After having worked in Shanghai (at a city-guide magazine) for 8 months I realised that I wasn't making the most of my time in China, so I decided to give the Mandarin lessons a new shot. During those eight months as a 'senior writer' at the magazine I had realised that there was just so many conversations I couldn't have because I didn't speak Chinese. It felt frustrating, especially since I never felt I got the whole story/the complete information/answers to the questions I asked. Quitting my job in order to go back to the university felt like a natural choice.
By this time we were living in the French Concession, quite close to Jiaotong University, so I decided I wanted to study there rather than going back to Shanghai Uni. Getting into Jiaotong proved to be harder than expected, however, mainly because the registration time had already been and the classes were full, or, at least that is what they told me when I called the university. Stubborn as I am I refused to give up and nagged and nagged for them to take me too.
-When can you pay the registration fee? asked the (slightly annoyed) office worker.
-In one hour? I replied. I can come straight away.
Deal. One taxi ride and 500 kuais later I had registered for the autumn semester of Mandarin studies at Jiaotong University. (If you are willing to pay it normally works out!)
Since I had studied Chinese before, but hadn't studied at Jiaotong, I was asked to take a Mandarin test (oral and written) in order to decide which class I would fit into. The speaking test went well, I remembered a lot of what I had learned from before and the teachers recommended me to go into level 2. The written test, however, proved to be much harder than I had expected. I knew I had a problem with the characters, but I didn't realise quite HOW big of a problem I actually had until I sat down in front of the computer, looked at a screen of characters and had NO IDEA what any of them meant. It was a multiple choice test, and I did terribly. I think I scored something like 5 out of 70. The writing teacher recommended me to go into level 1.
I decided to try both level 1 and level 2, and figured that maybe in the end, I could go to the level 2 speaking and listening classes and then go to the level 1 reading&writing class. The first class I tried was a listening class (level 2) and I didn't understand one thing. Then I went to a level 2 speaking class and that felt much better. I understood most of the things everyone said and could communicate on the same level as the other people in the class.
The next day I was about to try out the reading/writing level 1 class and I was sitting at the 'Chinese corner' of the university when a guy came to sit at my table. He was French and about to start at level 3. When he heard about my idea: taking speaking and listening on level 2 and reading and writing on level 1 he told me, straight to my face that it would be a mistake, because listening and speaking also requires character knowledge, and that the courses follows each other so that I would miss out on a lot of vocabulary. Thank LORD I met this guy! I then went straight to a level 2 reading and writing (even though I hadn't qualified for it -with my disaster test- I just decided to act oblivious, and pretend I had done well) and even though I understood close to nothing (when it came to the reading) I decided to stay in that class.
My choice of class couldn't have been a bit better. This class was made up of Koreans and Japanese and one Colombian guy who rarely came to class. The bar was set quite high, which was scary at first, but at the same time, this was an advantage because it really triggered me to study my a** off during the first, painful 2 months. I think I spent something like 4-5 hours a DAY (after classes) just on writing characters. Slooooowly things got better and by the end of the semester things actually went quite well. By then I had stopped sneak-peaking on pinyin and my writing had also gotten a lot faster. I actually scored something insane on my final writing exam, like 95%? Anyways, I still think my test must have been mixed up with someone else's.
Being in an ambitious, Asian class proved to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I didn't have any deep, meaningful conversations with my classmates (none of them spoke English), but that semester I learned a lot!