Today I had my first real conversation with my new Chinese teacher after I recently dropped out of the Intensive Chinese program into the “regular” Chinese major. Technically, such a major doesn’t exist, but for people like me, who’ve downgraded but formerly amassed enough credits, one can take a series of electives and come out having met the requirements. Before this year, I had Chinese class every day of the week, a rare phenomenon in any college major, and the class was in less of a lecture style and more of a seminar style. This means we talked to our teachers a lot. Grammar points and new vocabulary were always illustrated through personal questions about one’s life, one’s personal philosophy, one’s findings in current events. Answering truthfully out of a strange default instinct means that my teachers of the past seven semesters know me intimately. In my first semester at college during a unit on health and how to speak to doctors, I once answered the question “how often do you get sick?” by saying “I’m sick almost every day.” The teacher acted as if I had answered the question wrong, but I had answered truthfully, even if somewhat jokingly. I’m chronically ill, and it’s kind of rare that something’s not wrong with me.
Our new class is not structured the same way as the many that preceded it. I say “our” because it turns out my year is something of a “bad crop.” We were the largest class by far for three years, but then we suffered a catastrophic population drop over the summer. Many of my classmates’ second major is International Security, and others of my classmates are in the military. These people, somewhat secure in their ability to obtain a career in the current political climate, have all chosen to “downgrade” their Chinese major as I have. The result is that this new elective class feels almost *****, well-worn; there is the same camaraderie as always.
Something else has happened, too. The administration feels colder, now, and there is barely-masked contempt radiating from the Intensive program director on down. I talked to a student who stayed in the Intensive major, and she says the atmosphere in the 500-level class, taught by the director, is tense. The director stresses how their time is stretched thin, and is very valuable, and how grateful the students should be that any is allotted to their education, but at the same time, the director is so busy, apparently, that they cannot be bothered to post the assigned homework in the class dropbox. When the students arrive unprepared for class, the director screams at them. The director screamed at someone just last week, the first week of school, for sending a confused e-mail asking why the homework questions weren’t posted. All of this is par for the course, an accepted feature of the director’s personality, but we all know that there is added malice, and we all know why.
I’m so grateful to be out of that major, to have avoided taking the 500 level. I used my physical health as an excuse, saying I wouldn’t be able to endure the mandatory year-long stay in China that completes the degree. In truth, I was protecting my mental health from the abusive teaching style that has characterized the past three years of my life, or six if you count my time learning the language in high school.
So now, after six years of study, three trips abroad, and achieving a score of Advanced Low on the practice fluency test, I am in the dunce lecture class where the teacher talks half in English and our quizzes are on ten characters I have learned before about every half a week. I’m not the only one here squandering my achievements, in fact people in this class below my skill level are rare. Both myself and my best friend commonly remark that after only one week we can already feel our fluency leaking away from us. Every time I try to speak I forget a word or grammatical construction. Despite the mind-numbing nature of the class, I can feel that our teacher, C Laoshi, is also more intelligent and formidable than the requirements of his job.
Today, I was walking out of class with my best friend and another long-time classmate whom I might think of as a friend. C Laoshi was going in the same direction as the three of us for about half our walk, and I got to speak to him for the first time since we all met him. It turns out he and I are both interested in history and linguistics, and while I am currently taking four linguistics courses this semester to help shore up a minor, his master’s degree is in linguistics. His class may be (perhaps punitively on the part of the director) very easy, but he has not screamed at us, he speaks gently, and he and I are cut from the same cloth. I like him, without any qualifiers like “he’s tough but fair” or “he can be harsh” or “he can be moody.” I just like him, and that’s all.
I’ve been following behind my friends while keeping step with C Laoshi, and when his path diverges we all say our respectful goodbyes, three-to-six years of drilling echoing in our perfect unison. The long-time classmate is telling my best friend stories about a study abroad program that we attended, but she did not. While we amassed credit hours during summer break, my best friend was interning in D.C. Now she has a for-sure job opportunity waiting for her after we graduate in may, when the current 500-level students will head out for their mandatory fifth year. We tell her stories about classmates we loved or hated, and just as we’re nearing my best friend’s apartment, I attempt to tell a story about a classmate I had in what’s known as a “one-on-two drill class,” where one teacher drills two students on their pronunciation and fluency. Strangely, I realize I haven’t seen him around much and that I’ve managed to forget his name, since I mostly only ever heard it said in Chinese. I describe him to the classmate, and she says, “Oh, W. He’s dead, you know.”
There is a sort of meme, a turn of phrase, in the line of screaming “fatality!” or “get rekt!” Among my friends, we say it kind of a lot, to indicate someone’s tired, or maybe just got badly outsmarted or insulted in a conversation. The phrase is “[name] is ******* DEAD!” I often flop down on people’s couches after climbing the stairs or walking to their apartment, and I say “Cara’s ******* DEAD!” Then someone giggles and maybe hands me a glass of water or maybe just ignores me entirely, and goes on about whatever they were doing when I got there. It’s not a big deal, walking in and announcing you or someone else is dead. ******* dead. Dead as a doornail. Utterly rekt, mi amigo, my dude, my palllllllllll.
I slowed down a little, and then kind of stopped. “He’s really dead, or…?”
“He died. Over the summer. He took a break last spring semester and then over the summer, he died at home. It might have been a suicide?”
W liked to party. Some people called him Walking Chimney because he was always smoking something. Once or twice I’d see him at a party and he’d chat with me and ask me how drunk I was and if I wanted ****. The first time I ever had a real conversation with him, I was sitting outside a convenience store in Beijing drinking a liter of beer with my best friend, and he happened to be doing the same thing. When we took the one-on-two drill class together, he was much the same, often complaining he was hungover. You might wonder why I wouldn’t say something to him, tell him to lay off it, and the truth is I have the same stupid reasons as every other young person. I didn’t know him that well, a lot of people at my college have unresolved substance-abuse problems, I was worried I’d look like a hypocrite since a lot of the time that I saw him I was up to the same stuff. I don’t know, I liked him a lot as a person. He was always generous to me, kind in a way he didn’t have to be. I’m a fat girl, I dress weird, I’m always sick. I’m just such a prime target for bullying, especially from a dude who’s got more friends, ****, money, and public confidence than me.
Once we had to do an “exercise” in China where we all had to go out to the market and practice haggling. This is something I’m extremely bad at, not because I lack the linguistic capacity but because I lack the self-confidence. I’d been cooking for myself lately and because our campus grocery store didn’t sell produce, I was starving for something green, and I went with the humble intention of just buying myself one onion to go with my stir-fried mutton. When we left, everyone had something for less than its listed price, and I had nothing but the money I’d come with. W had given me a strange fruit, like some sort of lychee-plum-ish thing. I was hopped up on anxiety and a lack of sleep, and I not only dropped it but pretty much threw it due to my weak, shaking hands. It landed in the street where animals shat and people dumped wastewater, completely soiled and inedible. He gave me another. He’d only bought three.
After W and my other aforementioned classmate and I returned from that trip to China, I had a difficult time readjusting to life in my native timezone. There’d been some problems with my flight, and I’d only arrived home about two days before the start of the semester. I missed the first day of one of my classes because I’d fallen asleep in broad daylight. Over the summer, while I’d been in China, my pet betta fish of two years had died, and I had not been there to see her go. Most people think it’s stupid to cry over a fish, but most people see animals as commodities rather than actual companions, so I don’t really care. That one tiny slip of iridescent blue kept me getting out of bed in the morning for two years. Now she was gone and I’d not been there even to feed her her last meal.
I had nothing to take care of but myself, and myself was in pretty bad shape anyway. I spiraled out of control, becoming nocturnal and missing entire weeks of class as my health suffered in response to my poor self care. In October, less than two months into the semester, I tried to **** myself, and I took the rest of the fall semester off.
I’ve been struggling with depression and suicidal ideation since I was about thirteen. In eighth grade, I wrote a letter to my school counselor that I never gave her, and I eventually threw away the entire mostly-empty notebook it was written in out of shame. The entire thing was tainted, and there was no keeping it, no letting it out into the light. The whole thing had to go. Then I got a couple of good grades or whatever and decided life was worth living. I have always lived defining my worth by my intelligence and my academic abilities, ever since I was told I was “gifted” at six years old. Nothing hurts like not understanding, and nothing heals like an A, hard-earned with the help of multiple all-nighters and unparalleled self-abuse.
I know my peers. They make the same faces I do when they cram before a test. They smack themselves in the head while they try to remember answers. They burn the midnight oil and take naps in the afternoons. They enroll in the Intensive Chinese program, and they suffer through years of sleepless abuse.
During our Sophomore year trip to China, one of my classmates was kicked out of our program. After we arrived back in the U.S, I watched his mental health deteriorate until he was expelled from the University for reasons I still don’t fully understand beyond whispers of rumors.
Last semester, a student from a class above us died during a trip to China. Our program emailed us but never released an official statement about his death, and still absolutely no one knows how he died.
W is dead. I don’t know how, maybe it was suicide or maybe it was alcohol poisoning or maybe it was a freak accident. A living, breathing human whose sweaty side once pressed against mine in a crowded taxi on the way to a teashop is a cold body in a fancy casket in the ground now. I will probably never know how it happened. It wasn’t even emailed to us because he wasn’t in China at the time.
One of our classmates, B, never showed up this semester as well. Someone says he might be in his hometown on house arrest. I may never know. None of us may ever know.