Wednesday, June 4, 2014

My year with Chinese

In 1988/89 I spent a year as a teaching assistant for German as a Foreign Language at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA (USA). I was one of the first group of foreign language teaching assistants, a completely new program on campus that year.

picture of Holy Cross campus taken from here

It was a very interesting and educating year in many respects.
I was much younger then.

The T-Shirt reads "Save the Humans" with a picture of a blue whale,
and I bought it on campus. I had it for years and year, and only threw it
out when it was completely threadbare and frayed at the edges.

This is the group of friends I invited for my birthday-party when I turned 24. We went to a Thai restaurant off campus, which felt like total liberty as we were pretty much restricted to life on the campus without a car, and no public transport to speak of.

Lazarus (thrid from the left) brought oppression of a country to my
awareness in real life - he is from Namibia, which was
still under South African oppression at that time.
It was also a year when I took a class in Chinese. I loved practising the characters over and over again, and at the end of the year I had decided I would continue to learn Chinese, get a degree in Teaching Germans as a Foreign Language, and that I would then go to China and teach there.
When I returned to Freiburg after my year in Worcester, I immediately searched out a language class in Chinese. It was a huge disappointment. The teaching style was entirely different from the one we had been using at Holy Cross, where I had been in classes not only with the professor, but with the Chinese teaching assistants as well. Five lessons a week, small groups of students, lots of language practice, intensive visits in the language lab – at the end of the year I had felt I could just take off.  I even dared try to start a conversatin with a Chinese guy who was waiting ahead of me in line at a post-office.
In Freiburg, one two-hour-session a week, fifty students at least, virtually no contact to the teacher, a Chinese assistant who was, I assume, teaching in the same style as he would have done in China. Despite the fact that we were using the same textbooks as in Worcester, I quickly lost my joy in the process. And at the same time tensions were rising in Beijing, students were demonstrating, everybody was wondering what would happen.
On June 4 I went to the post-office early in the morning, before having heard the news, when I saw a group of perhaps one hundred Chinese demonstrators marching across a square, silently. And I knew that something terrible had happened. That set an end to my wish to go to China to teach there. But what is the end of such a tiny little plan in one person’s life who is safe, compared to the many many lives that were lost?

A picture that shook the world. Photo taken from today's
copy of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which runs a full-page report
 on the photographer, and the effects this picture had on his life.

In memory of all the people who believed in a future full of equality, freedom, liberty of speech – and who paid for it their lives, no matter where.

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