Monday morning at last, and my first day of school. I quit school in the 9th grade because I bated school. I hated verbs and adjectives and who cared what the Amendments to the Constitution were. What good would the history of Ancient Greece and Rome do me if l was going to work in an electrical goods shop with my father. If l could add and subtract why did I need algebra and geometry? So I quit school and soon after joined the Marines because I wanted to get away, far, far away. I was far away now, about as far as I could go, but the irony was I was back in school. And what was so strange about it all was that I was looking forward to it.
It was Monday morning, and again I was aware that someone was in my room. As I suspected it was Bon Yee, the room boy. Like the day before, he had placed warm bricks at the foot of my bed. Peeking out from the top of my blankets I watched him go over to the washstand and place a bowl of hot tea on the counter. When he saw that I was awake, he reminded me breakfast was ready. Why protest? This was obviously going to be the routine.
I really didn’t like someone entering my room when I was still asleep, but on the other hand the warm bricks at my feet and the bowl of tea did make a difference. I scrambled out of bed, and with my feet on the bricks and my cover wrapped around me I drank my tea. This too I could see was going to become a habit. Hot tea and not hot coffee in the morning. Outside my window the wind howled, and with the wind came dust from the Gobi Desert. Dust began to collect on the windowsill and some seeped in under the pane. It took courage to dress. I didn’t bother with my wrap-around-Chinese trousers and instead put on my winter greens, and over this went the heavy woolen sweater they had given me. The fur-lined boots were a blessing. It was miserable shaving in frigid water, and it brought back to mind when Marsden had me shave under my bunk at the Strand. Could this be Marsden ‘s revenge?
The dining room was not much of an improvement over my room; it wasn’t any warmer. I didn’t get as many stares as I did the day before and I felt more comfortable. I ate my bowl of congee in silence, slipped into my quilted jacket that smelled like a dead goat, and went out into the street. My spirits were lifted when I found my pedicab driver waiting for me. That solved one worry, finding my way to the university.
The university was a grey-stone building with a long winding pathway that led to the main entrance. It was the toughest walk I ever had to make. My only salvation was hope that I would run into Melanowski and Gilbert, and perhaps some of the other Marines in the program, but the only white faces I encountered were a couple of women, and I assumed they were White Russians.
The corridor inside the building was a mad scramble of confused students. I expected someone to blow a whistle and it would all end, but no whistle blew and no bell rang. Where could Melanowski and Gilbert be? I then saw a face I recognized, Dr. Wren. I managed to push through the crowd to reach him. “Dr. Wren, Dr. Wren,” I called.
Dr. Wren turned when be heard his name called. As I approached, he stood firm, and with a calm but stern voice, he said in quiet Mandarin, “Are you addressing me?”
“Yes, sir, I am,” I replied in Mandarin, surprised that the words came so easily.
“Then, guest of my country,” he said sarcastically, “do not address me in English.” I understood completely what he said, but I did not appreciate it. I was trying to form the words to answer him, and at the same time wondered if l told him to go to hell and walked out could I be court martialed, when to my complete surprise he took me by the arm and led me down the corridor to a classroom. He dropped my arm, pointed to the room and without a further word was gone. I stepped through the door and entered another world. I cursed and asked myself why did I ever volunteer to study Chinese? I didn’t like this one bit. Would my teacher be another miserable old bastard like Dr. Wren?
Relief came when I saw a half dozen other white faces already in their seats, and judging by their haircuts they too were Marines. Before I could say a word of greeting; one man put his fingers up to his lips. “Nishi hao ma?” he said, and it was immediately apparent he and the others were already indoctrinated. We were only allowed to speak to one another in Chinese, as Dr. Wren had warned. The professor stood at the head of the class in the front of the room, and he seemed pleased. He was a young man, with a pleasant smile, and I liked him from the start. This wasn’t going to be too bad, and I hoped I wouldn’t be wrong.
“Qing, ni gaosu tamen, ni shi hao,” the teacher said to me-“Tell them how are you.”
And so on this cold winter morning in Peking my study of Chinese began. There were eight Marines and several other non-Chinese in my class, all eager to learn the language. At the end of the class each Marine disappeared while I was talking to the teacher and it wasn’t until the second day we were able to converse, in Chinese of course. Marines came from Tiensin and Shanghai. There were two more language classes of foreign students, and I surmised that Melanowski and Gilbert were in these.
Aside from spoken Chinese, we had to learn writing as well. By learning characters it also helped with the spoken word. I soon discovered what made Chinese calligraphy particularly interesting was the composition in these characters. Chinese characters are formed from the oldest, originally pictographic, elements. When I recognized the character for water, I could easily see when another stroke was added to that same character, it would then change the meaning but it would still be related in some way to water-ice, beverage, snow and the likes. In my room one night I began copying characters for practice, and the next day proudly showed them to my teacher, and discovered they were all wrong. I learned strokes must be delicately balanced against each other and must be made in a precise manner. It wasn’t as easy as I thought.
Aside from two hours of Chinese language classes each day, I was required to attend other classes-Chinese history and Chinese literature. The idea was that the more I was exposed to spoken Chinese the quicker I would learn the language. Students in these classes were of mixed nationalities, including a very pretty White Russian girl I saw sauntering around the class rooms. But most of the students were Chinese, male and female, and to them their studies were a serious matter. The majority were in their late teens, but a few were in their middle and late 20s. Su Fung was 26. She was rather plain, with thick glasses, and very bright. She was from Shanghai and sat next to me in my literature class. Her friend Mae Chu was 25. We broke the rule about speaking only in Chinese during a break when we were in the courtyard.
Both Su Fung and Mae Chu spoke very good English and I was able to gain a lot from our friendship. Both girls’ parents were teachers. They spoke English but they were very naive, as most Chinese students were. I tried joking with them but that proved to be impossible. In our literature class we were studying Chinese poetry and under discussion was T’ao Yuan-ming, a poet from the 4th century. I had to admit I had never heard of him. “You mean you never heard of him?” Su Fung said. “He has had a tremendous impact on generations of Chinese poetry and fiction. He was one of China’s most beloved poets.”
“No,” I repeated, “I haven’t heard of him.” I don’t know how they expected me to know about a Chinese poet from the 4th century. “Have you heard of Robert Frost?” I asked in my defense. I didn’t know much about Robert Frost, except that he was a famous American poet.
“Oh. Robert Frost, yes-‘The Mending Wall.’ T’ao Yuan-ming was before his time, of course, but his poems on beauty and awareness of nature have been compared to those of Robert Frost.” Without intending to do it, Su Fung called my bluff. I was more careful in my discussion with them the next time. I knew nothing about T’ao Yuan-ming, but that was soon to change. In our next literature class we began reading “Peach Blossom Spring.” I didn’t understand all the words but the sounds and rhythms were melodic, especially when the teacher read the poem in Mandarin Chinese. Of all Chinese dialects, Mandarin is the most beautiful. Maybe the Chinese could never in a thousand years develop an atomic bomb within the scope of their language, but they could write beautiful poetry. Su Fung sat next to me in class and translated some of the lines, and when I went back to my room at night I read “Peach Blossom Spring” from a translation I borrowed from the library. The story was beautiful and it captured my imagination. I kept imagining Peach Blossom Valley where the action took place, and even pictured myself coming back one day and searching for a lost valley. In the poem, T’ao describes how a fisherman sailing along an uncharted stream comes upon a radiantly beautiful peach orchard where, “Falling petals fluttered in colored profusion.” Entranced by the orchard’s loveliness, the fisherman explored further and found a narrow passage in a mountain cliff. He entered the passage and suddenly emerged into a land of beauty and mystery, an idyllic community where no one grows old.