Learning Chinese is best undertaken by masochists. The spoken language has four tones, which must be pronounced clearly and accurately to be understand and to distinguish the many similar-sounding words (the sound shi can mean "to be", "ten", "time", "city", "to try", "an event", "lion", "wet", "teacher", "lose", "reality", "knowledge", "stone", "food", "arrow", "style", "the world", and many other things depending on context and pronounciation). It's the only major world language with no alphabet, and thousands of characters must be memorized before you can start reading and understanding Chinese. Mastering a word in spoken Chinese tells you nothing about how to write it, and there's no way to be certain of how to pronounce a character you've never seen before. Spoken and written Chinese are separate enough that it's like learning two difficult languages, and experts describe Chinese as around five times as difficult to learn as Spanish. Local dialects are so varied that Chinese people can find communication with people from other areas difficult. That said, I came here for a challenge, and I enjoy the punishment. I'm trying to re-double my efforts after losing ground while traveling, especially when I have trouble being understood and my Chinese teacher says things like "I see your listening hasn't improved over the summer."
Of course, learning English is no simple task for Chinese people, and all of them have to do it. They have the most difficult time doing it, as the total lack of grammatically correct English in public in China goes to show; even a large, fancy, and surely expensive hospital sign set in stone in Zhangye says "Zhangye city mumicipality." I could probably count the number of absolutely perfect English sentences my students have written on one hand. This week some students went over an old reading final exam with me, and some multiple-choice questions had either no right answer or several. Sometimes I have a very frustrating time getting my students not to speak Chinese when doing big groups activities, so I'll have to keep with smaller groups. One of these small group activities this week required students to answer the question "what is the strangest hobby you have heard of?". Many involved eating something, whether it was glass, soil, stones, or centipedes. A couple described things that would include my family - having a snake for a pet and enjoying fishing even if you don't catch anything. One shy boy stood up and said "I have heard that some boys like to collect girls' underwear."
My first few days back in Zhangye after traveling felt strangely underwhelming, but I knew once the teaching started my enthusiasm would pick back up. All in all I consider my students some of the most wonderful people I've met, and I enjoy things like office hours that ought to dreaded as "work." Usually an ideal group of only 4-10 people show up for my office hours, and last week's were particularly good, as a few students vented intelligently about some problems with Chinese teaching methods (namely, 'memorize and be quiet') being used for language and their appreciation of what the foreign teachers do. One of my favorite students wanted to ask if I knew about an English book she had heard about, that she wanted to look into because the main character was a rebel and older Chinese critics warned against it. She didn't know the English title, but she said the author's Chinese name was something like "Sha Lin Jia", and I immediately perked up and asked "do you mean Salinger??". She indeed meant The Catcher in the Rye, so I let her borrow the copy I brought, which made my day.
There is a holiday in China called Teacher's Day, which happened last Sunday. In America those kinds of holidays tend to get marked on a calendar somewhere and never brought up, but this one seems important in China. A few students stopped by to see me and give me fruit, and many called to wish me a happy Teacher's Day. Both of my new classes gave me nice gifts - a stylish thermos, and by far the most entertaining, a toy guitar that lights up and plays children's songs when you touch it. The English department also had an extravagant hot pot dinner for all its teachers, in which the foreigners were placed together in the same room and the few Chinese teachers joining us said little. There was also the expected 30-course banquet for welcoming the new teachers (an older couple from New Zealand via Northern Ireland and a young Peace Corps volunteer) a mere two days later.
Finally, there was another performance with the "Guitar Club" Saturday evening, which was mentioned to me in a phone call three hours beforehand. Luckily two student friends happened to be in my apartment, and Xiao Ma's garbled Chinese was translated to me. This was at the Zhangye Medical College, a few of whose students I have met through the teacher Julian last term. Being nursing rather than English majors, they made my students sound like members of the House of Lords. Perhaps because they get less entertainment than Hexi (not that it's exactly a non-stop party here) they were so enthusiastic as to give the impression Chinese people do like rock music. I was told to play a song on my own towards the end, and Xiao Ma felt the need to summon an English-speaking teacher on stage to talk to me. She started with ni hao (hello), so I said ni hao in return, which was all it took to excite the crowd. She said in English, "your Chinese is very good!", and as I haven't let learned "don't patronize me" in Chinese, I only replied "I think it's just ok." I was asked to tell the audience about myself, and had to ignore Xiao Ma's scolding in my right ear about not saying it in English; I'm here as a teacher, not a novelty act. Though I've matured well past the point of enjoying guitar heroics, after so many performances of strumming on a barely-audible acoustic to songs that are absolutely boring for me to play, combined with many listless hours among a group I can't communicate well with, I felt a patriotic duty to show them how we play in America, and pulled out every obnoxious rock star behind-the-head-as-fast-as-possible-show-off move I could remember. This went over well, and someone shouted something like "one more song, how about it!", so I played and sang the one White Stripes song I know the words to, which received noticeably less enthusiastic applause. The quest to find an English singer has begun in earnest.