The Textbook

k6755Textbooks have been a constant in my Chinese studies, an element of necessity given the few chances that I have to interact with native speakers.  At the start of my intermediate class in college, I was told that I would have to go out and buy yet another such text, draining my wallet by no small sum.  Unlike many of the other classes, Chinese was not one in which you could get away without the textbook, so I (grudgingly) walked to the bookstore and perused the shelves looking for the prescribed book.
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It wasn’t just one book but two, with one containing the text and vocabulary, and the other breaking apart the grammar within each section.  I new what I was looking for, and the characteristic green and white of “A New China” soon appeared in view.  While picking up a package containing the two books bundled in plastic, I found an opened set of the books, used and in slightly rough condition but cheap beyond discussion.
In some respects, I am not a fan of buying used textbooks.  The price is unmatched, no doubt, but money isn’t everything.  Used books from college bookstores invariably seem to have the previous owners thoughts and highlights.  In some cases, I have purchased a used book and found that nearly every page has been highlighted.  The result is simply distraction; I can’t help but compare my thoughts to those of the previous person, or spend time wondering what in the world they were thinking when highlighting certain sections.  I wanted a clean reading experience.  At least I thought I did.
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I eagerly opened the book at home, excited for something new and perhaps a bit more challenging than the recently retired book.  I grabbed at a random page within the text, and a set of papers fell out, a notice issued by a Chinese university the previous owner had apparently attended.  The note read like this:

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“International students are discouraged from leaving dorms at night.  Recently a foreign student was gang raped while out at bar.”

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Simple, succinct and incredibly dark, this little message immediately gave the textbook more character.  Terrible yes, but at that moment far removed.  It was a small piece of another world, locked and forgotten between pages 138 and 139.  I began to look for other potential notes, quickly flipping through the whole.  A napkin fell out, along with another slip of paper, this time partly in Mandarin, and with a secondary translation in English:

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“Please take care while crossing the roads.  A student was killed while crossing third ring road”

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At the time, I was not at a level where I could understand the content of the non English portion of the message, leaving me only to ponder on this dark notification.  I quickly placed these items aside, and thus the semester began.
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As the year moved on, we delved further into the large book.  It seemed the growing complexity of each chapter elicited more thoughts from the previous owner.  I would open new pages and find characters circled, or phrases scribbled into the blank sections at the bottom of each page.   I began to understand the nature of certain marks, particularly circles around sets of characters, signifying the previous owners inability to recognize the encircled shapes.  Over time, I even began to have a little battle with the unknown individual, finding despair when a character would give me trouble, and celebrating when I knew a character that they had circled.  It was a quiet entertaining battle, though at I times I could only wonder, was I studying too much?

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