Confucius comes to Karachi

Published March 7, 2014
In this picture taken Feb18, 2013, Pakistani schoolchildren learn Chinese from their teacher Haiwei in a private school in Islamabad. - File photo
In this picture taken Feb18, 2013, Pakistani schoolchildren learn Chinese from their teacher Haiwei in a private school in Islamabad. - File photo

“YES, who would like to come forward and name parts of the body in Chinese,” asks the cheerful bespectacled instructor.

A stocky woman, swathed in a dupatta and shawl, gets up from her seat with a paper sketch of a boy clutched in her hand and walks towards the white board festooned with Chinese New Year red and gold buntings. Pointing to the forehead, she says: “Sir, this is ya chi.”

“Nahin, it is called tou,” interjects Quratulain, sharply correcting Talat before the instructor can.

“Eyebrows are yan jing.” “No! Mei mou,” says the class of eight students in unison.

While the class is in progress, a young man darts into the classroom sheepishly muttering, “Ni hao.” The instructor, unfazed by his student’s late arrival, greets him gladly in return.

“Sir, tongue is shi pah.”

“Yeh toh siyapa ho gaya!” quips a smart aleck, making his classmates laugh.

The young T-shirt and jeans-clad instructor patiently corrects his bumbling student, “Shee tou.”

This is the Confucius Institute, set up early this year following the announcement by the Sindh government that the Chinese language would be introduced as a compulsory subject from class VI onwards in all educational institutions in the province. The institute, a joint venture between the University of Karachi and the Sichuan Normal University, began classes in mid-January. It has 16 students enrolled in the morning session and 35 in the evening.

“We came here in October last year along with four Chinese instructors,” says Huang Guiping, the director of the institute. “We are still in the middle of setting up the place,” he says, pointing towards the unpacked cartons strewn across his office.

“We met a provincial government representative who told us that 25 schools will be selected in Sindh where Chinese will be taught. Teachers from these selected schools will be sent to us for training,” he adds.

Dr Tariq Rahman, an expert in linguistics, agreed that despite “brotherly relations with China”, governments had practically done nothing to promote the Chinese language in Pakistan. Hailing the setting up of the institute he had a word of caution, however: “Studying a language should not be made compulsory since it will add extra burden on the children.”

“The students are interested in learning,” says Tang Miao, the instructor from the classroom whose prior experience in teaching Chinese was in Thailand. “Learning Chinese characters can take up to two years and since this is a beginner’s course of six months, our goal is to teach students to talk in basic Chinese,” he explains.

The class, meanwhile, carries on blithely. Talat’s agony has not yet ended. She has to read aloud her homework that consisted of writing a dialogue in Chinese. “Sir, this is about two friends who go to a restaurant,” she says. “This friend, she likes thandi coffee and wants to order. Sir, what do you say for thandi coffee?”

“Thandi?”

“Sir, cold coffee?”

“Ah, you say liang de kafei.”

The students diligently jot down new words in their notebooks, from tian dian for dessert to ta ti zuqiu for football. A backbencher checks his text messages.

Up next is the smart aleck who pleads to his classmates not to tease him. As he walks up to the board, one can hear chants of students in the next room repeating words in Chinese. Turns out, he is actually smart. He correctly identifies the parts of the body but leaves out one crucial part. “What about fingers? Does the person have no fingers?” chuckles the instructor.

During the 15-minute break, Sarwat, a housewife, says she is doing the course to eventually join as a language instructor in a primary school. “I heard about the government’s announcement and that Chinese instructors will be paid well.”

Quratulain plans to pursue her higher studies in China. Rao Noman, a businessman, is learning Chinese to pursue business interests in China. Talat Hafeez, a science and art teacher, has joined the institute simply because she is interested in learning new languages and getting the chance to practice her English. “Since our teacher does not know Urdu, we have to speak to him in English,” she explains, a sentiment expressed by other students also.

As for the smart aleck, Rana Jawed, a reporter at an Urdu newspaper, his interest in the language is purely for pragmatic reasons. “You are from the same profession and you know what the conditions are like for journalists,” he says dejectedly, planting a seed in my mind as I leave the institute.

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