Being back at Beida is strange. I’m forced to reconcile my old memories of it from 2001 with the new situations: classes are no longer in Shaoyuan Building 2, but rather in the Russian building. Outside the North Gate there is no longer a street full of DVD shops, laundromats, and restaurants; these have been replaced by mud fields and rubble heaps, and the occasional tent of squatters with signs saying “We Protest Beijing University’s Illegal and Unfair Demolition of our Livelihood.” I’m no longer on close, friendly terms with my classmates the way I was in the Stanford program; I live off campus, and most of them are Korean or Japanese, and after class ends – even if it’s the Oral Chinese class, which is fun and lively – we all just kind of silently go our separate ways.Different, too, is just being back in China: the differences between Harbin and Beijing are too great and numerous to list here, but suffice it to say that culturally, historically, and economically, the cities are worlds apart. Teaching and studying as one would expect, are very different things indeed – and I have to admit that I much prefer the latter, although I’ll probably have to take a job doing the former.
After the three-day registration period at Beida, all the students had to take written and oral placement tests. I’d done some studying over the summer while I was at home, with practise books for the HSK – “Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi,” the Chinese proficiency exam – that I’d bought in Harbin. So I assured parents and girlfriend alike that there was nothing to worry about, that I’d kick ass and chew bubblegum.
Really, though, I was a bit worried: the year in Harbin had done funny things to my Chinese. My listening comprehension was great, from all the eavesdropping I’d done, but I was still in the habit, picked up from eavesdropping, of scanning for keywords rather than listening to natural speech. My spoken Chinese had gotten better, but since nobody except my girlfriend was impolite enough to correct me, my tones were patchy, and a lost of mistakes had been made often enough to have become habit. My reading was pretty good – I could read my fifth-graders’ textbooks without any real problem – but since, with the exception of addresses and phone numbers, I’d done very little actual handwriting, relying instead on computers or my cellphone’s SMS character input, my handwriting – never good to begin with, in English or Chinese – had become horrible, and I’d forgotten how to write (but not how to read) a lot of the characters I’d once known.
So I wasn’t quite as confident as I claimed to be. In fact, I was scared shitless. Still, I studied during the days leading up to the test, and when the morning came, I went to the second floor of Shaoyuan 7, Number 2* pencils in hand as instructed, sat down, took my test paper, and proceeded to kick its ass up and down the length of Zhongguancun Avenue. Or so I thought.
Afterwards, getting lunch in the cafeteria, doubts began to set in: was there some subtlety in the usage of 反正 that I’d been missing? That character in the written portion that I erased and rewrote several times – was it the wrong ‘zang?’ And shit, why hadn’t I used “若无其事” to show off in the story-writing bit?
The oral exam the next morning was just a 5-minute interview. By that point, though I tried to convince myself that those 5 minutes would just go on standard pleasantries like how I liked China, how I was feeling that day, etc., I had thoroughly brain-fucked myself over the written exam. I went into the interview a stammering wreck, and walked out feeling that I’d just banjaxed a perfectly interesting conversation.
I wasn’t sure at all how placement would work at Beida, whether I’d be considered Intermediate or High Intermediate or what. In another life, back at Temple in Philadelphia, I’d been in the Advanced Chinese class, but since it was the States and Temple had a very small Chinese program, I’d never really thought that counted for much. Taking practise tests for the HSK – the closest thing to a real standard for measuring Chinese proficiency – I’d assessed myself as being comfortably High Intermediate, but then that was a self-assessment on a multiple-choice test, and I couldn’t tell whether I was really that good or whether I’d just been well-prepared by the American public educational system when it came to taking standardised bubble-tests. And anyway, Beida’s gradations for Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced were nothing like the HSK’s – perhaps for political reasons, the HSK having been developed by Beijing Language and Culture University, a little further east down Chengfu Lu.
Saturday morning we all crowded into the Russian building to find out our placements and pick up our textbooks. Our scores were ordered by the class we’d been placed into, so we had to start looking at ‘yi ban‘ – Class One – and work our way along the wall, printout by printout, until we saw our name. Brief panic ensued when I didn’t see mine, but I started over from the beginning, yi ban er ban san ban, and looked closely until I saw, on the far right-hand side of the wall, my name, under the heading ershi ban: Class 20.
I’d placed into the highest class they had.
After that we all got our textbooks, made note of the electives we wanted to take, and went home. I ended up taking, besides Chinese and Oral Chinese, Readings in Modern Chinese Literature and An Overview of China. (The latter was my third choice; Advanced Composition was full and Ancient History was closed for lack of student interest after I registered for it.)
Little white rabbit, whiter than white,
His two ears stand nice and straight.
He likes eating turnips; he likes eating greens,
Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and cute as can be!
That’s what I learned the first time I was at Beida, over two years ago.
Now I’m reading Lu Xun novels for class, and Mo Yan novels for fun.
And although every one of the classes I have makes it clear to me that I still have a long way to go, they also remind me how far I’ve come.