Dhanin Chearavanont (7): A hard struggle with Chinese characters
The first time I saw the ocean was when I boarded a large passenger ship in Bangkok bound for China's Guangdong Province. That was also the first time I'd been on a ship. The cabins on the vessel swayed with the waves, but although many other passengers suffered from seasickness, I was not one of them. After a weeklong voyage, I finally arrived at the town of Swatow, where my father worked.
The village of Pengzhong, Chenghai District, where my father was born, is now part of the city of Swatow. My father owned houses in both the village and the old town of Swatow.
A harbor town, Swatow was home to rows of unique buildings influenced by Western architecture. The second floor of these buildings extended over the street, creating a covered walkway underneath, like an arcade.
I lived on the third floor of one such building. The property is now unoccupied, but it looks just like it did back then. My father was seldom at home, as he would spend most of his days at the farm.
I had no problem in Swatow as far as the spoken language was concerned, because I had grown up speaking the Chaozhou dialect back home in Bangkok with my mother.
Chinese characters, on the other hand, were incomprehensible to me. The first elementary school I briefly attended in Thailand had taught us Chinese, but classes at the boarding school where I studied next were all in Thai.
In 1952, I entered the fourth-grade class of the elementary school in Swatow. To master written Chinese, however, I had to study material from lower grade levels.
The students at this school varied widely in age, even within the same grade level. With the advent of the new Chinese state, many of these children were attending school for the first time, or else they were new arrivals in China, having been sent back by families living overseas. I was one of the older children there, but some students were in their late teens.
I desperately wanted to avoid being ridiculed by the other students, so I bought a dictionary and borrowed first- and second-grade textbooks to learn Chinese characters on my own. I would rise at 6 in the morning and go out on the veranda to study, memorizing the characters one by one. We took language tests almost every day, and after each one, I would have my homeroom teacher point out any mistakes I had made.
China has numerous local dialects, each with its own pronunciation and grammar. After it took power, the Communist Party began efforts to bring a standard language -- Mandarin -- into wider use across the vast country. Once a week, we had a class on Mandarin, but I never got very good at speaking it. It was only through my later work in Taiwan that I got a grip on this standard language.
In the fifth grade, my marks rose and I was one of the top two or three students in my class. Once I mastered Chinese characters, study in general became considerably easier. I was good at mathematics and received good grades in the subject without much effort.
Once I could take a break from studying, I resumed my hobby of raising roosters for cockfights, a pastime I had enjoyed in Thailand, and would often compete against other enthusiasts in the neighborhood.
I also began raising hens I had gotten from my father's farm. My classmates and I would feed them and divide the eggs they laid among ourselves. I also raised pigeons on the veranda. Most would return home even after I released them into the sky, but some never came back. I remember asking a neighborhood kid who was good at raising pigeons to give me some advice. Considering my childhood hobbies, it is perhaps not surprising that I would eventually make my fortune from poultry raising.
I was also fond of cameras, which were a rarity in those days. I often borrowed my father's camera and, using the self-timer feature, took a picture of myself with my teachers and classmates. I developed and printed it myself and gave copies to everyone. This affinity for gadgets and technology may also have had some influence on my future professional life.
Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.