6: Getting into a Routine

After the chapter about the rowdy National Day celebrations in our dorm, this is a more factual chapter, listing the various types of classes we were offered at Beijing Language Institute.

These were actually quite good. Due to all the negative publications about the detrimental effects of the Cultural Revolution on China’s educational system, we arrived in China prepared for rudimentary education, laden with political propaganda. The opposite was true.

In this post about Chapter 6, I will focus on the introduction of the various courses in that chapter.

. . . Each morning would start with two hours of regular language lessons, called ‘extensive reading lesson (jingduke)’. Jingdu is a standard Chinese educational expressing referring to comprehensive language teaching, comprising all aspects of language: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and rhetoric.

This course used a series of textbooks developed by the School itself, with the most standard title possible: Chinese Reader. The books were provided free of charge. Beginners like Chris would start with Volume I. If I remember correctly, my group started with Volume III, and managed to finish Volume VI to the end of the academic year. Volume VI then was still in the compilation stage and being the Institute’s experimental group, we helped fine-tuning the compilation while we were using the unfinished manuscript.

Each chapter, the equivalent of one lesson, in our textbook would start with a text. That was followed by a vocabulary list providing new words and phrases with English translations. The next section would discuss new grammatical issues introduced in the lesson, and the chapter would finish with exercises practicing the new vocabulary and grammatical structures.

That course would typically be taught by your group’s mentor, as (s)he would see your group six days a week. Our Comprehensive Reading teacher was Teacher Liu. Each time we started with a new lesson, he would request us one by one to read a sentence of the text. He may ask you to explain the meaning of a certain word, or discuss the contents of your sentence. . .

So this we had Liu every morning, i.e. 6 days a week. This was quite basic straightforward language teaching. It was definitely not ‘immersion’ in the language as was, and perhaps still is, so liked by many Western language teachers. But then, we did not need that. We were in China, so were already immersed 24/7.

. . . The second half of the mornings and the afternoons were used for a larger variety of classes, like: newspaper reading, literature, conversation, and Classical Chinese.

The Chinese term for the newspaper reading classes was baokanke, literally: ‘newspaper magazine lesson’. This implies that the scope of those lessons was broader than the daily newspaper. It included articles from various magazines and texts of a political nature from a variety of media. . .

. . . Although written Chinese has been generally based on the standard spoken language since the early 20th Century, it is still influenced by Classical Chinese and this is especially strong in the newspapers. Classical Chinese is terse and can express a heavy load of content in only a few characters. That suits newspapers, where journalists, and editors often want to compress what they want to state using as little space as possible. . .

. . . For example, in many official writings, including names of government institutions, the name of Shandong province is abbreviated to Lu. That character is also used on Shandong number plates, so you can immediately spot a car from Shandong in Beijing. . .

. . . Once I saw a small item about Dongdiwen. Dong means ‘east’, but diwen was not familiar to me, and could not be found in any of the dictionaries we brought with us to class. Teacher Hu then started to explain the geographic location of this region, and finally I realized that diwen was Chinese for East Timor. It was a news item about East Timor. Wow, make a quick note to record that finding for posterity. Actually, finding that out through common effort was a pleasure to both of us. It gave us a shared feeling of accomplishment.

The name of our teacher for this course was Hu. He was a much older man. Rumour had it that he had spent some time teaching Chinese in Pakistan. We did not see much of him outside the periods in his class.

. . . Then there were the literature lessons, called: zuopinke. This Chinese term is not so easy to translate. My electronic dictionary translates it as ‘works of literature and arts’. The literal meaning of zuopin is ‘works, things made’. The term was probably chosen instead of the more common Chinese word for literature, wenxue, because they were not lessons teaching us to appreciate a literary text, but again, to get familiar with the typical language of modern Chinese literature.

Teacher Chen, a chubby friendly man, supplied us with chapters from novels, poems, essays, comic dialogues, and film scenarios. Some of those texts came with vocabulary lists in the same format as those in the textbook of our morning sessions. The Beijing Language Institute employed several people selecting, copying, annotating, and stenciling such texts. Except for the printed materials, like the textbook, all teaching materials provided by the school were stenciled. . .

I learned a lot from these lessons. Chen liked to tell little stories when explaining new vocabulary or unfamiliar phrases. He did not confide much of his personal background to us, but it was clear that he was well educated.

. . . On Saturday mornings we could escape for a few hours to ancient China, during the Classical Chinese lessons. I acquired a liking for Teacher Liu (another one than our group mentor; there is only a limited number of surnames in China, so millions of people have to do with the same surname) who was clearly devoted to the rich literary history of China. He confided that, when it was time to choose a specialization in university, he had been the only one among his peers to opt for Classical Chinese. The feeling was mutual and we spent many hours discussing it after the end of the sessions. . .

So that was my typical week of studying. Two periods before lunch, with a break in the middle and one period after lunch.

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. . . The Saturday lunch was the beginning of the other part of the week. Chinese worked and studied on Saturdays, but the school was aware of our two-day weekend in Europe. They made a minor concession to us by giving us Saturday afternoons off. Obviously, the teachers did not object. It gave them a little more air to breathe as well. . .

This was also the period in which my group of close friends started to form. The remainder of this chapter describes these fellow students, some of whom you have already met during my birthday dinner, with which the introductory chapter starts.

I also introduce a few other types of students

. . . An event that was the talk of the campus for a short while was the arrival of a bus load of Laotian students. When they arrived, it had already started to get colder, but apparently no one had bothered to inform them about the climate. They were all dressed in their traditional attire. This looked extremely picturesque, but was quite inappropriate for the Beijing autumn. They also struck us as very young, but on the other had they all seemed to be chain smokers. Several got off the bus, bare feet in slippers, with a cigarette in their hand. Funny people. Anyway, they moved on to another school very soon, never to return. . .

I am writing this post on November 17. I realise that the period covered by this chapter also focuses on that month, be it four decades earlier. The traditional European holiday season was already approaching. However, before the celebrations could start anew, something exciting was still waiting for us. I will tell you about it in my next post.

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If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.

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5: Peter’s Potent Punch

This is personally one of my favourite chapters. First of all the anecdote to which its title refers is extremely funny. One level deeper, it was the first occasion for us to translate a very Chinese holiday and the way it was celebrated then into the way we were used to celebrate anything at home. The Chinese holiday I am referring to was:

. . . National Day.

. . . The preparation for the National Day celebration in 1975 invoked the spirits of an interesting collection of people. One day, Tiananmen Square was suddenly decorated with enormous pictures of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, including Marx, Engels, Mao Zedong, Lenin, and . . .  Stalin. Fascinating to see the portrait of that Cold War politician whose memory had already been erased in his native country.

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October 1, 1975 was a holiday in that there were no classes for a couple of days, but the day itself was still extremely busy with activities. That morning we were driven to the Sun Yat Sen Park, named after the first president of China, which used to be part of the Imperial Palace. It immediately posed a culture shock, as we were confronted with Chinese women wearing skirts without proper warning; some of them even wore lipstick. What a contrast with the unisex attire that was so much part of our environment.

After only two weeks in China, we had already grown used to the fact that women could hardly be recognized from the other sex by their cloths. Actually that is not entirely true. The female version of the Mao suit had more Western style lapels, while the male version was closed up to the chin. However, most men used to leave the top the jacket unbuttoned, which partly undid the male – female distinction again.

The school buses drove us to the Sun Yat Sen Part adjacent to the Forbidden City in the morning, and to the Summer Palace in the afternoon. We walked past all the sites where people were performing sketches, playing music, or singing and dancing. We absorbed what we saw. We were still new in China.

The celebrations continue up to the present day, but are less abundant than at that time. Life is colorful all year round now, and only judging by the food consumed in the street and various types of restaurants, every day seems a day of celebration, at least on the surface.

An especially interesting event happened during the afternoon walk in the Summer Palace. We actually saw a top leader, Gu Mu, who was visiting the park to celebrate National Day with the masses. That wasn’t made easy for him, as he was encircled by a number of less important people and guards.

Back home in our dorms, we felt we had to do something the following day, to celebrate National Day with the Chinese and simultaneously celebrate the fact that all foreign students had arrived and were in need for a get-to-know-everybody party.

It takes a Dutchman to prepare such a party in a proper fashion

. . . My diary entry for October 2, 1975 reads: ‘welcoming party for our fellow students: Peter’s Potent Punch’. The latter could be nominated for the Best Euphemism Ever award; if such an award would exist. . .

By that time, most students had arrived at the Institute and that was a great occasion to do what we would have done at home: organize a party. That was easier said than done in an environment without convenient supermarkets to stock up on crackers, cheese, crisps, wine, beer, and other party necessities.

Beer was available, as I mentioned earlier. There were beverages called wine on the labels, but that turned out to be extremely sweet alcoholic beverages, nothing like what we know as wine. Even referring to them as plonk would count as too much honor.

There were liqueurs, also mixtures of juices, alcohol and again sugar and maybe some other additives that we were happy to be unfamiliar with. Still, the most common type of alcoholic beverage available then was the traditional Chinese distilled liquor, going by the deceptive name of ‘white wine (baijiu) ’. They had an alcohol content between 50 and 60 per cent and most of them were quite awful. The more expensive varieties, particularly the famous Moutai, which gained world fame through President Nixon’s seminal visit to China in 1972, were tolerable, but most of them were quite unpalatable.

. . . I came up with the idea to pool some money and purchase a stock of various canned fruits and alcoholic beverages and mix all that at random in a few of the enamel wash basins we all had. It met with agreement from most of our neighbors in the hall, and I volunteered (sure I did) to do the shopping and mixing. The shopping was the price I gladly paid for having the knowledge of what actually went into the punch.

. . . Back in the dormitory, I started opening cans of lychees, pineapple, pears, peaches in syrup. When Chinese write ‘syrup’ on the label, you can trust it to be real syrup, with such a high sugar content (yes, again), that it almost becomes sticky, like fruit flavored caramel. No problem, once diluted with the deftly mixed alcoholic beverages, and carefully stirred (cutting the halved peaches and pears in smaller pieces), the result was what I still consider the mother of all punches: Peter’s Potent Punch.

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. . . That proved to be dangerous, as such large drinking vessels invited for quickly drinking large quantities of what turned out to be a nearly lethal beverage. Sweet alcoholic drinks are always dangerous, because their mouth feel offers little warning of the inebriating ingredient. Your senses grow number with the amount of alcohol consumed, until you forget what you are taking in. The sweet aromatic taste of the fruits is noticeable longest, so your brain may even be tricked into thinking that the stuff is actually good for you.

. . . the fruits in Peter’s Potent Punch turned into malicious alcohol bombs. Their smooth texture did not require much chewing. You washed them down with a large gulp of the liquid. They would remain dormant in your esophagus as well, but once they reached your stomach . . . bang!

The punch worked like a dream. We all had a swell time during the actual party. As could be expected, many of those who have been less restrictive in their consumption of that lethal concoction started paying the price in the course of evening and the following morning.

. . . A number of the partygoers had to make quick runs to the toilet in the middle of the night and early morning. When I woke up de following day and set out to the toilet, for the regular reasons, I passed the door of the room occupied by two Danish students. One of them, the tallest one, a real Dane, normally a perfect example of how a fearless Viking is depicted in the movies, the only thing missing a helmet with horns, was standing in the opened door, leaning against the wall. His face was greenish grey, and his mouth produced a mix of gargling and moaning sounds. That man looked seriously sick.

I guess that he attempted to make it to the toilet in time, but he did not get further than the doorway. He barfed right where I spotted him, the vomit streaming down the wall. You could actually still distinguish pieces of the fruit flavored alcohol bombs slowly finding their way down the wall to the floor. He was indeed brutally sick.

This paragraph may be a little gross for a book like this, but that picture is stuck on the walls of my mind as one of the highlights of that year in China. I believe that even in extreme stages of dementia that I may suffer eventually, I will still vividly remember how we finally revenged the damage done to our ancestors by the Vikings. . .

We Dutch had better things to do than being sick. I had drunk with restraint and so had Chris. As October 3 is a holiday in (part of) The Netherlands, we had another party to attend at our Embassy. A major event in our 80-year war with Spain (1568-1648) was the Siege of Leiden (1573-1574), which was broken on October 3, 1574, using the most typical of Dutch ruses, flooding the land around the city. We Dutch feel at home in water, but the Spanish, born and raised on arid land, hated it. The Dutch resistance sailed a boat into the city and fed the hungry citizens with herring and white bread. That is the fare that is still eaten in Leiden each October 3 to commemorate its liberation.

Many Dutch diplomats are graduates from Leiden University, therefore, Leiden’s Liberation is celebrated in all Dutch embassies. It has almost turned into quasi national holiday, outside the Dutch border.

The herring is eaten raw, as we do in The Netherlands, washed down with jenever, our version of gin. In other words, more eating and drinking for us that evening, though after Peter’s Potent Punch, jenever almost tasted like nectar.

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As of October 4. 1975, we were ready for the action.

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If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.