Remedial Chinese at UW: Humble Pie

After her Junior in HS, my daughter Catherine was selected to attend Harvard University Summer School as a regular college student.  Unbeknownst to any of us, she chose to immerse herself in learning Chinese.  She had taken Japanese at Bainbridge High School but had no knowledge of any Chinese.  Because their mother didn’t speak Chinese, I didn’t share any of my language with my children.  (It was almost impolite).  Even when I spoke with my parents or to my cousins, we spoke English, so everyone could understand.  Besides, I was also trying to use these teaching opportunities to ‘force’ my newly immigrated cousins to learn English and not be so self-conscious or embarrassed.

Money spent for that summer school was well worth it.  Not only did Catherine learned to speak almost perfect pinyin conversational Chinese, she also learned enough characters to write a beautiful one-page letter to Grandpa!  Grandpa proudly carried and showed that letter to his friends whenever he had a chance.  All my cousins also agreed that if they could attend a similar program that taught English with such result, they’d all gladly pay the tuition and join the classes!

Well, after the summer, Catherine returned home and wished to continue studying Chinese, so she enrolled at the University of Washington evening school.  The classes were 7-9 pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It was problematic using public transportation, especially coming home really late, so I agreed to drive her.  At first, I was going to transport her and use the waiting time to do my patients’ charts.  Then it dawned on me that why don’t I sign up as well?  Though I have no problem speaking, I could learn to write more characters and improve my written knowledge base as well.  Catherine and I became classmates!!

Dilemma!!  How should I behave in class?  In my old school days, without much effort, I could out shine anyone in class.  Should I hold back a little to just keep up and let Catherine be the ‘star’?

Having researched the prerequisites, I noticed while driving to our first session that Catherine already had her text and her dictionary.  I did not prepare at all, thinking that the teacher would provide or suggest materials at the first gathering.  Wrong!!

At our first session, the teacher went down the rows and asked each one to try to speak ‘as best as possible’ in Chinese what their goal was for this class.  Each student struggled a little but verbalized his/her purposes very adequately.  Most indicated that they’d wanted to be more fluent in Chinese.  When it was my turn, I simply said that I can converse, but I’d like to read and write better.  After the teacher heard me talking, he asked if I spoke other dialects.  I started speaking Sichuan and Cantonese.  I also said I could get by with Henan and some ShanTou.  He then asked about my history.  It was clear from the uneasiness of the rest of the class that they felt I didn’t belong.  At last, the teacher said that since I was a doctor and didn’t need the credit, I should just audit the class and attend as I’d like.  It was a good suggestion.  He then went to the prescribed assigned text and had each one read in order.  I didn’t even have a book!   As it turned out, working full-time and being older, I was having great difficulty keeping up with memorizing about 40 new characters each session.  I would learn the new, but invariably forget half of the old.  My Mom became my tutor and she could not believe how ‘stupid’ I’d become.  Outshining Catherine was no longer an issue, I was fearful I was embarrassing her.  Young brains are certainly more pliable and retentive of new information better than mine now.

Definitely the ‘star’, Catherine finished the class with an A, .  Despite my efforts, if I were to give myself a grade, it would be at best a C-!!

A humbling experience!!

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