Teacher Ben Harvey reflects on four years working as a lecturer in English literature at the University of Beijing.
You must have been teaching students that were very fluent in English. What motivated you to start learning Mandarin?
It was nothing to do with the job, more about getting through life and getting about in Beijing. Although the university gave us a flat to live in on campus, I really struggled with daily life: buying stuff, getting a cab, that kind of thing. I didn’t have any Mandarin before I went there and it was frustrating because a friend had to hold my hand for the first month or two – I’d have to ring him up to get help with the most basic things like posting a letter.
Wow. So not having the language was a real barrier?
Yes. Everything in Beijing is pretty complex and hardly anybody you come across in daily life speaks English. At least in a European country you might be able to jump in a cab and say “hotel?” and possibly have a chance of getting somewhere. That doesn’t work in China!
So how did you go about the learning process?
At first I went to a language school and had lessons about three times a week. The lessons were all in Chinese so it was sink or swim right from the beginning. It took me several lessons to start understanding basic instruction words, but after a while I’d find myself thinking, ah, that must mean “for example”.
I also had regular conversation with a guy called Barry – that was his English name. It’s a pretty well-chosen name compared to some I came across. I taught one girl who called herself Strawberry and a guy who called himself Big Fish Uranus. Anyway, Barry would come round to my flat and we would chat. He always wanted to talk about how much money I could be making if only I took advantage of all the opportunities in Beijing!
So was it all about speaking and listening or were you learning to write as well?
It was mainly speaking and listening. There’s no alphabet and learning to read and write is really hard. You can start to learn some tricks, like there are certain components of the characters that are common to certain meanings, but ultimately you have to just sit there and learn the characters. And there’s about 60,000 of them! Even my Chinese friends said they regularly came across characters that they didn't recognise. Now I’m back in England I’m concentrating more on the reading because I haven’t got the same opportunities to converse in the language; it’s an aesthetic experience – the characters are really beautiful and it’s wonderful to be able to decipher them.
Do you feel you made rapid progress in learning the language?
I think if I’d lived in France I would hope maybe within two years I would be reasonably fluent in French. I lived in China for four years and I'm by no means fluent in Mandarin! My friends out there must have thought I was pretty dull as I never got to the point where I could crack jokes or say anything very interesting! I wasn't dedicated enough to my language learning. But I still made progress and it meant that I could get around.
So would you still recommend learning Mandarin?
Absolutely, yes! It's very difficult but very interesting – and fun! The language is tonal, which means you can say the same thing but in a different tone to mean something else. For example, the same word in one tone means “mother” and in another it means “horse”. That makes for all sorts of hilarity.
Did you find that there were cultural differences that made learning the language even more challenging?
I suppose so. The texts I was reading … well, it’s hard to know whether it’s a cultural thing or whether the themes are just convenient for them to write about for us to learn to learn the language; but for example, there were lots of passages about economic progress and how life is getting better and better all the time.
What about when you were teaching out there? Did you feel you had to teach in a certain way?
Not necessarily teach in a certain way, but it was strongly recommended that we didn't teach certain texts. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a bit of a no-no! It was quite challenging to design the course because most of Western literature is subversive in some way – that’s kind of the point, really. The students’ reactions were also very interesting and really revealed cultural differences. For example, I taught them the American novel Washington Square by Henry James. It's about a girl who is frankly broken by her domineering father, who crushes her spirit in various ways. My Chinese students thought she was being justly punished for her lack of filial piety! I tried to explain that Western readers would never
interpret it in that way and they were kind of shocked.
It sounds like you really enjoyed your time in Beijing. Why did you leave?
I didn't want to leave, but I also wasn’t sure I wanted to live in China forever. Beijing is very very polluted and I started to think this might have some long-term consequences – some days the smog was so bad you couldn’t see across the road. But I loved it. I’ve still got several friends over there and plan to go back some day.
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