Saturday, March 29, 2008

Zhangye's First International Student

Originally this post would have been about moving to Shanghai. I had it all planned out: I was going to study Chinese at a university in Shanghai that has a large Chinese program for foreigners. The semester started at the end of February, and when it ended at the beginning of July I was going to finally return to America, together with Nissa. I would find an apartment upon arrival, having made appointments beforehand to look at several, and easily find part-time jobs teaching English to support myself. Tuition was expensive, I would have considerably more personal expenses including rent, and it would make my relationship more difficult, but I was determined to use my last few months in China to learn the maximum amount of Chinese that was possible. I'm also planning to take the HSK in June, a notoriously difficult exam to test the Chinese ability of non-native speakers. So in February I moved to Shanghai, took a good look around, and after three weeks I left.

Finding an apartment and my first job were not at all difficult, and I would learn a lot from my classes. But there many problems which I was not willing to overlook, mostly with the school. During my research I had heard many positive things about studying Chinese through a school--small, interactive classes that quickly improved your ability. With 15 hours of class a week, surely I would learn more than I could on my own. However, after our language tests at registration they put me in an intermediate class with 20 other students, mostly Korean and Japanese. Definitely larger than I wanted and expected.

In addition, the teaching methods were Chinese in all the worst ways. The teacher taught by painstakingly covering the textbook line by line, page by page, with many repetitive and dull vocabulary drills. The teachers spent a lot of time lecturing, and we had barely any time to practice speaking. Even in a three-hour "Spoken Chinese" class I don't think I was able to open my mouth and speak Chinese for more than two minutes, and quite a bit of class was time was listening to and being influenced by the mistakes of my classmates. The classes were also poorly coordinated--the Reading textbook was quite difficult, Listening suitable, and Speaking ridiculously easy. The textbooks were mediocre and uninspiring--dialogues and stories about making friends in the dormitory or moral lessons about why you shouldn't be lazy. Despite the school's receiving a huge amount of tuition from us (we were also overcharged for the textbooks), the only equipment in use besides chalk was a single tape player which didn't work. In over two years of learning Chinese it was the first time I was bored.

I also felt some disappointment with Shanghai, a city I had loved during my first visit as a tourist. Language practice was more difficult because the local people were much busier, less friendly, and much less impressed by foreigners in comparison to Zhangye. Many people either insisted in replying to me in English or didn't want to acknowledge that I was using Chinese, using hand gestures to answer my questions. I would have to work a lot of hours to cover my expenses, and commuting around the city was very time-consuming and exhausting, leaving me less time to study. And of course I missed Zhangye for its blue skies, superior food, low prices, and the friends I had made.

Luckily I had the option of getting a 70% refund (and I had only paid them half at that point) during the first two weeks of class, so I quit and made plans to return to Zhangye. Along with simply liking it here it is an excellent environment for Chinese self-study, and of course my girlfriend is still here finishing her teaching contract.

Upon returning, I had the problem of determining where to live, as of course I no longer have a school-provided apartment. It made the most sense to live with Nissa, but what would the school think about it? Our Miss Mao did find out, and summoned me into her office at the beginning of this week. I had no idea if she was going to kick me out or expect me to pay to move into my old apartment or what. It turns out she and the school don't care, but I have to simply go through the paperwork and be official.

I do still need to be part of some work unit or school to live in Zhangye, and studying Chinese in my living room doesn't quite cut it. So in classic Miss Mao fashion, she told me to write out an application--to study Chinese at Hexi University. So, to my great amusement, on paper I am Zhangye's first American "study abroad" student in the Chinese department of Hexi University. I'm tempted to attend Chinese department classes; maybe they won't notice me. I've been asked countless times in town if I'm a student in Zhangye, and finally I am.

Now that I don't actually teach at Hexi University it is easy to get a good two or three hours of study in during the day. I also have a private tutor, and am determined to learn just as much, spend less, and interact much more with Chinese speakers compared to Shanghai. On the side I tutor English and even teach Chinese to other foreign teachers. I also have a final chance to enjoy the wonderful local food. It feels good to be back.