This decision brought me lots of advantages
Recently, I have develop a deep interest in the Mandarin language. From young, it was always my weakest subject although my dad was a teacher in a Chinese speaking school back in the 60s in Singapore. He came from China at a young age of 19, a bespectacled man with not many pennies to his name but looking to eke out a living in Singapore.
He spoke with an accent that makes you know straight away that he was not local but from the province of Fujian in China. Somehow, I have never developed a love for the language though half my siblings were schooled in Chinese, the rest of us in English schools. I used both languages when I spoke to my older siblings depending on their schooled language but used the dialect of Hakka when I spoke with my parents.
In school, I failed miserably in Mandarin studies. A lot of rote learning was required in learning the idioms and writing the kanji characters. My essays would always have blanks interspersed between words and the story hardly intelligible. However, I could still communicate in a rudimentary style in Mandarin though I knew it was not an acceptable standard.
Then into my fifties, I became interested in this language. It came about when I was about to treat a young patient from China who came to Singapore to work. She was carrying a thick literature book and her occupation on her treatment card read ‘cashier’ at one of the supermarkets. In our short conversation, I found that she had ventured to Singapore to enjoy her culture and way of life. Though she graduated from the University of Szechuan in design, she had chosen to experience a new life here and could only find work as a cashier. She was struggling with English.
After the dental treatment, I posed her an offer. “Why not help each other ?”, I said. I could teach her English and she could brush up my Mandarin. To my surprise, she sounded keen. That was set and we became committed to meet each other twice every week in the evening at a coffee house after work.
Her name is Kai Zhen. She turned out to be an academic and a great teacher. She would bring materials for me to read. I was determined to unravel the difficulty of learning Mandarin and uncover the beauty of its words and meanings. As I read, she would correct my pronunciation. Then she would assess my understanding and often gave me analogies to help explain the idioms better. In the process, she regaled me with wonderful anecdotes of ancient China which have more than 5000 years of history. There were so many lessons to learn. She had turned me into a very eager student.
Then , it would be her turn to read in English and I would help her with the right pronunciations and explanations. It was a pleasure to have an enthusiastic student lapping up everything during the lesson. We read ‘Animal story’ and many other fables over the weeks. I have heard of the titles of the many books that she was interested but never explore them myself. We also worked through grammar workbooks so that she could prepare for her Toefl exams. We were both fired up to learn and bathe in this form of mental stimulation.
From my learned kai Zhen, we progressed into the philosophies by Confucius and his teachings from the Analects. It was an amazing time. There was so much wisdom and good thinking that one could adopt into our lives even in today’s world. I would consider this type of interaction with a friend as the most meaningful.
All good things came to an end when Kai Zhen announced that she would be returning to China to get married. Our mutual teachings lasted about one year. By then, I have felt that she had given me enough foundation to explore Mandarin on my own. Moreover, the apps that she had introduced to me were very helpful as many books could be downloaded and read free with audio as an alternative. They did not even require wifi. She was determined to continue her English learning back in China.
I am very grateful for this encounter. Even though there is a 35 year age gap between us, I learned that a mentor can be a much younger person. A good teacher is one who is learned and enthusiastic to teach. A good friend can be made if we both share the same values.
My life has been enriched by Kai Zhen because of our chanced encounter as a dentist/patient and because I had popped the question, “ How could we help each other?”
All attempts at mutual education is to help us grow. It widens our vision — Robert Kennedy
This mutual benefit should be practiced more often. Find yourself a great teacher who is kind, generous and knowledgeable. Meanwhile, brush up your own skills whether in art, culture or anything else that may be of interest to others. Then exchange the information gladly. Life is so much more meaningful because of this interaction.