Tools to Think, Not What to Think



The day started at dawn, as is custom for my light-sensitive self, and was bittersweet. After testing me on every word I’d never taught myself, Eric gave me an opportunity to redeem myself by performing an essay and reciting a Yeats poem. Finding my diction sufficient, he rewarded me with a concentrated lesson in Chinese Elemental Education, otherwise known as Rock, Paper, Scissors: Universe Edition. The simplest explanation of the components of nature accounts for five distinct elements, each of which comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Intuitively, Metal beats Wood (apparently, fire doesn’t beat wood, because axes are more efficient), Wood beats Earth, Earth beats Water, Water beats Fire, and Fire beats Metal. Conversely, Metal begets Water, which begets Wood, which begets Fire, which gives way to Earth, which itself makes for Metal. When conveyed via infographic, you get something that looks fantastically like a Pentagram; Wicca, as it happens, also focuses a lot on interactions in nature. Hmm.

While my time learning with Eric has officially come to a close, my Chinese education is far from over.  That afternoon, I fought my way through a throng of international bodies to determine in which class I would be struggling this semester. As suspected, I had been placed in the highest level class offered: 四级班上。What was surprising and somewhat disconcerting, however, was that Keeli had been placed in a lower level than myself. I firmly believe that if I’d been given a test at my level, let alone one that I could read, the Overseas Education College would have placed us differently. Right now, they have no conception of my reading comprehension and writing abilities apart from my telling them that I think I’m better at the two than listening and speaking. As administrators, it’s odd for them to take me at my word, especially because my word now seems  incongruent with reality. Keeli spoke with Eric, and luckily she’ll be able to move up to my level without retesting because he knows the Dean; in China, this is called 关系,or,‘You need connections to get anything done.’

Regardless, I attended the class meeting for my level. I found myself in a room with a 22 year old boy from Indonesia named Neil who’d been studying for 7.5 years and a Japanese girl of unknown age named Taeko who’d been studying for 3 years. Naturally, Taeko’s spoken Chinese seemed comparatively better than either mine or Neil’s. I don’t think either of them really speak English, though, as we conversed solely in Chinese.

In our course, we would have 3 teachers: one for listening and speaking, one for reading and writing, and one for a subject that  I’m still trying to determine. Our listening and speaking teacher, 谢老师,is a stylish and feminine woman who really wanted us to know that we should tell her when we have questions- because if we don’t ask, she’ll assume we have no questions. 侏老师,the reading and writing teacher, spoke rapidly but I miraculously managed to understand most of what she was saying, I think (where ‘I think’ is the most important part of the sentence). She’s already my favorite: from what I gathered, 侏老师 considers herself an independent woman and an encouraging teacher. She wants to teach us how to use words, but not what to think- we’ll be arguing and expressing our opinions and telling each other when the other is wrong. I told her that, in the event I could understand her, I would tell her when she’s wrong. Thankfully, I can return my books if I change classes, which I very well may. In any event, Neil, Taeko and I traded numbers and scheduled a meal together after our first day of classes.

Sufficiently intimidated, I expressed my concerns to my friends, who in turn took me out to help me de-stress. Camilla, Cristina and I followed heart-to-hearts on the beach with an upscale meal at McDonald’s (not even kidding- a trip to an American-style fast food eatery is a special occasion for the Chinese, and the restaurant itself is designed to reflect such) and an ‘exploration jaunt’ about campus, which we finished with a stop at a picturesque hideaway on Furong Lake. China is industrializing and not everywhere is beautiful, but the lake and its surroundings alone serve to counterbalance those places.

Satisfied with our time appreciating the surroundings, replete with drunken pairs of male students bromancing each other and small children marking their territory, we returned to campus for a spot of *tea* before going out to the club Honey again. I only drank half as much *tea* as I did the last time, but it had a high concentration of *leaves* so I was definitely in need of no more. Cristina said it best, when asked to describe the rest night: “I felt like I kind of had to make myself had fun, because I was already out.” Dancing is always fun, and I definitely had a blast dancing with a few quite attractive Chinese guys, but I think I’m going to take a break from clubbing for more traditional cultural activities, like touring historic sites, flying kites, and belting Barbra at KTV.

This morning, I had the opportunity to be a good friend. A friend of mine spent the night at a college student’s dorm on the other side of campus. When she still wasn’t home in the morning, I showered, got her some clothes, and walked the distance of the campus-to-dorm-area tunnel to meet her and her beau. After making sure she got water and walking them both back with me, I took them to the cafeteria, where he fronted her funds for breakfast as she didn’t have her student card on her. I promptly left the two of them together once I knew all was well. In effect then, I’d like to think, I had him walk her home and buy her breakfast. Now that she’s resting peacefully again, I can move on to other exciting activities, like homework.

On second thought, I better check to make sure everyone in the building made it home safely last night.

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