Part 2: 老是 (Lǎo shī): Teacher
Learning Chinese (Mandarin to be more specific) means more than just reacquainting myself with a language that I’ve heard and used in some capacity for most of my life.
At first, it really was just about finding something to do that wasn’t related to Nursing or the NHS. We were all asked during our first class why we decided to learn Mandarin, and everyone else had practical reasons like, they had a Chinese partner, or they were thinking of going to Beijing, or their companies made them do it because they had a lot of Chinese clients in their line of work.
I just said I was there for shits and giggles.
But now learning Mandarin feels bigger than just learning how to tell time (现在是下午五点半) or being able to ask someone’s name (你叫什么名字?). I’m not sure if I’m able to put into words just how much I have come to appreciate the 2 hours a week that I spend practising how to read, write, and converse in Chinese.
There are days, like when work is particularly stressful, when it’s been the one thing that has literally kept me from losing the plot. When my boss asks me why I’m always rushing out of the hospital doors at 5 on a Wednesday, I always tell him I’m going to therapy.
Because that’s what it’s come to feel like.
Maybe it’s because re-learning Mandarin has changed my perspective. I feel like I can now look at all my past experiences with both the culture and the language through a fresh pair of lenses, one that’s not as clouded by resentment or teenage angst.
There are certain words that I used to associate with specific and not-entirely-pleasant memories.
Take 老师 [(Lǎo shī) – teacher ] for example.
I went to a Chinese school where we had all the standard subjects like Science and English and Math, plus an additional two hours of Chinese classes either before or after, depending on your schedule.
All those myths you’ve heard about Chinese teachers are true. I still have this mental image of them walking down the school corridors, breathing smoke through their noses, like dragons waiting to dracarys the hell out of every student who dares to forget to do their homework.
They ran their classes with military precision. Fun fact about me: To this day, I still multiply figures in my head by counting the numbers out in Chinese. That’s because when we were in grade school, we’d start our Chinese classes by having everyone get up, stand beside their desk, and shout out the multiplication table from 2-9 in perfect unison.
If one person falters, we start all over again.
And yes, to those of you who are curious, I had to take Math twice all the way up until I graduated from high school: once in English and once in Chinese. Shudder.
Chinese teachers are very exacting. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese, and if you don’t get them right you might end up calling your mother a horse (妈 – mā versus 马 – mǎ), or committing some other incredibly embarrassing faux pas.
I partially attribute all my neurotic tendencies and my paralysing fear of making mistakes to the fact that one year in grade school, I was selected to participate in a Chinese oratorical contest, and in order to prepare for this great honour I had to spend a whole month being endlessly grilled, criticised, and corrected on my tones, loudly and sometimes publicly, by my 老师.