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After five minutes of trying to explain his idea, Manfriend threw up the white flag.


“I give up,” he moaned. “This sentence is s***.”

“Uh, yea you’re right. It is,” our teacher said distractedly (and without realizing how harsh her comment was).

Manfriend was stunned — did she really just say that? I burst out laughing. Manfriend and our teacher are long-time colleagues and friends, and every class was a bilingual comedy show between the two.

“Oh, I mean …” she started to say, but we stopped her. “Mei shi,” we said. “It’s fine.”

And it was. We’re well aware we aren’t exactly shining students in Mandarin class.

In fact, over the year Manfriend and I had been having classes together, I’d noticed we broke damn near every major rule we had in our own classrooms.

Don’t speak your native language in class! My classroom is an all-English environment, to encourage students to more naturally rely on English rather than revert to Mandarin. But in our weekly HSK* 5 course, I’m ashamed to say I speak more English than I do Chinese. Yikes.

Do your homework! That’s an obvious one, and for good reason. My students who consistently do their homework make clear and significant progress over their classmates who don’t. It’s no wonder it takes us two to three classes to complete a unit. (I’d say our defense was that we work full-time, but my students’ schedules rival ours any day. Again, yikes.)

Don’t get discouraged! When my students feel embarrassed or upset, I cheer them on. “Don’t worry, it’s OK to struggle! Just keep working!” Then there’s Manfriend and I. Once we start to feel down about our lack of progress, we sulk, childishly waiting for class to end so we can quit and move on to allegedly more important things. (Ah, to be an adult.)

I’m not proud of this, but I’m well aware my continued efforts in Mandarin class are more motivated by stubbornness than anything else. Trust me, I’m no natural talent.

And now more than ever, we’re feeling the pressure. In a fit of madness, we registered ourselves for the HSK 5 exam in spring of 2020. To prepare, we’re working our way through the text: two books, each with 18 units.

As of November, we’re on Unit 12. Of 38.

It’s OK, you can think it. We know we’re doomed.

Nevertheless, on we go. I quite like the lofty goal — it’s good to know where I want to go, even if the road is a winding one, riddled with pot holes and lots of roadside distractions.

Let’s just hope we keep our tantrums at bay the next time we’re asked to make a sentence.

Remember, Alex. If a six-year-old can do it, so can you.

* The HSK curricula stands for “Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi,” or “Chinese Language Level Test.” There are six levels, each testing your reading, listening and writing/grammar skills.

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