Today was a sad day for me. The Chinese teacher I've had for the past two years and I had our last class. 马老师 (Teacher Ma) is going to South Korea later this week to work and to live with her boyfriend. She will be back in Xi'an in a few months, but I'm most likely going to be back in America at that time. Regardless, we had our last tutoring session today.
I began having class with Teach Ma in the Spring of 2007. I met her at a school in Xi'an that specializes in teaching foreigners Chinese (the school is particularly popular with Xi'an's buzzing missionary community). I enjoyed her classes a lot, but the school was way too expensive. The missionary aspect of the place also weirded me out a bit. I told her that I wanted to continue having classes with her, but outside of that school. She told me that such an arrangement was against the rules of her contract, but that she'd be quitting the school in a few months. So after I visited America in the summer of '07 and got back to Xi'an that fall, we began meeting again.
Teacher Ma and I met for one-on-one lessons four hours a week for the better part of the past two years. Over these two years, I went from being a really shoddy beginner to the lower-intermediate speaker I am now. We went through the first two books of 发展汉语, the books from the Beijing University Press that Shaanxi Normal University uses to teach foreigners Chinese, and had begun a third intermediate book. We definitely didn't move at a break-neck pace - it took me two years to study what university students study in a year - but we moved at the right pace for me considering that I've been working a job thirty hours a week in addition to studying Chinese during this time period.
Over the two years, we discussed tons of things outside of the books.
One of the things I was able to do was pick Teacher Ma's brain on questions regarding Chinese politics and history that I didn't feel comfortable asking most Chinese people. Teacher Ma is from Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the far west. She's half Uighur, half Han. Hearing her unique perspective on China's development, its history, and its future has been fascinating (and has surely contributed to this blog in many ways).
It's also been helpful for me to have a female Chinese teacher for the simple fact that it's helped me understand my own Chinese girlfriend better. Qian and I have always had a generally smooth relationship, but when there were any rough patches or questions regarding what we're doing, Teacher Ma, who is our age, was able to help me understand the psyche of a twenty-something year-old Chinese woman a great deal.
I've said before that having a Chinese girlfriend doesn't necessarily help one's Chinese. Qian's English is so good that we hardly ever speak Chinese. It's just not worth the effort when English is there for us to use. We're speaking Chinese more often, but still no more than 15% of our total conversation. Having a Chinese girlfriend also acts as a crutch when we're out on the town and Qian can just do all the talking for us. Indeed, having a Chinese girlfriend who speaks English can actually hinder one's Chinese ability.
Having Teacher Ma, who speaks very little English, has been so important for me. All the conversations that we've had have been in Chinese. Our two-hour-at-a-time lessons are probably 99% Chinese, with English only being used a word or two at a time to clarify new words or complex grammar structures. Not being able to revert back to English with Teacher Ma has been so important. I've truly needed someone in my life to force me to use Chinese.
My Chinese is not the best. My tones aren't very good and I don't spend enough time studying outside of the four hours a week we have class to really boost myself into a more fluent level of Chinese. But I'm at a very "conversational level" of Chinese. I can chat with Chinese people about all kinds of different topics, particularly in a one-on-one setting. This ability is most certainly due to the fact that I've been engaged in lessons with Teacher Ma over these past couple years.
I've joked with Teacher Ma before that my Chinese may not be the best advertisement for her teaching abilities, but there's no doubt that she's been a very special teacher. Our classes in Shaanxi Normal University's garden and/or cafeteria have been well worth the small amount of money per hour I paid her.
Assuming that I don't see Teacher Ma after she comes back from Korea later this year, I'm not sure when the next time I'll see her will be. No matter when that is, she and the time we spent together using Chinese over the past couple years are always going to hold a special place in my heart.