In early February, I met my old classmate Jarka, a Czech, in Prague. We hadn't met for 50 years. We looked at old photos we had taken in Peking University in an Autumn vacation in 1954. Both of us were studying in a special class for foreign students to learn Chinese language. We had finished the first academic year, and just begun the second.
These old photos brought back many warm memories.
Our class had 11 students, 4 Czechs, 4 Germans, 1 Mongolian and two Finns, Aarre Nojonen and me. Each of us had a Chinese name, Ke Ling for me and Nan Yu for Nojonen.
We had a very busy class schedule, 4-5 hours in the morning and 2-3 in the afternoon. Writings by famous literary persons, like Lu Xun, Ding Ling and Mao Dun, were shortened to make it easy for us. Besides, we read articles and speeches by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other Chinese leaders, as well as some written in the classical literary style.
In order to practice spoken Chinese, we had small groups, 5-6 persons in each. In the group, we did intensive reading and discussion.
Ma Xinhua was our teacher, a graduator from Beijing Normal College that spring. We were her first group of foreign students.
We were very close, not in a traditional relationship that teachers asked questions and students answered them. She was very familiar with each of us. By our different levels, she helped each of us. We were very honest with her. To us, China was a very strange country. We knew very little about its customs and life. Ms. Ma was very kind, for she helped us know the life in Beijing and China. Very often she asked us about Finland.
We were highly respectful to her. She patiently corrected our pronunciations and grammatical mistakes, and encouraged us to build up confidence in learning the language.
Both Jarka and I ascribed our progress to Ms. Ma. Even a dum-dum like me, I often said, could make a progress because of her excellent teaching.
How could we forget such an excellent teacher? We owed so much to her. Learning Chinese language was a valuable experience, for it enriched my knowledge and broadened my vision.
There was no short cut in learning a language, for hard working was always necessary. Sometimes, I felt no progress at all after making huge efforts. Pronunciation was difficult, writing characters even more. We learnt about 30 new characters every day. At that time, Chinese characters were still in their original complex form. Their reform had just begun, and simplified characters didn't put in use until several years later. Pronunciations were on the "Bomofe structure". Even no dictionaries were available. Nojonen and I reviewed the characters we had learnt on the class, and for a better result, we made for ourselves a "Chinese-Finnish Dictionary".
The one on the right in the photo was Ms. Ma. Beside her was Jarka from Czech. The one behind was Zhong Qin, the interpreter who helped us with Russian whenever we were in need. Professor Deng Yizi was in the middle. She taught us Chinese literature, culture and grammar. She was a very qualified and much respected teacher.
The one in the front holding a dog in arms was Aarre Nojonen. The little dog had been runing around us. Aarre suggested taking this valuable photo with it. I stood in the middle, and beside me was a classmate from Mongolia.
These years we spent in Beijing left us very fondling memories. Nojonen and I were the first students from Finland after the founding of the P.R.C. We were pioneers. Also, we were the first group of students from the West. After us came students from Italy, France, Sweden and other countries.
Many people took our trip to China in 1953 as a very venturesome move. For during these years, public media in the West pictured China in a very negative, even frightening, image. My reply was simple, "I had nothing to worry about. If there was one, it was the worry if I could learn Chinese language." Since very young, through literature, I gained a very favorable impression about Chinese people. I knew they were kind and willing to help. The fact proved that I was right.
I spent 5 years studying in China. In the summer of 1958, I finished my study.
I hadn't been able to see Ms. Ma until 1995, when I went to Beijing again. She had expected news about us, her two students from Finland. It was a very pleasant and unforgettable meeting. We recalled the happy memories when we had been together, when she taught us Chinese and we became good friends. Later, we met again but it was the last time, for later, an illness took her away from us.
Learning Chinese language benefited me a lot. I can read Chinese newspapers and literature. I also worked as an interpreter on several very important occasions. I taught primary Chinese classes, wrote articles about China for newspapers. I held a position in Finland-China Friendship Association. But the most important thing is that I made many Chinese friends. I gained a deeper knowledge about the world, about Chinese history and its present society.
In these years while I was in China, I found Chinese people very hard working, respectful of their culture and peace. They had many things other peoples could learn. I respect Chinese people. I believe Finland should study China, the new one, better. Of course, China means a lot to Finland economically. But to me, Chinese culture is the most important.
For the last 50 years, I have followed very closely the progress in China, through Finland newspapers and mails from China, and on the Internet. China has become my second home country. On the wall in my office, there is a certificate for my study in Beijing University, signed by the President Ma Yinchu. The certificate is set on a background of five Chinese characters, meaning "to serve the people".
Kalle Kuittinen (Ke Ling)
March 8th, the International Women's Day, 2005