to transfer to a morning class in Lesson One of the second book. There was only one such class with an opening, but the office clerks were reluctant to allow me to transfer. They said the teacher did not really like Americans. She felt that we were lazy, superficial, and more interested in earning money teaching English than in truly learning Chinese. I begged and pleaded, and as there was no one else to take the seat, I was given two weeks probation in the class of Teacher Wen-Fang Chin. Ms. Chin had been teaching at the school for more than twenty years, and she was second only to a direct descendant of Confucius in her reputation for toughness and high standards. Ms. Confucius only taught classical Chinese, so I did not get into her class until 1985, but Ms. Chin was fully able to challenge me to the limits of my abilities in ways that I had never ever been challenged before.


murat11 said...

This is fascinating, and the story of the Wang family is quite lovely. Of course, the prelude to Ms. Chin and her ensuing impact on your life (and I suspect, yours on hers), is positively cinematic. Indie film, of course, but those are by far the best.

Teresa said...

If you want to do the film, we can work out a deal on the rights. My story at Sundance!! That would be fun.