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Home Living in China Foreigners in China Foreigners in China LANGUAGE IS THE GYMNASTICS OF THE MIND
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.

语言是锻炼思维的体操

    如果生活是一部小说,杨歌的故事才刚刚开了个头。

    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。


    我们走过大厦,花园,街区,大厅,终于走到了她学校中一处歇脚的小店中。对我来说,这复杂的像个迷宫,但对她而言,简直是小菜一碟。

    我和杨歌一件如故,吃着冰淇凌,像老友一样聊起了天,虽然这只是我们的初次见面。她有一点羞涩,但是从她的眼神里我能感受到宁静,温暖和信心。

    刚过几分钟,杨歌接了一个电话。“对,我在和一个朋友聊天。”她面带笑容地看着我。她中文讲得很好,流畅,自然,生动。挂断电话她继续用英语给我讲她的故事。要不是她早就告诉过我她是瑞士人,母语是法语,从高中才开始学习英语,我肯定会把她看成一个英语是母语的人。

    在某种程度上,杨歌是个语言天才,她能够迅速而深入地掌握一门语言。对于在学习语言过程中遇到的挑战她毫无畏惧,因此,掌握优美而复杂的汉字的含义对她来说也是顺其自然的。“我在日内瓦的时候主修英语和汉语,所以学了很多汉语。可是当我来到中国以后,我发现自己的中文还是太差了。”

    不过,她的汉语其实并不像她自己说的那么差。她在北京师范大学开始上课才过两星期,学校就把她从初级班转到了高级班。“班里的所有同学都已经学了半年多汉语了,所以他们的水平要远远高于我。我几乎听不懂老师说的话,所以感觉很有压力。”也许这并不是坏事,因为来自同学的压力敦促她不断进步。“开始的时候我又紧张又害羞,不过通过学习和锻炼,我觉得在众人面前说话已经舒服多了。”

    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。

    “我记得曾经有人说过,语言是锻炼思维的体操,一点不错。”看到我吃惊的表情,她羞涩地笑了笑,补充说,“我真的很喜欢学习语言,并比较不同语言之间的不同之处。一个词在这种语言里是这个样子,在那种语言里是什么形式呢,为什么会是这样呢。总之,对我来说,这个过程充满了乐趣。”

    杨歌告诉我她会在中国待一年,专攻中文。当她回瑞士的时候,她有一半中国血统的妈妈一定会为她聪慧的女儿有如此出色的中文能力而感到骄傲的。

    杨歌并不是那种特别健谈的人,但是她回答我的问题时极有耐心,也很完整。她很在乎我这个听众,只有在她觉得我乐意听下去的时候,她才开始对我讲起她在中国生活的感受以及她的家庭背景。

    她的家庭算得上是国际化了。“我的家人来自哪里的都有。我外婆生在旧金山,但她其实是中国人。所以我妈妈是半个中国人,有时她觉得自己更像个中国人而不是瑞士人或者美国人。她的两个姐妹觉得自己更像中国人。我们经常在家里做中餐吃,像典型的中国家庭一样庆祝春节,不过我自己看上去并不像中国人。”

    她拿出了照相机,让我看她家人的照片。她的爸爸是挪威和比利时血统,妈妈和阿姨有着中国人的面孔。对中国人而言这种家庭背景也许很少见,但对瑞士人来说这很常见。“瑞士太小了,也就有台湾那么大。在中国我发现很多孩子都从外地到北京来,同样,很多欧洲人都到瑞士来。”

    和她十年前第一次同父母到中国来相比,这一次,作为一个留学生,她对中国的了解更全面了,对自己的认识也更深了。她曾在安徽省宿州市做了一个星期的志愿者,在一个中学当英语老师。杨歌利用这次机会深入地了解中国的孩子和中国社会。

    第一次站在讲台上,小老师被巨大的班级编制吓了一跳。“开始的时候对我而言组织学生很困难,因为一个班里有五六十个学生。你要知道在瑞士即使在规模最大的班级里,学生数目也不超过25人。这种差异太大了。”“学生们都很用功,从早学到晚,很少有时间休息。”对她来说,中国学校如此紧张的课程设置和激烈的竞争真是难以想象。在瑞士的时候,课程相对而言很轻松。对于善于学习的杨歌来说,她有足够的时间打羽毛球,参加各种学校和社会活动。

    去年北京奥组委曾在瑞士招募英法翻译。我们的体育健将和语言天才很是兴奋。“当我听到这个消息的时候我说,‘算我一个,我来啦’”。不过由于竞争太激烈,杨歌没有入选。她的语气透露了她的失望之情,但是她立刻又换上了轻松的语调:“要是能在北京奥运会上看一场羽毛球赛,我就很知足了。”

    在中国,许多杨歌的同龄人从上大学的第一天开始就已经在为未来担忧了。杨歌不是这样的,她对未来和职业想得并不多。“也许我会做老师,也许不会,我也不知道。我的中国朋友就没我这么幸运了,他们不得不现在就做出决定。”

    对今天的年轻人来说,一个巨大的挑战就是如何找寻到生活的目标。我们听到很多观点,每个人对于年轻人如何设定目标都有自己的一套看法。渴求成功的压力是巨大的,关于未来的选择也是一个永恒的话题。但是杨歌在走自己的路。她在追求并实现自己的梦想。

    在某种意义上,杨歌的生活如同小说一般向前发展,语言,家庭和运动是她的关键词。尽管故事情节还未完全展现开来,但驱动角色发展的力量是不言自明的。她对于如何讲这个故事有绝对的发言权。

    有一天,关于杨歌的这部小说会成为畅销书的。我在等待那一天的到来。


 

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