Chen Tian Ke
C hentianke was a very proper young gentleman when he would arrive at our apartment for his lessons. Our apartment was a large one, with a phenomenonaly large living room for a Chinese apartment. It was apparently the former residence of a Communist party member, though how ' former' was a question up for debate. (Later we would learn that the apartment was the current property of state run company and it was meant to house the leaders from away when they came to Nanjing for an over-seeing visit. However, they apparently came for these visits very infrequently, and a few members of the danwei thought renting out the apartment was a clever way to make an extra buck or two.) Though it was so spacious, with three of us living there and splitting the rent it was entirely affordable, and too good to pass on, as it was truly in the heart of our bustling neighborhood.
Soon after we moved into our apartment at the beginning of September my roommate resumed his classes with his youngest tutee. Chentianke was only about five years old when Zoran and he began their English lessons together, and now he was just six and a half. I was rather shocked when Zoran told me about his youngest English student, because I was surprised to hear that his family wished him to begin private English lessons so young. I figured that most children started their English in school and some of the luckier or the more serious ones would perhaps have a private tutor later on, in say, middle school or high school.
However, as Zoran was quick to point out, it is much easier to form a solid lingual foundation when you are younger, perhaps because of the fact that the mind retains some certain plastic and elastic qualities which have not yet stiffened into formed molds. Chentianke's parents lived not far from Nanshida, and decided that hiring an English tutor from amongst the university's foreign students was perhaps a sound investment both in their son's future and in their own.
The first few times Chentianke and Zoran held their lessons in our apartment the little man was far too nervous and polite to speak with me. But his shyness, and indeed, even his aloofness, drove me on in my quest to get to know him. However, while Chentianke refused to speak with me or even meet my gaze directly, his mother was quite exactly the opposite. She was out-spoken and gregarious; quick to begin any conversation in her rapid but clear Chinese. Even though she knew I couldn't have understood all that she said, she would steam-on ahead, occasionally pausing for a "Ming bai le ma?" or a "Dui bu dui?". Zoran, whose Chinese far surpassed my own, would answer and chat easily along with her. Chentianke would stand to her left, nearly hidden behind her, occasionally risking an upward glance in my direction, although primarily occupying himself by staring at the toes of his shiny sneakers.
After chatting for a good few minutes his mom would leave with a kiss or a tousle of the hair for Chentianke. He and Zoran would then begin their very beginner lessons at our large Chinese-style dining table. I would watch as Chentianke would climb up into his chair; first placing his feet on the bottom rung and then swinging one small leg up onto the seat. As I didn't wish to be a distraction I would either leave the apartment for another haunt, or I would retire to the privacy of my bedroom. From there, with the door just slightly ajar, I could make out small snatches of their lessons. Zoran's much deeper and louder voice was obviously easier to hear, though occasionally while I was reading I would catch the excited replies or exclamations that Chentianke would make; sometimes in Chinese and sometimes in English.
Their lessons were basic, and extremely repetitive, as all language lessons tend to be, but Chentianke's progress was apparent. His original shyness ultimately gave way to an excitable character. He loved to sing, and Zoran taught him a number of English songs, so though he would still frequently enter the apartment with his cloud of silence still surrounding him, he would always leave singing an enthusiastic rendition of "Happy Birthday" or "We Wish You a Merry Christmas". While he was still rather demur when it came to any interaction with me, now he would always say hello and goodbye, and would often ask me, "How are you?" Or on off days this question would be " Zenmeyang ?" This may seem a strange question for such a young person to ask, but I suppose he asked it because that was precisely the question I had always asked him from the very beginning. At first he had refused to answer, and had instead hid his face behind his mother's leg, then his answer was a steady but short, Good, which finally gave way to "I'm fine, thank you, and you?, "I'm ok; very tired.", "Awesome! Tomorrow is a holiday!"
I'm Julia Maher, and I have been living off and on in China since the late summer of 2001. I have spent my time here both studying Chinese and teaching English, sometimes simultaneously, and others not. Most of my time has been spent living in Jiangsu province, but I have just recently moved to Chengdu hoping to experience life out west.