Head Master’s Orders


“If you have need of a police, they will help you very fast,” said the uniformed woman at the podium in punctuated English. “But if you ask them when you have overstay your welcome in China, you might will not be allowed back to China for 1 or 5 years, so don’t do that okay?”

I glanced at Keeli. The opening ceremony for the few hundred or so Overseas Education students at Xiamen University highlighted a very important notion: Enthusiasm for learning and encouragement from teaching staff are hallmarks of study abroad and cultural exchange, but it’s important to remember that rules exchange when abroad as well. China is new and exciting and full of things to explore, but with numerous (kind of scary) caveats that come with living in a different kind of political system. Not only that, but I feel that a foreign slight to a political system is comparatively worse than a slight from within the system; you have either the excuse of ignorance, which if cited supports the stereotype that you didn’t bother to learn about the place you are- or worse, that you simply didn’t care enough to learn, or that you know that what you did was wrong and still did it anyways. Regardless, the last thing I want to do is piss off Hu Jintao before studying at least a decade’s worth of 功夫, so I’ll mind my 匹s and 取s.

After an eternity of do’s and do not’s, I realized that I had the wrong student card on me and retrieved it from my room. By the time I got back, the audience had dispersed to fill in forms with their basic information. I approached a teacher in a striking maroon ensemble in order to request one *NOTE: All conversations were conducted in Chinese unless otherwise specified!* The teacher, who I was surprised to find understood me, recommended that I go in the main room and look for some. I wandered around a bit until I found the teacher that had initially ushered me into the ceremony, asked him the same question, and was herded back into the hall to speak with the female teacher I’d asked. Seeing that I was at an impasse, she instructed me to go to Room 307 and ask whomever was there for a form. By this point, two beginning students had decided that I would lead them through the same process, which is how I found myself desperately hoping that I would be able to find Room 307 for Jasper the suave Swede and Olaf (“Like the language?” “Not Wolof. Like Count Olaf”) the bespectacled South African and have something to show for my 6 years of Chinese language study. When we arrived at 306 and a dead-end, I panicked internally. Had I misunderstood? Would Jasper and Olaf be unable to study at Xiamen University because of my inattention?

We flew with concern through the throngs of students lined up to take the oral examination. After waiting a bit to speak with the female teacher again, I noticed an older Asian man standing in the foyer. I approached him, explained my predicament, and was surprised to find that 307 was on the 4th floor.

“The 4th floor?”

“The 3rd and 4th floor are the same.” I must have misunderstood at least that.


“Follow me.”

The old man led Jasper, Olaf and myself back up the winding staircase and towards the 4th floor- only to stop at a landing between the 3rd and 4th. Thanking the man and all benevolent spirits responsible, I led Jasper and Olaf into the room and successfully equipped the three of us with forms.

My experience with the language confirmed, Olaf turned to me and asked, “What kind of tips do you have for beginners?”

I’d usually try to wrack my brain for something profound and meaningful, but in this instance, the basics were just as important. “Speak slowly, focus on your tones, and learn Simplified Chinese.”

I spent an eternity waiting in line (to take my oral examination) and serving as Olaf’s sounding board. He was distressed about whether or not he should take the test; as a beginner, he didn’t have to as he didn’t know anything, but because he knew how to count from 1 through 10 and say basic things like 谢谢 (thanks),你好 (hi),and 我要 (I want- a language staple), I think he was struggling over whether or not to push himself.

“Ya know, Olaf,” I mused in English, ” if you think you’ll regret not taking the exam later because you find yourself in an easy class and have to take it anyway to move up a level, wait out the line and take the test. If I were you, however, I’d enjoy an easy first two weeks and learn what you need to.”

“I think I’ll take the test.”

“Just so you know, it’s a reading comprehension test,” I mentioned as an aside.

“I can’t read.”

Huh. “That might be problematic.”

“Oh no.”

“See if you can get them to just have a conversation with you.”

“Can I do that?” Somehow, he’d gotten it into his head that I had all the answers.

“Olaf, I don’t know. You could ask?”

“I think I will not take the test.”

“I think that’s a great idea.”

Olaf excused himself, and I made small talk with a striking polyglot Frenchman named Francois until it was my turn to talk. Lo and behold, the female teacher I’d spoken with earlier was the one assigned to grade me!

I sat down and, after using some complicated grammar points I just learned (and was proud of) to get help filling out the rest of my form, expressed my concerns about Chinese: that I’d studied for 6 years, that my reading and writing was much better than my listening and speaking, that I was taught traditional and without tones for a long time and that my accent is terrible, etcetera. Converse to my self-perception, the teacher told me that she thought my speaking was quite good and that most foreigners have difficulty with their reading and writing. Also aberrant was her decision not to have me read a dialogue, but just to have a conversation with me, which I guess I passed- she asked me whether or not I could function in Chinese society, i.e. buy things, go to the bank, get around, to which I replied yes; she asked me whether or not I could work in China, to which I replied ‘I could send an email but probably couldn’t help foreigners do what they needed to do;’ and lastly, she filled out my form without putting a grade level, which was also strange, and simply scrawled an illegible note in Chinese at the bottom, instructing me to take it to a proctor on the 4th floor and sit my written exam. Confused, I thanked her and left.

My suspicion about the irregular nature of my assignment was confirmed by the proctor’s shock. She spoke English, telling me that I was to take the most difficult examination, and had me find a seat in the very full and dead silent room. I found a seat, opened the examination, and promptly felt the weight of all the characters I’ve yet to learn. I struggled with the first five questions, of which I recognized approximately half the characters, and then motioned to the proctor that I was having issues. When I told her that I knew Traditional Chinese, her face fell.

“Taiwan,” she said knowingly. I nodded. “Well, do your best.”

Five minutes later, I approached her again with a note . “Do you think it would be possible to take an easier test? I don’t even know if I could do this one in Traditional Chinese.”

“I spoke with the director about you,” she replied, “and you are supposed to take this test. If you cannot do it, just turn in what you have. You’ll catch up in no time.” And so I left, confused, not having taken a written test and concerned that my readiness to show off my speaking skills had skewed their perception of my overall ability.

I won’t know whether or not I’m in the highest level until the tests are graded (Friday afternoon). Either way, it’s easier to drop down a level than to move up.

Stranger things could happen. Like my tutor a) trying to set me up with his roommate while we were out to dinner with Keeli and Sarah b) telling me that I accidentally told him he likes me and that only dogs wear ID tags like mine in China and that I’m so funny I should be a comedian because of my lingual mishaps c) taking me to visit his dorm and d) Not only encouraging but e) enabling, and paying for my drinking *tea* on school nights.

Oh, wait.

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