Cantonese is the happiest of all Chinese
"I'll show them!"
I never wanted to come to terms with the fact that Chinese, as is often claimed, is "impossible to learn". After all, Chinese is not just any language, but the one that is most widely used in the world: around one in five people speaks a Chinese dialect as their mother tongue. During my first visit to a Chinese restaurant as a child, defiant "I'll show them!" Thoughts arose. Years later, friends and relatives watched me in disbelief as I said goodbye to my usual life. I was 32 years old and wanted to go to university in China. It would be laughable if this language could not be learned.
Easier said than done - especially when an Austrian is around 8,500 km from China. The China craze has also arrived in Austria: restaurants, books, TV documentaries and chic character tattoos, the sometimes bizarre contents of which are first and foremost based on their wearer's ignorance of Chinese. But try once, by acquiring knowledge of the Chinese language, to avoid the danger of getting a tattoo with the words "noodle soup" scratched on it. Then you quickly realize that this is not easy in Austria. A wide variety of institutions offer courses and there is also a good selection of documents. But the spoken language remains mostly (if at all) at the holiday Chinese level due to the lack of exercise opportunities.
So what to do My dream of a language course in China failed for a long time because I lacked the courage to study for many years and I did not expect much progress from an intensive course lasting a few weeks. Then I heard about the free course "Chinese for Foreigners" at Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the most renowned universities in China. A nine-level course is offered there for foreigners, in which each level - this was important to me - ends with an official certificate. For far too long I had lived a staid life as a PR consultant, a good son and a good friend. At the end of 2007, I shocked employers, parents and friends with the news that I would study in China for two semesters. I owe it not least to my defiance that I did not give up on my dream straight away after the first contact with the Chinese bureaucracy. I prescribed the ink on dozens of pens as I filled out countless forms, did expensive health checks, and practiced queuing for visas in marathon lines. Thanks to months of preparation, I finally received the acceptance from the university in good time.
It could start. I didn't have time to think about what I was getting myself into. It wasn't until I got to the airport, shortly before departure, that I really realized: I'm on my way to Shanghai without a return ticket. I will live and study in China. My biggest dream is coming true. Help!
Four vacation stays had prepared me for the enormous volume of the country, the seemingly completely crazy traffic, the strange smells. This time it was different. The taxi didn't take me to the tourist areas in Shanghai. I was on my way to a university in the north where I would study for two full semesters.
The Chinese don't do things by halves. More like doubles. Visitors to Fudan University are welcomed from afar by the two "Guanghua" towers, the highest university buildings in the world at 140 meters each; a prestige project! If you step through the main gate, the still omnipresent great helmsman greets Mao graciously as a larger than life statue. But the student residences are at the other end of the huge campus. The walk from the main gate to the student district takes twenty minutes - if you know it well. During this time I am crossing downtown Vienna. In addition, at this point in time there was no question of knowing. It took me almost an hour to involuntarily explore the most beautiful campus in China.
In the residential district there are two things: the seemingly endless building complex with the dormitories for Chinese students and a high-rise with the rooms for foreign students. The rooms for non-Chinese are of significantly higher quality for image reasons - but also five times as expensive. A practical manifestation of "socialism with Chinese characteristics", as today's political system is officially called. In truth, the big cities are characterized by turbo-capitalism and an exuberant fun society in the form of bars, clubs and amusement parks, which only foreigners and the Chinese upper class can afford to visit. Enrollment, obtaining the Chinese "Green Card" and all other formalities take place in a colorful jumble of forms, stamps and maddened crowds, which initially throws every Westerner into despair. But somehow the formalities always work in the end, despite - typically Chinese - only rudimentary information and organization. In a placement test, I am assigned to level two of nine. But since the timetables for complete language beginners are only displayed in Chinese, finding the right lecture hall at the correct time is not a trivial matter. In the first lecture, amazement on the faces of the Japanese, Korean and Kazakh fellow students: even courses for beginners are held exclusively in Chinese. Vocabulary and grammar are explained in the books in quite creative English, and many of the teachers hardly speak any Western foreign languages. The idea of learning the language better through constant contact is justified. However, asking complex questions about grammar in the language you are trying to learn is a challenge.
There are also striking differences to western pedagogy: the teacher says the new word, the students repeat it in a choir. Much is based on traditional teaching concepts that are based on constant repetition, repeating and memorization. This has its advantages, like ear and mouth getting used to the strange sounds quickly; but as a trained European one has to make friends with a certain inefficiency. Independent vocabulary groups are taught in the five subjects "speaking", "listening comprehension", "reading", "grammar" and "writing". In view of the enormous amounts of material, one wishes that the same words would be practiced in each of the individual subjects in order to get to know all aspects of their application better. After all, in China, due to the overpopulation and the resulting gigantic competitive pressure, one is used to a much larger study schedule from childhood than here. And so the material from at least two semesters at a European university is whipped through at Fudan University in just four months.
Big, puzzled eyes, a wrinkled forehead over them and then roaring laughter after my first laboriously stomped sentence - these are my memories of the first meeting with my Chinese language partner. Getting one is highly recommended. Even if you have to have thick skin for it. The Chinese are often ruthlessly honest in their criticism. But this helps enormously in learning to use the language. Thanks to the exceptionally motivated and hard-working teachers, the progress is quickly noticeable. The first friendships with locals develop - and you quickly get to know the extraverted and fun-loving side of this society, which otherwise hardly finds a place in the western media. In China, people indulge in endless meals together, sing karaoke or play cards in the park.
The reward for the effort: four times a year, at the end of each level, there is a three-day examination in all subjects. This is very demanding; but once you hold your first Chinese diploma in your hands, that makes up for all your efforts. And to be happy about the beaming face of the other person during unexpected small talk after returning to Vienna is the best confirmation. When I feel homesick for China, I just go to the small "China Town" of Vienna, near the Naschmarkt, and immerse myself in a wonderfully lively city within the city. (Clemens Bayer, DER STANDARD, album, 11.9.2010)
Clemens Bayer is an astronomer. He was a PR consultant, now works in the Technical Museum and studies Sinology in Vienna.
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