In the early 70's, I was the odd one to study Chinese in France. In those days, what inspired me, besides Pearl Buck's novels and "The Blue Lotus", was the challenge of a difficult language. I quickly became fascinated with Chinese characters and, most of all, I liked my classmates, a small group of fun and interesting people. Among our teachers, one had lived in China in the early 60's and our Department Head, a Frenchman born in Japan, was a prominent Sinologist. Another had to leave China in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, in the late 60's, when things got rough. He was banned from playing the piano, a decadent pass-time during that period, and hadn't quite recovered from the difficult time he had. I was by far the youngest but this eclectic crowd quickly adopted me.
The Cultural Revolution was then in full swing and our study books, printed in Beijing, were full of political jargon. To this day, I have not forgotten "useful" phrases such as "we must follow the path of Marxism Leninism"..." and "Long live Chairman Mao.." For three years, I learned political vocabulary and Classical Chinese but never learned how to say, "My shower is broken, can you please fix it?"
One of the highlights of my university days was an extra curriculum activity initiated by one of our teachers. Under Madame Gauthier's supervision, a few of us started translating "Family" by the famous writer Ba Jin. The novel is about the disintegration of a Chinese family with old-fashioned values and gives a detailed account of everyday life in the early 1900's. I can still hear the shuffling of mah-jong tiles – the twittering of sparrows, as they say in Chinese - and the bickering of idle women. We all enjoyed working on the translation of "Family" and, every time we finished a chapter, our teacher baked a cake to celebrate. Unfortunately, before we knew it, the French translation was published by somebody else. This is how I found out that life is not always a piece of cake...
During that period at university, I went through several culture shocks and one of them was readjusting to France as well as learning Chinese. I had just come back from living with an American family in Texas as an exchange student with AFS. My time in Dallas was about learning another language and coping with cultural differences. Most people I met were conservative to an extreme, sometimes described as "rednecks" by other Americans.
Back in France, the transition from "Rednecks" to "Red China" was not an easy one but I knew that year in Texas had transformed my life and, somehow, paved the way to the success of my journey with China.
After I graduated from university both in English and Chinese, the latter was on the back burner for many years, as it seemed doubtful I should ever go to China. In 1980, I married an Englishman and went to live in London. One day, David looked at me with a stern face and said in his usual collected manner "There is something about you that really upsets me". I braced myself for the worst. "You said you'd pick up Chinese again and you haven't done anything about it"...to which I laughed nervously, feeling relieved. It was ironic that, shortly after my divorce, the chance to go to China should have come unexpectedly.
In January 1986, on a grim rainy evening, I was on a London double Decker on my way home, reading my horoscope to pass the time. I read that something really exciting was about to happen in my life. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to get off the bus and stop by the AFS office as I was a volunteer for them. The staff was frantic as somebody had just pulled out of a new China programme for "mature students". They did not want to disappoint the Chinese and had to find a replacement quickly. They all suddenly looked at me as Bill, the National Director, was pointing his finger in my direction: "How about going to China for six months? He said with his broad Irish accent. "You've studied Chinese and, most of all, you have a British passport to fill our quota. You have exactly two days to make up your mind."
Needless to say, my decision was made instantly. As expected, my family and close friends were enormously supportive. The only hurdle I could see was my Bank Manager since I had a mortgage for my flat in London. Against all expectations, his reaction was tremendous. "In all these years, you are my first customer going to China" he said proudly. "We will defer your repayments for as long as you're away."
The following few weeks were busy resigning from my job, packing warm clothes for the winter in Beijing, getting a visa and saying good bye to friends and family.
- Creator: Depaulis, Anne
- When: The Eighties
- Where: Asia-Pacific
- Category of People: AFSer