Skip to content
Site Tools
Increase font size Decrease font size Default font size default color blue color green color
Home Living in China Foreigners in China Foreigners in China LANGUAGE IS THE GYMNASTICS OF THE MIND
Foreigners in China
By Cool Han

If one’s life is a novel, Vicky has just started her first few chapters.

It was a breezy spring afternoon in Beijing, when the twenty-one-year approached me with a smile. She wore a dark brown jacket, black sweater, black skirt and black stockings. Is that the fashion of this season? I wondered.

Her hair is the color of gold but her roots are dark. A typical European girl should be like that, I believe. When she laughed a series of silver bells tenderly slipped out of her mouth: “Hey I’m Vicky, but you already know that.” Yes, thanks to today’s instant communication technology, we arranged everything through MSN before we met.

We went through buildings, gardens, blocks, and lobbies before we reached a tiny bar inside her school. An intricate maze for me is a piece of cake for her.

In no time, we were eating ice cream and chatting like old friends, though it was our first meeting. She was a bit shy, but her eyes told me that she was calm, warm and confident.

Few minutes later she received a phone call. “Yes, I’m talking with a friend now.” She met my eyes with her sweet hospitable smile. Her Chinese was fluent, natural and vivid. Then she continued her story in English—if she hadn’t told me that she was from Switzerland – her mother tongue was French and she started learning English in high school – I would definitely take her to be a native speaker.

Vicky is a genius of a sort, blessed with the ability to learn languages more quickly and deeply than others. She certainly isn’t afraid of the challenges and changes that she confronted as her language learning progressed—as her ease at making out the meaning of beautiful and complicated Chinese characters ably demonstrated. “When I was in Geneva, my major was Chinese and English, so I’ve learned a lot about Chinese. But when I came to China, I found my Chinese was very poor.”

It might not have been that poor, though—she was transferred from a beginner’s class to the upper level just 2 weeks after she started her first semester at Beijing Normal University. “All my classmates had been studying Chinese for 6 months already, so their Chinese was far better than mine, and I could barely understand my teachers. So I felt a lot of pressure.” That’s not bad, because the peer pressure Vicky felt spurred her and pushed her forward. “I was shy and nervous at the beginning, but through learning and practicing, I felt better and more comfortable speaking Chinese in front of different people.”

Vicky learned German since 10 years old. Moreover, she says Italian is not too difficult because she studied Latin in Junior High School. Then, she learned Greek in High Schools, so she can read modern Greek and understand a few sentences too, although she can’t speak the language.

“I remember someone said that language was the gymnastics of the mind, and that’s the truth.” Seeing my astonishing expression, she shyly smiled and added, “I really love learning languages and like to compare the differences between them. A word in this language is like this, then what about in that language and why it is used in this way...for me it’s full of fun.”

Vicky told me she’ll stay in China for one year studying Chinese intensively before going back to Switzerland. When she returns, her mother—who’s half Chinese—will be impressed and proud of her talented young girl’s Chinese ability.

Vicky is not someone who could talk about something all day long, though she answers my questions thoroughly and patiently. She cares a lot about her listeners. Words expressing her feelings about her life in China and her family were only just beginning to come when she believed I was willing to listen.

Vicky’s family could be labeled as "international". “My family is from everywhere. My grandma was born in San Francisco, but she’s Chinese. So my mother’s half-Chinese, although she sometimes feels more Chinese than Swiss or American, her two sisters feel very Chinese too. At home we quite often cook and eat Chinese food, celebrate Spring Festival just like a typical Chinese family, even though I don’t look Chinese.”

She took out her camera and showed me pictures of her family. Her father is a tall man from Norway and Belgium while her mother and aunts have Chinese faces. For the Chinese, this sort of family background might be unique and unusual, but for Swiss people it is more common. “Switzerland is so small – about the same size as Taiwan. In China I found many children come to Beijing from other provinces. Similarly, in Switzerland, lots of people come from many other European countries.”

Compared with her last visit to China with her parents ten years ago, this time, as a student, she gets a fuller picture of what China is, as well as who she is herself. She served as a volunteer teaching English at a middle school in a one-week-project in Suzhou, Anhui province. Vicky has made it her goal to capture and interpret Chinese youth and society.

The first time standing on the platform as a teacher, she was shocked by the size of the class. “At the very beginning it was very hard for me to arrange the students, because there were about 50-60 students in one class. You know in Switzerland, even in the biggest class there will be no more than 25 students. That’s a huge difference.” “The students were hard-working. They studied from morning to night and had little time to rest.” For her, the intensive learning program and fierce competition that exists in China is hard to imagine. In Switzerland, school classes are comparatively easy to deal with. As a bright student, she has enough time to play badminton and participate in various school and social activities as well.

Last year when BOCOG (The Beijing Organizing Committees of the Olympic Games) recruited French-English interpreters in Switzerland, our badminton player and language talent was more than excited. “When I heard the news I said ‘I’m here, I’m here!’” However, the fierce competition didn’t give Vicky a chance. Her voice showed her disappointment, but she immediately changed it into a light tone: “If I could stay and watch one badminton game at Beijing Olympics, I would be happy.”

Unlike her Chinese counterparts who worry about their futures after graduation the day they become freshmen, Vicky didn’t think of her future and career very much. “Maybe I’ll be a teacher, maybe not. I don’t know. Some of my Chinese friends are not as lucky as me. They have to make a decision right now.”

One of the most challenging tasks facing young adults today is finding their true purpose in life. So many voices are crying for attention, and everyone has their own opinion of what goals young adults should set for themselves. The pressure to succeed can be intense, and of course there’s the ever-present concern over the future. But Vicky is making her own path of life. And she’s on her way to pursuing and realizing her dreams.

In some ways, Vicky’s life has followed a novelistic arc: language, family and sports are the key words. Even though the plot has not fully developed yet, there is little doubt about who inspired the character. She has a full run of how she wants to make her story.

One day, the novel of Vicky will become a best-seller. And I’m waiting for that.



    在北京一个春风和煦的下午,21岁的杨歌笑盈盈地向我走来。她穿着深棕色的外套,黑色的毛衣,黑色的短裙,黑色的丝袜。这是这一季流行的款式吗?我在想。她的头发是金色的,但底部是深色的。典型的欧洲女孩子应该就是这样吧。她笑起来的时候,一串银铃从嘴中飘出来:“嗨,我就是杨歌,其实你早知道了。” 的确如此,感谢当今这发达的即时通讯技术,我们在见面之前已经把一切都商量好了。






    杨歌从10岁起就开始学德语了。她还告诉我说,意大利语其实也不难, 因为她从初中就开始学拉丁语了。高中的时候她又学了希腊语,所以她能读懂现代希腊语和一些句子,尽管不会说希腊语。














Sponsor Ads

China Yellow Pages