More than Memories
Written by Mark Lenhart, Executive Director
CET Academic Programs - Celebrating 30 Years of Education Abroad
Think of the last time you visited a place that holds powerful memories. When you visit your old high school, for example, you expect things to seem different. You know the building will look smaller than you remember, or the teachers will look younger. What you don’t expect is how visiting can call forth long-forgotten memories—how you find yourself remembering whole conversations simply by wandering into a particular classroom. Despite 25 years of drastic change, Beijing still does this to me.
During the fall of 1987 and spring of 1988 semesters, I attended the CET Chinese Language Program in Beijing. Like all CET graduates, I have fond memories of my time abroad. Today I serve as CET’s Executive Director, so unlike many alumni, I have the unique opportunity to revisit my memories on my regular trips to China.
It always starts with my Chinese. When I step out of the Beijing airport to catch a cab, I usually worry about my speaking ability: are the right words and tones still there? Quickly it comes back, and after a 45-minute conversation with the cab driver, I regain confidence. Two or three days into my trip, some gate opens, and memorable phrases start to flood my mind. Zhǐ yào nǐ guòde bǐ wǒ hǎo, was a song lyric my friend Kang Erxu always said to me as a joke, each time he said goodbye. I remember hearing my friend Shu Haijun ask for a bathroom near Tiananmen, probably in the spring of 1988: “Nǎ’er yǒu cè suǒ?” That seemed so much better than the definitive “Cè suǒ zài nǎ’er?” we learned in beginning class, and it stuck. “Shy Like an Angel,” a pop song from 1987, was wildly popular despite its chorus sung in English. My Chinese friends jokingly sang it as “Shā le nǐ wèi gǒu” or “I’d kill you for a dog.” The tune and the joke pop into my mind every time I return to Beijing.
Certain buildings do the same thing, as I discovered during my visit to Beijing last week. Here is the Shangri-la Hotel, newly opened in 1987, where I regularly taught English to a group of hotel staff in the spring of 1988. There’s the Xiyuan Hotel, where CET students might splurge and buy a Cadbury bar with the strange Foreign Exchange Currency (FEC) that no longer exists. There’s the Ganjiakou Mall, which replaced the state-run department store, which replaced the green stalls that free market pioneers assembled when I was a student. Ganjiakou is where I struggled with my 200-level Chinese to buy a towel, without knowing the word “máo jīn,” on my very first weekend in China.
And then there are the people. Many of the teachers and Chinese roommates who have taught CET students over the years keep in touch with me. This time I visited a group of five retired teachers in Harbin, including 90-year-old Ma Ning Laoshi. Ma Laoshi, who speaks Russian and Japanese fluently from the old days, has been a much-loved mentor for dozens of CET students. Over lunch these teachers laughed and reminisced about the CET students who stood out: the one who decided to join a Chinese monastery (Ma Laoshi talked him out of it); the one who created a strange necklace out of his wisdom teeth; the one who actually took Zhou Laoshi’s advice and learned a new chéng yǔ (proverb) every single week. These students were wonderful because they asked such great questions, the teachers said. Claiming to have learned as much as they taught, these teachers reminded me that the CET programs often affect our hosts as much as they affect our students.
As CET celebrates its 30th anniversary, and as we all look back, here is my wish for our students: that the memories forged while studying abroad stay in the forefront of your lives through continued contact with your roommates and teachers. We are delighted every time we hear that a CET graduate works abroad, uses the new language in his or her career, or returns to the host country for business or pleasure—and many of them do!
To read more 30th Anniversary blog posts click here