Friday, September 9, 2011

From Firehose to Punctured Straws

By Kevin

If the first two days of class were like gulping from a fire-hose, we were sipping from perforated straws during week two.

Just before stepping into the classroom on the Monday of our second week of class, some classmates summoned me down the hallway to enter a new classroom. I was handed a new schedule and told that now we were members of class “B,” rather than class “A.” Apart from the fact that we'd now have to rearrange childcare for one two hour chunk of time from our original plan of Tuesday to Thursday, my first reaction to joining another class was relief. I'd learned that several of the students in class “A” were actually second-year Chinese students, repeating the class. That explained why my mind raced to catch up with them during the first couple days of class. I figured, perhaps this class would be more suited to my Chinese level. Now I'm not so sure.

We spent the next four hours practicing  pronunciation and repeating about one-third of the content that we covered in our first eight hours of lessons with class "A" last week.

Instead of fretting because we were moving too fast, I starting wishing that the teachers would just hurry up. One of the reasons for the repetition was this class was filled with nine new students who weren't here last week and speak very little Chinese. There were five students from Mongolia, two from Kyrgyzstan, one from Tajikistan one from Uzbekistan, in addition to four of the Americans, the Canadian and the Mexican from last week's class.

Most of the second week's lessons were similar to our first day in class “B.” In spite of the name of the class, we didn't really do any reading in Reading class. After working on some basic greetings, we spent 2/3 of our time going through the pronunciation of every sound combination in the Chinese language. The teacher spent half her time listening to each of the 15 students pronounce a list of words. Most of our classmates have problems with several Chinese sounds, so it is helpful. But it's also boring for everyone who isn't being called upon. I am sure that their Pronunciation class will cover these basics, but our teacher insists that we need to go through it here too (we spent a good chunk of time focusing on pronunciation with our tutors the week before official classes began to free us up to take a “Practicum” class instead during this time to apply our learning).

In Oral class, we spoke a little, but there were few opportunities for us to practice with one another (as we would in an Oral English class). Our homework was writing: write these 20 characters 10 times apiece. Time-consuming and helpful, but not improving my speaking. Several of us longed for the challenge of the other class, even if it was a bit too fast-paced. However, I am sure that things will pick up once we get past pronunciation.

Outside of our classroom, a large gathering of senior citizens were playing in a croquet tournament, so we watched during the break. We asked our teacher what croquet is called in Chinese – 门球 (ménqiú). Translated into English, it's “gate ball.” The name seems especially fitting when you consider the shape of the characters and imagine a ball rolling through the .

During week two, I did miss one day of class – on Wednesday, when the school loaded 26 of the new students onto a bus and brought us to get our medical examinations, which are required to obtain a residence permit. It took almost an hour for each of us to register and pay. We waited in line alongside about two dozen curious Hui, presumably applying for passports so they can make their pilgrimage to Mecca. During the next 2-1/2 hours, we cycled through an assortment of required medical exams. We were checked for normal things like height, weight, blood pressure and eyesight along with more exotic exams like an EKG, chest x-ray, abdominal ultrasound and blood test to make sure we don't have any major health problems. Oddly, the school was able to exempt us from having our backs examined because it might make us “uncomfortable.” Juliana generally enjoyed the attention she got as we juggled her back and forth. But, she wouldn't nap and we didn't expect to be gone so long, so she was getting hungry and cranky by the time we got home at noon.

So, the first almost full week of classes is done. And we're already ready for a break. It seems we won't truly have a “normal” week of class until week four, so we're still easing into a normal routine. Last week was the end of Ramadan. Next Monday (week three), we have no class in honor of Mid-Autumn Festival. 
I imagine that, by the time we reach the week-long National holiday at the beginning of October, the straws will have been replaced by fire-hoses and the Chinese will again be gushing instead of trickling into our brains.

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