You can walk your sun-lit path, I’m going to walk my lonely wooden bridge.
Or so says my mother. She taught me this phrase, like many other Chinese idiomatic phrases, in the middle of a lecture. Now, more than ever, this phrase is being applied to my life here in Beijing.
A recap of the happenings this first week of classes: we started with a two-part test to separate the students into 高级班 and 中级班, advanced-level and middle-level Chinese classes. The system here keeps all of the students in one room, separated by level, and teachers cycle in and out per class. Personally, my Chinese oral and listening skills are at a proficient level (bothers me when people ask if I’m “fluent”, which is a no-no word for any language learner) but I can barely—and I mean barely—get by at a preschool/kindergarten reading and writing level. Subsequently, instead of having an oral test, the Chinese teachers and I discussed the best plan of action for the next 9 months of class. They asked me if I’d like to go to the higher level class, where I knew I would absolutely struggle the entire year, lagging pretty significantly behind the other students in almost every class except 听说课 (listening and speaking class).
Maybe it’s my Montgomery County conditioning to always stretch myself with the most difficult course load, or maybe it’s just the nature of being compared to 15 other Chinese language learning-peers (all of which I’d just barely met), but my initial instinct was to say “yes, let me take on this challenge! If they can do it, so can I!”
Then, Mom’s voice came to me. Mei, don’t do that. Despite the fast-paced fancy vocabulary and almost glamorously difficult course of study that joining the 高级班 class would entail, I’ve got a language to learn, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do it without foundational basic knowledge in all four language skills.
I’m in 中级班 (and got “elected” to be the 班长 aka class monitor—thanks Aristide!), finally learning how to write all the words I want to say, consistently finding flow state in the endless repetition of characters. (I also go to the other class for their speaking/listening class—finding much excitement in being stretched.)
The rest of the week progressed, slowly but surely. This week felt like a month. Monday and Tuesday included a lot of introductions and not much homework, but waking up at 6:10 AM, going to morning 自习 (self-study) at 7:15, having Chinese class until lunch at noon, back to class from 1:20-4:10, going to the supermarket/mall Carrefour—every single day—until evening 自习 from 7-9 and lights out (yes, completely out) at 10:10 PM five days in a row after a luxuriously wonderful summer break was a little tiring.
Similarly, the YES Abroad Senegal kids just landed a few days ago (Instagram can really be a wonderful tool). I’m going to be honest—as the first week and the subsequent moments of discomfort and restriction have passed, I found myself wistfully wondering what fun I’d be having had I chosen to go to West Africa instead. Yes, yes, I know, Mom and Pa, I’m literally living what I’ve been dreaming of for the past many months. Yes, this experience is what I make of it, and yes, mindset is the key to success, happiness, productivity…
Time and time I have to remind myself—this path is one that I have chosen. This lonely wooden bridge, crawling with bugs and marked with endless vocabulary repetition may not be lined with sunny Instagrammable photos, but it is the one that I have begun to cross. And cross it I will.