This week at Auburn I taught Chinese. It came as a surprise, really: when we checked our belongings in at the front desk I noticed a fellow tutor holding what looked like worksheets that were written in Chinese. She explained to me that she taught a small Chinese class and invited me to join her in administering a quiz for her class.
It turns out the entire Chinese class that night consisted of three people. The five of us sat around a single table in a classroom filled with other students who were there for study hall. She worked with two students and I worked with one student who I’ll call John. As I scanned the contents of the quiz, it occurred to me that I had never taught Chinese before.
I was born in China and came to the US when I was six years old, having only completed half of first grade in China. My parents, especially my dad, were insistent on teaching me Chinese at home. Meanwhile, I stuttered my way through ESL courses at school to learn English. Soon, English became my first language, and my Chinese proficiency lagged far behind. I could begin to master the phonetic patterns and idiosyncrasies of the English language, but I found Chinese characters—with their cryptic entanglement of strokes and curves—to be dizzying. It was painful, but thanks to my parents I became proficient in Chinese.
To my relief, the quiz was not complex, and since John struggled from the onset, we ended up working on the questions together. On my sheet, I would read out the pronunciation of a word—its pinyin—and he would write it out and label it with the corresponding intonation—flat, rising, falling-rising, and falling—on his sheet. I often pronounced words twice to fully enunciate them. Once he wrote something down I looked to confirm or correct his answer. Most of the time he was off on the intonation. Because his only writing utensil was a pen, he corrected his mistakes by bubbling out the tiny intonation marks he made and gingerly made a mark with the correct intonation next to the word. By the end of the section his sheet looked like an intricate path of squirrel tracks in the winter snow.
We continued this procedure for over an hour. Once he started to get familiar with the way the intonations were pronounced, he began asking me about the meaning of words. I took the opportunity to use the chalkboard behind me to write out the Chinese characters for him to see.
For example, I explained to him the etymology of the word 国 which means “kingdom.” This word combines the border-shaped character of 口 that encloses the character of 玉 which means “jade.” Ancient jade is a symbol of immortality that became associated with emperors. 国 combines these two meanings to indicate the territory that demarcates the sovereign’s domain—a kingdom.
Over the course of the night I learned that John knows six different languages and English is not his first language. He told me that he wants to learn in order to open opportunities to do business across the world upon reentry into society. He sees mastery of language as the doorway to understanding each culture’s needs and wants.
John’s ambition to learn a new language at his age is impressive. His recognition of the value of language demonstrates the empowering effect that it has had on his life—and his dreams. As far as I know, there’s no language requirement for the associate’s degree that these students are working towards. Yet unlike his peers, most of them very well read, John, like the other two students learning Chinese, chose to challenge himself with an entirely new language. They borrowed books from the prison library on the Chinese language to self-teach themselves.
John reminds me of Malcolm X who recounts in his autobiography how he taught himself to read and write while in prison. For Malcolm X, words—which he had taken for granted while in school—were the repository of knowledge, a knowledge that led to understanding how the world really works and what people and history inhabit it. The ritualistic repetition and discipline of self-education became to him a process imbued with sacrosanct meaning: “That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary.”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that knowing how to use words well has been the essential pillar of my liberal arts education at Cornell. They say that the university is a universe of ideas—but these ideas don’t take flight of their own. Ideas have to be articulated and expressed so that they can be learned and shared. The way we talk about things literally defines what those things are, not in some metaphysical sense, but in the how we understand and act. And as John’s curiosity reminded me, that is why we both choose to be lifelong students.