Perhaps the one aspect that I dislike most out here is the curriculum. I'm out here to study for a year so I realize that not every day would be National Geographic levels of excitement and that I would be spending a good part of my time on the opposite side of the globe doing the old nine to five in class. But what makes the daily grind so fucking unbearable is that what I'm getting out of bed every morning at 7:30AM for is such drivel. Every semester there are four different classes.

One is this newspaper article class. The People's Daily...I should save my invective for a slightly more difficult target than the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (actually, far less doctrinaire papers are de rigeur around here.) Suffice to say, all newspaper articles in China are written in a very dry style with a lot of esoteric grammar. I remember the first article I read and having to look up literally 3/4 of the words. But these articles seem to have been spit out by some software program, where it seems there's some algorithm to throw in these phrases in every paragraph, like: "Since the open market reform of 1978..." and "China's economy is [insert colorful adjective] developing." Once you learn these phrases, reading articles is a snap. For example, "Since the open market reform of 1978, Tianjin's women's volleyball team has won 4 national titles." Or, "Gong Li's new movie takes place in the Qing dynasty, long before China's economy began to violently develop."

Another class is listening comprehension. Last semester, this class was characterized by the fact that this class of my four classes focused the least on listening comp. We would sit down and just read through the textbook and then the teacher would have us close the book and repeat the sentences verbatim. On special occasions, we could even "listen" to the passage. This semester's class involved watching what seemed the final projects of Moviemaking 101 students. The teacher liked to play one line at a time, and then ask, "What did she say?" Usually the class would give an incoherent murmur, whereupon she would rewind the tape and play that line again. Finally when someone would speak up audibly (usually after the fifth or sixth iteration), she'd then ask everyone individually what the person said. This went on twice a week, an hour and a half each time.

My third class was a "conversation" class. This class was characterized by the fact that of my four classes it involved the least amount of conversation. We would sit down with 15-year-old textbooks and have the teacher lecture us on what the text means. The only thing I got out of this class was that the lessons were pure Commie kitsch. Besides my favorite lesson (about a mother aborting her second child), there have been some doozies about how wonderful China's ethnic minorities are ("Before, the Inner Mongolians were uncivilized brutes, now they enjoy having mining and manufacturing industries. The Tibetans are a virtuous people who enjoy the economic development we've brought to them.") and the post-market reform farmers' markets ("The open market reforms are wonderful! Now you can buy fresh vegetables and live fish and chicken!" Admittedly I'd get pretty excited as well if I had to put up with only being able to eat pickled cabbage and rice from the months of November to April, like most northern Chinese had to do under the planned-economy era.)

The fourth class was reading/writing. This class's textbook had some unintentionally humorous lessons as well. One was this entire propaganda tract on how chopsticks are vastly superior to knives and forks. Among other reasons, psychologists have discovered that the use of chopsticks at an early age actually develops the brain (that's why they invented paper a millennium before us!). This, in turn, explains the centuries of isolationism adopted by the Chinese, Japanese, and other chopstick-using cultures against those inferior cultures. (OK, so I'm exaggerating. Asian pigheadedness has more complex causes.) Another disappointing thing about this class was in one semester there were about three writing assignments. That's in contrast to at Swat, where I was handing something in just about every day. And from my experience at Swat, I can tell you that the best way to learn a language is to write an essay on a semi-abstract topic and read what the teacher hands back, which usually in my case is covered with red correction marks. My reading/writing teacher for the spring semester had some sort of American culture fetish, so she would constantly ask about things in America. On more than a few occasions, she would also ask me to give her some help on her English homework.

So while my classes have been anything but thrilling, I admit that, despite my teachers' best efforts, I have learned a bit of Chinese out here. I had several Chinese language exchanges with whom I could sit down and learn how to say useful words like slam dunk (kouqiu) or swear words, the two most severe phrases being "stupid cunt" (shabi) and the globally ubiquitous "fuck your mom" (cao ni ma de). Also, learning a few Chinese pop songs has not only increased my vocabulary, but is a useful social skill if confronted by a karaoke machine.