There are No Atheists in Chinese Class

Have you ever heard that "there are no atheists in a foxhole”? For anyone who hasn’t heard the phrase before, I’ll explain it. A foxhole, as you might guess, is a burrow that a fox digs in the ground for a home. In this case, though, it also refers to a small enclosure or shallow trench dug into the ground by soldiers on the battlefield. Often not much larger than the soldiers themselves, these spaces provide a minimum amount of cover from enemy fire. When under attack, soldiers may rise up out of the hole to fire on the enemy and quickly slip back down into the tenuous safety that the foxhole provides. Foxholes can be dug quickly and can be used as a last resort if better cover is not available during a battle. To be under attack with nothing but a foxhole for protection is terribly frightening experience, one that can rattle even the bravest soldiers.

The phrase "there are no atheists in a foxhole” refers to the fact that the fear while under attack is so strong that even the most staunch atheist is willing to pray to God for safety and deliverance from the battle. Today I am proposing a new version. In my case,it is more appropriate to say “there are no atheists in Chinese class” (especially in listening comprehension). You might ask, how in the world could that phrase be related to Chinese class?

Well, as you may have read in my earlier post about class (here), I am taking one that is probably beyond my current language abilities (though I did learn today from a classmate who moved up from the lover level that the level below is easy. He thinks there should be a level in between. I concur.)

Each day during class we do some practice exercises and in order to make sure that everyone participates, the teachers usually go around the room in a pattern from one student to another. Sometimes, this isn’t a problem. When we are reading, for example, you hope you get called on. Reading isn’t too difficult, especially if you have prepared in advance (we aren’t trying to read Confucius). It takes some time but I can usually get through reading without humiliation.

The hard part comes when I have to give a summary of the dialogue, or create some kind of conversation using the concepts that we discussed from the text, in a discussion that I only understood two-thirds of. It might also occur when we’re trying to answer questions from the exercises. As I sit there, I find myself counting the number of students in front of me and the number of blanks in front of the question I don’t know the answer to, hoping that the latter number is smaller than the former. You would be amazed at how often the two numbers match!

When you know that your number is up, that’s when any thoughts of non-belief disappear, and you begin to pray that you will be saved by the bell that tells you class is over. As my classmate Matteo said, “that bell makes the sweetest music in the world!” (rough translation). I have to agree with him, and now you know why there are no atheists in Chinese class.