China - Learning Chinese by Ralph Glazer (1983)

Having decided that I was to be their next Manager, Peoples Republic of China, British Airways sent me to the Central London Polytechnic for a year, to learn some Mandarin before taking up my post in Beijing. As a full-time student of the Chinese language, I obtained a Student’s Rail Card, and thirty years after allowing my membership to lapse, I rejoined the National Union of Students and started to enjoy once more the discounts and privileges which go with membership. All this at 54 years of age!

Bearing in mind that the Chinese language degree course lasts four years, I made reasonable progress in my one year of study, and in the hope of improving things by a process of subliminal learning, I tried listening to the language tapes on my Walkman as I fell asleep.

However, this had no apparent effect until, that is, I reached Beijing, when in my early days I would fall asleep at meetings as soon as I heard Chinese spoken.

My command of Chinese was put to the test two years later, when Lord King, the Chairman of British Airways, came to Beijing and I went with him to meet Hu Yizhou, Director General of CAAC, the Civil Aviation Administration of China. As the meeting was coming to an amicable conclusion, Lord King, by way of conversation, said:

‘I’ve spent a fortune teaching Ralph to speak Chinese, and I wonder if I’ve been wasting my money. So you, Ralph, speak to them in Chinese, and you, (pointing at Hu) please tell me if his Chinese is any good.’

I could have said something grovelly, like ‘Lord King is delighted to have had the pleasure, etc…’ but Lord King was not a man to be grovelled to, and I found myself saying, in Chinese:

‘My friends, please tell him that I speak good Chinese.’

CAAC interpreter, in English:

‘My friends, please tell him that I speak good Chinese.’

I wondered why the floor was taking so long to open up and swallow me, but Lord King was delighted:

‘Excellent! Well done, Ralph! Now I know that I haven’t wasted one penny of my money!’

And Hu Yizhou was beaming at us, while his interpreter was looking decidedly inscrutable.

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