Monday 01 September 1997, Middle School Year 1, Shijiazhuang, China

(As background information, the education system in China consists six years of primary school, three years of middle school, three years of high school followed by four years of university. Admission into middle school can be either by location or by exam if the school is selective; admission into high school is through city wide exam; and admission into university is through country wide exam.)

It was the first day in my middle school, not the most desirable one in the area by the way, but not the worst one neither which was my original destination. To save me from such fate, my parents offered a small donation to this new school which just opened, and I was duly offered a place (which I now realize is a solution that works almost universally). Although they might feel their money was wasted when the desired school somehow acquired the worst school later on, luckily the general price level in China back then was still low, so the amount involved was small.

As I collected my textbooks for the new term, I was amazed by the wide range of subjects there were, both in natural science and social science. One of them, had “English” written in Chinese on the cover, a word I had never came across before. “What is this thing called English” I asked my desk mate. This was fascinating, I felt like Columbus who just discovered North America.

“That is the language they speak in England, I think.” he replied.

“Really? I thought everybody spoke Chinese? Is there really another language out there?” I had just watched Star Wars Episode IV on TV that summer. Not only Skywalker, Darth Vadar, but also the aliens there spoke Chinese. Not to mention, I had never met anyone who didn’t speak Chinese in my life, and being born in a city in China, I had met or at least seen a few millions of people.

“It looks like they use Pinyin as well.” I continued to comment as I flipped through a few pages of the book. It was still years away till I found out Pinyin was the romanization of the Chinese characters rather than proof that everybody on earth spoke Chinese. The shock doubled when I found out A New Hope was not made in 1997 neither but 1977.

Not being aware any of these, I gave my final verdict: “So it must be just a different dialogue they speak there but still Chinese. And it seems they make a lot of spelling mistakes, none of them makes any sense. They should label it the birds’ language” (In Chinese, the word English has the same pronunciation as birds’ language.)

And this was the beginning of my interaction with English as a language.

Score: Me: 1, English: 0