It’s been over a decade, and even now seeing the cover of one of those four textbooks inspires PTSD-flavored shudders.

I have fond memories of most of my Chinese classes at Northeast Normal University. My challenging but helpful first-year 汉语教程 textbooks still spark enough joy that even Marie Kondo would approve of my refusal to part with them.

However, there were some textbooks I would have burned if given the chance.

There was a 4-semester course that was pure torture: They were absolutely the worst classes I’ve experienced – and this from a guy who did 11 years of college. Had those classes been useless, it would have been an enormous improvement.

Those classes did, in fact, stunt my interest in reading Chinese text for years. I still battle with a negative attitude toward reading.

They were: Four semesters of “Newspaper Class” (报刊语言教程). Each time we opened those books, we began to question all the decisions of our lives that had led us up to that terrible moment.

For one of those semesters, I sat next to an American who had grown up learning some Chinese, and knew it far better than I did. I remember him burying his face in his hands, moaning in exasperation, and saying, “Why am I doing this to myself?”

The course ran through our Sophomore and Junior years. After the first couple of weeks, I wondered what in the world had gone wrong with me. I had no idea what was going on. After class one day, I took the book to a bilingual tutor, so that we could work together to translate the lengthy article to English.

I immediately saw that she was having a hard time, too. I found that odd. For my first undergraduate degree, I minored in print journalism. I knew a thing or two about newspaper writing. As it turned out, this was part of my problem: I was expecting the article to be as brief, informative, and as easy-to-read as possible.

My assumptions were all wrong. After we finished translating it to English, my eyes glazed over as I scanned the English text sprawled out over the 3 hand-written pages. That’s when I saw it: The article was an elaborate empty shell. There was virtually no information in this bombastic passage about a friendly diplomatic meeting between a Beijing bigwig with his Thailand counterpart.

A meeting which, by the way, had taken place a decade earlier. That’s what happens when you get your news from a dusty textbook.

What was the point? I couldn’t find one. The conspicuously ungraded content could not possibly have been purposely designed to be any more meaningless to us. Within weeks, we poor B1 learners were bombarded with so many unknown Chinese characters and inundated with such an avalanche of C2 vocabulary that we all gave up. Our time and attention were better spent elsewhere, even if the teacher berated us for being bad students.

My only regret with that class is that I didn’t give up on it sooner or more resolutely. Sometimes in language learning the smartest thing to do is walk away.

Photo: Westin Poinsett Hotel in Greenville, SC © 2016 Elijah Wilcott