Monday, November 5, 2012


From Ting and I: A Memoir...

Chinese 102

Chinese 102 was the second semester of the double-credit, six-days-a-week introduction to Chinese at Cornell. It met at 8:00 a.m. in the basement of an ivy-covered building. Adorable, cheerful, pint-sized Mrs. Ni taught most of the spoken Chinese lessons, being a native speaker. Miss Mills, attractive, serious, taller and somewhat sterner, a former resident of China, dealt more with the written language and the grammar. The class had eight students and was rather informal. We all were interested in the language and enjoyed the class despite the early hour.

What brought Tina to Chinese 102? What brought me?

Tina and I were both in the College of Arts and Sciences, which had a foreign language requirement. I think that a few years of college language training were sufficient. The first-year courses were typically double courses, so I could meet this requirement by taking a language in my junior and senior years.

Tina entered Cornell in the fall of 1962, as a pre-med student. I had entered in the fall of 1960, intending to major in physics, which met the requirements of some of my scholarship aid. Tina had learned enough spoken Chinese, but not the written language, to skip the first semester–Chinese 101–as long as she worked on the written language on her own, which she had done. She had taken French in high school, but French was no longer the useful, “universal language” it once was; perhaps she could more quickly become proficient in Chinese. (Was there even the thought that she might one day marry someone from China?).

Why was I taking Chinese? I had studied French and Latin in high school and could likely have passed Cornell’s language proficiency test with only another year of college French. But ever since my elementary school years, when I would go a half-dozen city blocks to bring my father’s shirts to the Chinese laundry, I had been fascinated by the little picture-words, ideographs, characters, of the written Chinese language. The people at the laundry, through kindness or merely good business practice, were friendly toward me. My stamp collection and coin collection had many more examples of the cryptic written Chinese. I was curious.

In practical terms, China was a potential world power, though slow to bloom, and my Chinese might lead to an alternate career, if physics did not work out. I did take enough of the language to be able to pursue a master’s degree if I chose to and came very close to enlisting in the U.S. Army to be trained as a Chinese interpreter/translator.

The spoken language, the Mandarin dialect of Peking and of the educated classes, has a simple grammar but is hard for Westerners to master because it has many homonyms whose only distinguishing characteristics are the tones superimposed on the syllables. Mau can mean feather or cat, depending on the tone, and there are at least two more mau words with still different meanings. (A few years later, during her first marriage, Tina lived for a time with her in-laws in Taiwan; her confusing the tones sometimes led to humorous misunderstandings, with some loss of face for her.)

The written language has its own special difficulties. Some of the Chinese characters are self evident: “-” is yi, meaning “one” and “=” is er, meaning “two,” and three has an added horizontal line. But from there on, the numbers are not obvious: “+” is ten, for example. A small box is a mouth, and the word for “middle” or “central” has an added vertical stroke. Most of the ideographs simply have to be memorized. They are composed of one or more of 214 “radicals,” often combined so as to give hints as to sound or meaning or both.

A reader of Chinese newspapers can get by with between a thousand and two thousand such characters, where we ended up after the first two years. More challenging work might require memorization of as many as 5,000 characters. Contrast that with the typical educated speaker of English, who probably can read and spell correctly (or almost correctly) 50,000 or more different words.

This disadvantage of the Chinese written language is offset by the fact that speakers of different dialects of Chinese, which differ from one another as much as do the various Romance languages, use the same ideographs for the same words. They can all read the same texts. Sometimes, two speakers of different dialects trace the word-pictures on each other’s palms to communicate.

Tina and I had pleasant times each morning in Chinese 102, followed by hand-in-hand walks to whatever came next, often a coffee or tea date. When it was cold, we would each take off a single glove and hold hands inside the pocket of my coat. Bliss.

By Valentine’s Day 1963, we were deeply in love. We still are, 48 years later. I can offer reasons that we fell in love, but I’m not wholly convinced reasons explain it. Ducklings follow their mothers right after being born, but if they first are in contact with a human being instead, they will follow him, I’ve read. Would they offer up reasons for following him? Perhaps. Some mix of reason and physical attraction had put me head-over-heels in love with Tina. Still am. Character trumps all the rest, and she has proved she has it, in spades.

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