First Day of Chinese School

We’re both fairly quiet in the taxi to the school.

What had seemed like a really good idea at the time – put Zac in a Chinese school for a term or so so that he could improve his Chinese – now seems more and more unnerving.

Not least since Huaze, out of the goodness of her heart, has shared a list of the Chinese characters that Chinese children learn in primary school – more than 2300 of them.

Neither of our Chinese is good enough, at this point, to appreciate the full horror of this, though I, at least, am terrifyingly aware of how very little Zac knows simply as a percentage.

What I don’t realise is this. Zac’s peers haven’t just learned over 2300 characters. They have learned, and know, many, many thousands of words made from those characters, and, probably, many words and characters above and beyond the prescribed list (some of the characters we know, for that matter, are not on the primary list).

I’ve been so proud of Zac’s ability to read a couple of pages of Chinese text – without pinyin!

It hasn’t yet dawned on me that we’re still at the level where our playground Chinese texts have word breaks added to make it possible for us – real Chinese text, of course, is a stream of characters without spaces, with only paragraphing, full stops and the occasional other mark to help.

Nor has it dawned on me that our playground Chinese texts feature deliberately dumbed down grammar, moron-level foreigner-friendly constructions.

I mean…. It’s two whole pages of CHINESE! That’s hard, right?

I’ve been so proud of his stilted little essays with their imperfect grammar, lovingly input on his computer, his painstakingly neat handwriting, perhaps to the level of a less-able Chinese urban kindergardener, or a rural child just entering Grade 1.

I’ve cheered him up after doom-laden encounters with the primary word list by pulling down vocab lists – from US college courses! From British GCSEs!

But, the fact remains that, although he’s some way beyond the level required to gain an A* at GCSE Chinese – not least because he’s comprehensible to native speakers – he’s pretty damn close to functionally illiterate.


But we’re in this now. We’re committed. He, and, I realise, I too, are going to have to give this our best shot. Because he is going to need an absolute tonne of support.

Work? Yeah, that’s going to have to wait.

We toddle up to the first floor for more paperwork with Mrs He. Mother’s Chinese name. 山婷.

Father’s Chinese name? Oh god. He doesn’t have a Chinese name, so they leave him off the form.

Last school. I condense Zac’s alternative schooling history and go with his London primary, for ease. Shacklewell, I say.

What’s the school’s Chinese name? I pause. They need something Chinese to put into their system.

“Xia-ke-jing,” I say. It’s a blend of Chinese sounds and Chinese meaning that I’m very proud of, until I have to write the character for jing (井 – “well”, a nicely elementary character that I can actually cope with), because my tones are off.

They think Zac should study half the day in the middle school with his peers, half the day in the university with other foreign language learners.

That sounds good.

“What about uniform?”

His class teacher will arrange that. Books, too.

He can have lunch at the university. No, no, I say. He needs to have lunch with his peers. And play time with his peers.

Fine, says Mrs He. But today he’ll need to have lunch at the university. I’ll be with him.

And off we trot to the other side, a long ten minutes across this enormous university campus, through grounds still full of snow and black ice.

His teacher greets us warmly. There’s a Chinese lesson in progress, and neither of us have any clue as to what’s being taught.

Oh! He’s starting class.

But he doesn’t have books! Or a uniform!

No problem. She’ll buy them at the weekend.

There’s something else they don’t have. I don’t know what it is, a “zhuozi” – Zac doesn’t know, either.

Oh! A desk.

Oh god. Neither of us even know the word for desk.

Oh god, oh god, oh god.

He can use the teacher’s desk.

She shows him where the loos are.

And, in he goes, with neither pen, nor paper, nor books, in his jeans and winter coat, to a class of 40-odd Chinese kids, all neat in their matching nylon tracksuits, to sit at the back of the class at the teacher’s desk and – well, follow along as best he can, I guess.

It IS immersion, after all.

I look through the meshed window. He seems alert, focused, interested – and unintimidated. Result!

I go off for a sneaky fag, and immediately get lost. It dawns on me that one constructive thing I could do while I’m here is teach Zac his way around.

The school building is split. One wing holds the senior high students, aged from 14-16, with labs on the ground floor, third graders on the first floor, second graders on the second floor, first graders on the third, teachers on the fourth; the other wing is for the junior high students, but follows the same pattern.

There are nine classes of 40-50 children — small classes for China — in each year group. The form rooms are clearly labelled: 初一,初二, 初三,高一, 高二, 高三 etc. Zac’s in 初四.

Right. Well, that seems easy enough.

I pop back up to the form room. They’re on a break between lessons.

Zac is barely visible. He’s almost submerged beneath a pile of excited, hyperactive, curious, puppyish Chinese children.

It’s rather sweet. And he seems to be not uncomfortable with it.

I go to the staffroom. Is there a timetable? Yes, there is a timetable. But it’s handwritten in Chinese.

An English teacher translates it for me, and I write it down.

It appears that most of the mornings will be spent on English, Chinese and maths. Such fun stuff as there is — the science, the history, the geography, the art — happens in the afternoon, when Zac will be at the university.


Can I have a maths book? If I have a maths book, we can look at the characters with our teacher and try and learn some of the relevant words.

Zac’s learned the most obvious words – operations, fractions, numbers, basic geometry, positive, negative and the like. But, clearly, there is more than that that he’ll need to cope…

They’re studying “rational numbers”. OK.

A blare of walkie-talkies, and the kids file down to lunch, teachers stationed every ten metres to control the chattering crocodiles. I extract Zac, and we head to the university canteen, where someone lets us use their card to buy lunch in exchange for cash.

“The Chinese teacher’s handwriting is TERRIBLE!” Zac says accusingly, over jiaozi and noodles.

Even Chinese institutional food, for the record, is delicious. It’s extremely hard to have a bad Chinese meal in China, provided you’re not vegetarian or squeamish.

“Ummm….” I say, wondering how to break this to him.

Probably the thing that most surprises me about Chinese culture is that in a country which has historically valued conformity, rote learning and obedience to rules in everything from literature to painting, the traditional art of calligraphy is one of individuality, of broad expressive brushstrokes, of extreme creative freedom. The fluid, splashy style of some Ming dynasty calligraphy sits so insanely at variance both with our Western ideas of calligraphy and their tedious twiddly porcelain that I will never, ever understand it.

“I suspect her handwriting is actually very good,” I say. “She’s probably using calligraphy. Or joined-up writing, anyway.”

“I can’t read it,” he says. “Not a single character.”

Oh god.

It is, with hindsight, blindingly obvious that in a Chinese school teachers will use cursive, the equivalent of joined-up writing, when they write on the board.

But I hadn’t considered the handwriting issue at all.

Just like English, Chinese print has a range of different fonts, and the characters can be quite wonderfully graphically designed in logos. Fonts are easy enough to cope with, given practise, despite the fact that characters can look very different in their different fonts (氵 is very commonly found on the left-hand side of the character, and I’ve seen fonts where it looks like a twig sprouting branches: despite the fact it’s called “three drops of water” some fonts simply join the drops up).

As in English, people have many different styles of handwriting.

Now, reading handwriting is easy enough when you only have 26 lower-case and 26 upper-case letters to worry about. Or, for that matter, where you’ve only got 35 of each, as in Cyrillic. I imagine Arabic being slightly fiddlier, because the way you write the letters changes according to their position in the word – but character-based languages are a whole new ballgame.

When you have thousands of, often, incredibly complex characters, reduced to their simplest legible form in cursive by omitting parts that only a native – or someone as literate as a native, should such a person exist – seems to know can safely be omitted, and you only know a bare few hundred of them, and you don’t know the words that they’re writing either, it’s…

Well, it’s damn near impossible, frankly. Not least because as a learner you are taught a painstakingly specific stroke order which is then, once you’re literate enough for cursive, thrown out of the window.

Oh Jesus.

I’d thought, initially, that Zac could just focus on the spoken comprehension and not worry about the literacy too much. But it’s simply not possible. To do anything, he needs the literacy. You can’t be in middle school and illiterate, d’oh!


“Did you understand much?” I ask.

No. No clue. “OK,” I say. “To make your time in Chinese classes worthwhile, why not copy the characters down from the board anyway? That way, you’re developing your handwriting.”

We go for coffee and lemon juice in a nice little coffee shop on campus. It feels rather civilised.

We’d understood from the middle school head that there was a 13-year-old Korean in Zac’s Chinese as a Foreign Language class, but the young adults who are waiting there are all…. well, young adults.

There are two Korean girls in their early 20s, who’ve studied Chinese at university. A 16-year-old Korean, rising six foot, with a Hoxton fin and black framed specs, who’s been in school here for a couple of years. A 23-year-old Korean, so dark and stocky that he looks north-eastern Chinese to me.

And, umm, Zac. Aged twelve. And here, as at school, in an ethnic and linguistic minority of one.

They’ll share their books, which look considerably harder than the ones we’ve been using, but one hell of a lot less daunting than the stuff being taught in middle school.

He has neither pen nor paper, because we thought today was a meeting, rather than the start of school. The class is 听 (listening, or comprehension), his second 听 of the day – for yes, Chinese is such a difficult language that native speakers continue listening comprehension classes into high school (and hate them).

Obviously, Chinese as a Foreign Language is taught in Chinese, and the textbooks are all in Chinese.

But new words are spelt out in pinyin in the vocab lists, and translated into English, so at least he has that to help him. And the characters go up on the board in neat stroke order, not in cursive.

I race around the campus trying to find a shop. Oh. There’s one across the freeway.

I buy a notebook for Zac, a notebook for me, and a stack of pens, and bring them back to class.

He’s focused, and alert. That’s one of my key worries gone. I thought he might be glazed, but he’s not. Which, given he spent much of his time in his English primary school glazed, is strike one for Chinese school.

And then I go for coffee.

Mrs He appears at the end of class. She wants to talk about buses. We need to get the bus at 7am tomorrow, the two of us. There isn’t a middle school bus, so he’ll have to take the university bus, then run very quickly to his classroom so as not to be late.

Class starts, in Chinese middle school, at the ungodly hour of 7.25am.

She chalks up characters on the board. It’s a map of the bus stop, in Chinese.

We don’t know the names of the roads she’s referring to, nor do we know the characters. It’s near us. Good.

I repeat them back, write them down in pinyin, and hope to god that Google Maps comes up trumps.

Does Zac have a mobile phone?

He doesn’t. I’ll get him one, I say.

More stuff about buses. He needs to learn the “paizi”. Paizi? Oh, the registration number.

I’m to come in with him.


Oh! I see. An entire fleet of coaches are pulling up in the parking lot. Yes, he does need to know the registration number.

That’s our bus. That gold one there. It’s full of staff from the university, and, almost inevitably, we end up taking someone’s usual seat.

I make smalltalk with our neighbour, who’s not a professor but a teacher. Zac doesn’t.

There is nothing in his notebook from class. He’s written nothing in his text books. He’s comprehended nothing of his comprehension, though he did have a reasonable idea of what was going on in something I’ve never heard of called HSK.

This was always going to be a sink or swim exercise, I think. And it’s painfully clear that he’s going to sink not swim, because, for all that this school (highly unusually) offers language support, I have sent him in woefully, woefully under-prepared.

I grapple with a whole raft of sick, stressed emotions. I’ll come in with him in the mornings, pick him up in the evenings. Get him a mobile phone so he’s contactable.

Show him around the site so he’s not wandering lost on that horrible cross-campus commute: the campus, in both area and population, is more than 30 times the size of his 400-child London primary.

Be constantly positive, which, given I’m not a morning person, will require getting up at least ten minutes before him to have a smiley face on and breakfast on the table, not to mention having dinner on the table every evening.

And, perhaps if I look at the maths book with our teacher, we can break all those godawful characters down into handy keywords for him.

“I think you’re doing brilliantly well,” I say. “It’s such a huge achievement, coping with school in any foreign language, let alone Chinese. I’m really proud of you.”

Frankly, I think to myself, understanding anything is a huge achievement. Not running screaming from the room is a huge achievement.

Because, even in the light version which he’s experiencing – 7.25-4.30, not 7.25-5.40 – Chinese school is very, very much harder than Everest Base Camp.

13 Responses

  1. Daniel says:

    Hi Theo. You’ve got a great blog! I’ve been reading your stories the whole day. My wife and myself have been travelling through Southeast Asia for 4 months now and can totally relate to many of the situations you’ve written about. I have already subscribed 🙂 Good luck with the Chinese lessons!

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! I’m a little behind on our lives, but they’re actually going well. So glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  2. Catherine Hartmann says:

    Seriously impressed by both of you.

  3. gweipo says:

    He’ll be fine. Don’t worry too much about it, it may take about 3-4 months while he’s absorbing, and then he’ll probably be able to start producing.
    As long as the teachers are kind (which they appear to be) and his classmates tolerant he’ll be OK.

    Please read Jin Li’s ‘cultural foundations of learning’ –

    It’s the book I wish I’d read when my kids were going through chinese immersion.

    • Theodora says:

      I think you’re right that it needs a timeframe of at least 6 months — classmates and teachers are both great. But the hours are insanely difficult. Did you do immersion on the mainland, or in Taiwan?

  4. Helen says:

    I am so glad you have reached school part of your journey. Looking forward to lots more tales of the classroom and education in Chinese.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. I’m going to have to race through it somewhat… I am SO behind on my life…

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    A really good piece on what it was like – I was going through it with you!
    PS typing this in Tikla which re-opened today (Gk Easter tomorrow). They asked after you both and I showed them my screen saver picture with Everest in the background. Much admiration!

    • Theodora says:

      That’s nice to know…. Hopefully we’ll have some good pictures from Mongolia, as well…

  6. Randy Zhong says:

    Your son is 12 years old and they put him in 初四? I know I finished my 中学 long time ago, but as I recall a 12 year old should be more likely in 初一 or 初二. At least in my days, Chinese kids starts primary school at about 6, so after 5 or 6 years of primary school they start middle school at 11 or 12.

    • Theodora says:

      Aaarrrgghh. Typo. My literacy is terrible. He’s in 初一四:Year 1, Class 4 (I think I may have missed a “ji” but I’m not far off illiterate in Chinese, so I don’t know which “ji” and can’t visually remember the sign.) This school, oddly, has 初一,二, 三 then 高 一,二, 三。 So, no, they haven’t put him in with 14-year-olds. Thank god.

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