She had just turned eighteen. It was the fall of her freshman year at that college in the mountains.
The college was famous for its language classes, and she was good at languages, so she signed up for Russian. It was the weirdest, for lack of a better word, language offered.
Then she received a letter stating that Chinese would now be offered. Chinese? she thought. Well. That certainly outdid Russian in its unusual-ness.
She signed up.
Chinese I met every morning from 8-9, and again every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from 2-3:30. This was more than a pre-med science class, but she did not think in those terms back then. She wanted to take Chinese, and take it she would.
That first day, 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, there were 16 in the class, mostly freshmen like her. They sat quietly around a long rectangular table in a first floor classroom. In her memory she is wearing her pink skirt, but in her memory she is always wearing that pink skirt, so she doesn’t trust the pink skirt memory.
Right now, as she types this, she’s looking at an old red spiral-bound notebook open to the first lined page.
Chinese 101. Sept. 11.
zai = to be located at.
ai = to love.
shan = mountains.
dui bu dui = correct?
dui = correct.
budui = incorrect.
Below, on the same page, is the first character she ever attempted to write: wo, which means “I.” Over and over and over, in what now looks to her like a two-year-old’s attempt at Chinese, the word is printed on the page.
At least she can tell what word it is, though. The next one, Ni, meaning “you,” is incomprehensible. It’s obvious, looking at it, that this was her first day of Chinese.
But she gets ahead of herself. Back to the long rectangular table, and the sixteen or so of them sitting quietly around it.
The door opened then, and a tall man with a big nose strode in, barking an incomprehensible stream of Chinese at them. Pointing around the table, frowning, smiling, babbling a wild stream of words that made no sense whatsoever.
The sixteen quiet students sat frozen in their chairs. What had they gotten themselves into?
Next morning, Tuesday, at 8 a.m., there were only eight.
Which is testament to the power of the man they knew as Bai Laoshi. Because his pronunciation was perfect, hers is good. Because his command of characters was marvelous, hers at one time was not too bad. Because he expected her to, she spent her junior year in Taiwan.
He was a Teacher. He taught a language from a country, a continent, where teaching is the most revered of professions, and he lived up to that standard.
Back to the red spiral-bound notebook. Here, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, the word STUDY appears in capital letters, surrounded with stars.
Directly below it is a word she would’ve sworn she didn’t know and never learned: bingkuai, which means ice cube.
Thursday, Nov. 30, is boxed off with an ink rectangle, followed by the word STUDY! with an ! following it.
Tuesday, Dec. 5. Why, what have we here? Could it be the word STUDY, repeated three times and surrounded with a series of faintly desperate-looking rays? Indeed it could.
Teaching, to her, can be boiled down to this one pivotal moment:
It is November, a bit over two months into her study of Chinese. The remaining students in Chinese 101 are now reading a novel, greatly simplified, but a novel nonetheless. They are going around the table according to the pointed finger of the hooknosed Bai Laoshi. Her turn is coming and she’s scared.
In memory, which she doesn’t trust, given the constancy of the pink skirt – which, she now remembers, she didn’t even buy until two years later, when she was living in Taipei – she was pretty much always scared in Chinese class. She wanted so badly to do right, to pronounce with the correct tones, to master the characters, to see that smile spread across Bai Laoshi’s face.
There it was. That was her name in Mandarin – it still is, as a matter of fact, immortalized forever in the necklace her friend Oreo made for her and which never leaves her neck.
“Translate the next paragraph, please!”
She stares down at the black pictographs on the white page. My God, this language is hard. They are talking about a boat on this page. There is something about air, something about a boat, something about water. . . and then there’s a rush that makes her lightheaded, her whole self filled with power:
“If that’s the way the wind is blowing, then wouldn’t the boat also be able to go by itself in the water?”
Out it comes. She knows she’s right. She didn’t have to think it through, laboriously translate each and every word, try to remember the unfamiliar rules of Chinese grammar.
She looks up from the novel, and there it is.
That spark of connection between teacher and student, the unmistakable jolt when the teacher has held his arms out and taught with all his power to the very ends of his fingertips, and the student has bent over those books every night and gone to class every morning, cramming whole new worlds into her hurting brain, and there it is, at last: the leap, the electric jolt. She had in that one moment vaulted to a new level of learning, and they both knew it.
She wanted to be a writer, but she studied Chinese, not literature. To this day she doesn’t know exactly why, but she does know that it had something to do with the fact that she knew she was in the presence of a magnificent teacher.
Now, when she’s prompted to answer security questions online, and the question is “Who was your most influential teacher?” she types in “Bai Laoshi.”
When her children talk about the one teacher at their high school who is feared and respected and adored simultaneously, the one teacher that the students give their all for, she nods knowingly and thinks, “He is their Bai Laoshi.”
His is the face that comes to mind when she thinks of the word “teacher.” His is the voice that still echoes in her ears – gen wo shuo, say it with me – when she carries on a silent conversation with herself in Chinese.
When she makes dumplings every year on Chinese New Year, she is transported back to the dumpling parties he and Alice gave every year. When she looks at her youngest child, born in China, she knows that their life as mother and daughter really began long ago, on September 11, in Chinese 101.
Jan. 30. Test!!! Study!!!
Mar. 9. Review all grammar and characters from semester!!
March 27. QUESTION: WILL I MAKE IT THROUGH THREE YEARS OF CHINESE???
Thirty years later, the answer is yes. Bai Laoshi, duo xie.