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Friday, April 5, 2013

Well, excuse me


What you can see in the photograph above is the Bund, a strip of Western-style buildings that is supposedly definitive of Shanghai's  上海 skyline. I say "supposedly", because here it is the beginning of April, and we should've already been in Shanghai for two months. Unfortunately, due to the fact that my Mandarin Chinese studies haven't progressed as quickly as expected, it's going to be early June at the earliest before we can step foot on Chinese soil. What follows are seven lame excuses reasons, OK, excuses as to why we're still here in Washington, D.C.


Excuse #1: It's my knee

This is the main reason why I'm not taking the exit exam on April 12 as originally scheduled. Tomorrow I'm going to have surgery done on my left knee, the one that has bothered me for 28 years and which I re-injured back in late February. Specifically, the doctor is going to take part of my hamstring from my left leg, and use it to reattach the ligament I tore back when I was in college. If all goes well, I won't have to worry about the kneecap popping out of its socket anymore. On the other hand, I may have to get an artificial knee somewhere down the line as a result of the arthritis that has developed from all those years of a partially-fastened knee rubbing against the cartilage. In any case, because I'm going to miss at least a week's worth of classes post-operation, the language department at the Foreign Service Institute feels I'll need more time to make up for the time I'm going to miss. Or so they say. Which brings me to the next excuse:


Excuse #2: I'm a slow learner

It's official: I'm a special-needs student. According to the head of the Chinese language section in an email to the person who decides on my assignments, the real reason I need more time following my knee surgery is that I am "a slow learner". The director goes on further to express his lack of confidence in my ability to pass the exam even with the additional study time, which makes we wonder if I was meant to see the message in the first place (I was Cc'd). After all, the same person told me to my face a few weeks ago that I was making great progress and that he was confident I was going to attain the required level of proficiency on the exam. Perhaps the ego-deflating email was an attempt at "tough love", that I would see this as a challenge and work even harder to master enough of the language in order to pass the test. All I can say is "fat chance of that happening". Just ask my first wife: she could tell you that constantly pointing out all my numerous faults didn't have the desired effect. Criticism is only constructive when the person on the receiving end doesn't take it too much to heart.


Excuse #3: It isn't my fault, it's theirs

In some respects, the Chinese language section is similar to a Taiwanese driving school in that the curriculum is more focused on getting the students to pass the exit exam, instead of producing competent Mandarin speakers. The program does wonders cranking out people who can discuss nuclear weapons proliferation in decent Chinese, but who would probably be lost in a traditional Chinese night market. But in reality, this excuse of mine is especially lame. The teachers have been uniformly good for the most part, and people are coming out of the course learning to speak the language. I could make a good argument for there being more job-specific content in the curriculum (the consular-themed lessons have been pitifully short), but in the end, if I don't pass the exit exam, the fault will be all mine, not theirs.


Excuse #4: I hate the Chinese language

"Hate" is too strong a word, but I really don't like Mandarin Chinese, aka 普通话, aka 國語. I never have, and I never will. My Japanese isn't particularly good, but I enjoy that language. I'm not afraid to make mistakes when speaking, the grammar is extremely complex but still interesting and I love studying kanji 漢字. In many respects, Chinese should be an easier language to learn, as the grammar is easier, the sentence structures are more similar to those in English and, unlike Japanese, the characters generally only have one way to be read or pronounced. But for me, Mandarin is a chore, something to endure and persevere, which certainly isn't the best approach when it comes to learning.


Excuse #5: Taiwan has scarred me for life

As anyone who knows me well can verify, I didn't enjoy living in Taiwan. It isn't that it was a bad place. Actually, while there I met a lot of very nice people (marrying one of them, in fact), and I enjoyed traveling around the island and hiking on its hills and mountains. But the lifestyle and culture didn't really suit my personality, and I had a lot of humiliating experiences, particularly when it came to attempts at communicating with the locals. So many humiliations that eventually I came to a point where I did my best to avoid unnecessary contact with people, preferring to be left alone. Needless to say, this couldn't have had a good effect on my language-learning abilities. In retrospect, having worked so hard to get away from a Chinese-speaking culture, I shouldn't have turned around and asked for my first overseas post to be in one. I might've been better off either learning a new language from scratch, or serving in a place like Ghana or Trinidad where English is widely-spoken. Oops.


Excuse #6: I'm just not perky enough

Maybe I should be studying Russian. Students of the Russian language seem to be much like me, realistic and cynical, under no illusions about what kind of country and society Russia really is. They may, in fact, love the country and its people, but it's a hard-earned admiration and respect. Compare them to the average Chinese language learner, who is just so excited about learning Mandarin because they get to be going to China! They're going to see the Great Wall, and hold a panda, and eat all that good food, and soak up all those (mythical) 5000 years of history! Do Russian learners get motivated by reading Tolstoy or feasting on beets and cabbage? 

The problem with all this perkiness about all things Chinese is that it can do more harm than good. I've met many a Sinophile who willingly allowed themselves to be blinded by the richness of all that culture and history to the point that they started believing one of the world's most authoritarian (not to mention bullying) regimes can't be all that bad. Having experienced an un-sheltered existence in China Lite (aka Taiwan), I'm under no illusion about the ugly realities of a Chinese society.

Perkiness, however, certainly is a big plus when it comes to mastering Mandarin. So gosh, golly and gee whiz, I'm going to do my gosh-darndest to study hard so that I can get a swell score on the exam. Then I can live and work in the Exotic Orient!

In a large and comfortable American-style home, while my child attends an elite, Western-style school. 


Excuse #7: I'm making it too hard for myself

There's absolutely no reason why I can't learn enough of the language in order to pass the exit exam. In fact, the vocabulary and grammar is already there, and I do think I've made a lot of progress in listening and reading, though there's still a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to the former. And I am most definitely not a slow learner. But I have to admit I'm too afraid of making mistakes in front of others, even though I know that's the only way to make progress. I realize I have to swallow my pride and speak in sentences that make me sound like a kindergarten student, no matter how hard I want to impress my 老师 with all those incisive and thoughtful insights into East Asian culture gleaned from having lived and worked in Japan and Taiwan. I've got to stop thinking of the final exam as a Chinese Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. As the Japanese would say, I've just got to gaman 我慢, and eventually I'll get through this and on my way to Shanghai, the Pearl of the Orient. 

Oh, wait, that's Manila, isn't it?


So let's look on the bright side. In addition to getting a better knee, I've got some more time to knuckle down and do what it takes to get started on what I hope will a long and fruitful career in the service of my country, and for my family (especially my daughter), an opportunity to broaden horizons and open up minds.

Trust me, I can make it.

But next time, I'll bid on a place like Seoul or Bangkok, language-designated posts where I might just feel perky about learning Korean or Thai.








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