Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Week 7 happened after that. Followed by week 8.

To be honest, I was hoping week seven would bring somewhat of an upswing. Of course our first week back from our social study projects would be hard, but then it would go back to being peachy keen. Alas, not so much. The daily repetition wore me down, I didn't sleep enough, it rained a bunch, whine whine whine. I'm actually glad I didn't post a blog entry then because it would just be me complaining.

But it's okay, because now in the last week of the program I've come to terms with everything. I'd done trying to force myself to really like China. We don't really mesh; that's okay...I'll write more on that later. I'm grateful for all I've learned both linguistically and culturally. I've been warming up to dialogue class--sometimes the issues we talk about are actually relevant and interesting. The experience of having to debate in another language, though on the one hand is just dreadful, on the other has actually helped me be more assertive in stating my opinion. I think because our rhetorical tactics are so severely handicapped while speaking in Chinese, it has a nice leveling effect. It ends up just being your ideas that matter. Or whatever ideas you're able to get across...

Lack of buildings allows for better viewing of natural scenery. Note the coconut, which provided endless coconut juice. Water? But really, we couldn't drink it all. It was magic.

The weekend before last was an exhausting whirlwind of sight-seeing. Friday we went to Yuanmingyuan, which is....the Old Summer Palace (thanks, Wikipedia). It's just ruins around a pretty pond filled with lotuses, so perfect for people like me who get more excited about pretty flowers and little stray kitties than old buildings.

If you're reading, Uncle Phil, this is for you.

Saturday we went to Yonghegong, which is the Lama Temple. That was also pretty cool. They had giant sandalwood carvings which maybe I wasn't supposed to photograph? Unclear. No disrespect intended, Buddha. It seemed like a very joyful place. Lots of colors. Gets my vote.

I learned here that incense makes me sneeze. Who knew?

Afterwards, the greatest things ever. We went to a vegetarian restaurant that specialized in fake meat. I ate my first Kungpao chicken. What an experience. I wish America had fancy-schmancy vegetarian restaurants like that. Maybe they do. We do. Wow...I'm an American, right? After vegetarian heaven, we went to the Temple of Confucius. Emperors used to go there to pay respects to our friend Confucius. That's nice I guess. It had a nice tree I liked. That tree apparently had special powers. Knocked off a corrupt official's hat. Go tree.

Chinese kids are really good at posing for photos. They're so sassy. I all the time want to take their pictures too, but most often err on the side of social decency. This time not so much.

After exhausting the one Confucius quote we know, we headed out for Gongwangfu. (Wangfugong? Gongfuwang? We kept forgetting the order. Anyhow, it's "Prince Gong Mansion" says Wikipedia.) This place may be a mansion, but it was nowhere big enough for the ridiculous number of people there a half an hour before closing. Sitting off on a side path watching the flood of people all around was definitely a low point in my acceptance of Chinese culture. So many people in tours, just going around seeing the sights because that's what you do. Not that I was any different, besides the lack of snazzy provided baseball cap, but it was just plain depressing. There's no way to enjoy a place if all you can see is other tourists.

The buildings are pretty, I'll give it that. And I am universally in favor of ponds.

Afterward I had an interesting conversation with Wang-laoshi about the purpose of tourism.

Sunday we went to Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, which was nice because it was huge enough to handle the ridiculous number of people. It was really quite impressive, though we somewhat rushed through it due to the heat. The best part by far were the old people singing, playing traditional instruments, dancing and just being adorably old. I could have stayed all day and watched them.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Oh right, I have a blog. (Week 6)

At the end of week 6, we went to Longqing Gorge. I went bungee jumping. This is not a picture of me bungee jumping, but from this distance that's pretty irrelevant. Bungee jumping was a heck of a lot of fun, and I didn't think it was scary at all, which makes me worry about myself, but that's okay.

I have fallen behind on this blog, but for posterity's sake, will attempt to fill in the gap today, since I blasted through today's homework with superhuman strength and mind blowing focus. Actually we just don't have very much work today, so... week 6, shall we? Sorry if anyone has been obsessively stalking this... besides you, mom (hi!).

Our laoshimen continue to be adorable for second semester.

So this semester is supposed to be the equivalent of Yale's L3 Chinese. So I've been spending most of my time trudging through this swamp of intermediateness, reading dull texts about formal language and terms of politeness. Alright, some of our textbook chapters are interesting (marriage, xiehouyu/fun riddle-like things, humans and animals (??)) but a lot of it can be dull.

Have you realized by now these pictures have nothing to do with the text?

Our schedule changed for the new semester, so there is now less drill class and the addition of a discussion class. My first week of discussion class, which involves two students and a teacher talking about the day's lesson, debating somewhat relevant issues and occasionally role playing, was a disaster. My partner would always be either sleep-deprived and uninterested or self-righteously argumentative. It was great. I think I just had bad luck at the start, though, because in the following weeks I came to tolerate it, though I still question its utility as a teaching method.

This was the greatest part of Longqing Gorge, maybe. It was an exhibit of places in China during different seasons, and everything in it was artificial, lit with intense colors and crafted with no respect for scale. There was a tiny child on a water buffalo next to a field of GIANT RICE. And then some midget pandas and gigantic peacocks. It was so great. And air conditioned. And great.

Week six was also the week in which I reached the end of the line on tolerance of Chinese food. With the exception of baozi, which are forever delicious. Jiaozi are okay, too. Since then a lot of unspeakable culinary combinations have taken place in my room involving oatmeal...yogurt...tofu...kimchi.

That was also the first time I met my new language tutor because apparently my old one had gone home. Though my new one is easier to understand, she's much less interesting as a conversation partner, and our sessions were all just flipping through our textbook, talking about what we had studied. So I was less than lucky on that one, but some people apparently became good friends with their language tutors, so it worked out in some cases. At least it was some extra speaking practice for me. And more excuses to drink mango smoothies in cafes.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A most peculiar village.

The houses in the village were adorable with courtyards and greenery all over. Er, the greenery was all over, the courtyards were appropriately placed. The houses were all fairly new, though, probably following the increase in tourism.

This is a rather daunting post to begin because the past week was so full of, well, things. As a disclaimer, I hope I don't come off as too negative; I'm going more for honest. As I mentioned, for my social study project I decided to go to a village outside of Beijing. Because I like farming and villages a lot. A lot a lot.

I also like goats. And goats that walk in the street. And goatherds that wear straw hats. Actually, anyone who wears a straw hat is okay in my book.

Going in to it, I wasn't expecting it to be the time of my life. Most of my teachers were baffled that anyone actually wanted to go a village (the trend in China seems to be to get away from them). I considered going to Shanghai or Qingdao where I knew I'd have a good time exploring another city, but ultimately because agriculture and environmental issues are what I'm most interested in, I signed myself up for the village trip and found myself living in a farmer's house for 5 days in Simatai village. Yeah, "Great Wall at Simatai" Simatai.

The stretch we climbed was under renovation at parts. The renovated parts looked pretty fake, and I sometimes had the surreal feeling of being on a theme park attraction as it was being built. Maybe because it really felt like Mario Kart at times.

While I'm glad I went, and I had a lot of fun at times, there was a lot of room for improvement on HBA's part. For one, the village we went to neighbors a popular section of the Great Wall. This means it's far from what I imagine an average Chinese village is like. Almost everyone there had some job involving tourism, such as driving people (no taxis here), running a restaurant or selling souvenirs on or around the Wall. Not much farming was going on. Furthermore because the area provides water for Beijing, the Beijing government actually pays them not to plant certain crops for fear of water contamination (sadly, no one found the idea of keeping Beijing's water clean as ironic as I did). The whole situation about government compensation was kind of shady--we never got a straight answer, but point being most people had tiny plots of land that they farmed for their own consumption, not to sell.

You can tell that baby is thinking, "嗯?外国人?"Actually he was more interested in my camera than my nationality.

As far as what we actually did, there was a lot of chatting with locals, which was probably the best aspect of the trip. Though my comprehension skills were a limiting factor, I feel like I got a much better sense of rural life, values, etc. People were very willing to talk to foreigners, though sometimes it was hard to move the conversation past superficial things. They loved to discuss Blessing's hair, for instance. We ourselves often fell back on the Great Wall as a convenient topic. "Did you climb the wall?" seemed to be the equivalent of "what's up?" in Simatai village. At least when addressing foreigners.

We did a trivial amount of "farm work", which was disappointing, though in that heat no one was too eager to weed. Moreover, any work we did was clearly for our own benefit. There was no front of actually helping the villagers in the fields. I'm not sure if that was because they thought we'd be of no help or if they thought it would be rude to make us work or what.

One day we visited a village in the neighboring province of Hebei (Simatai is still in Beijing), which seemed to be more of what I imagined a Chinese village to be, namely less clean and more run down. We also stopped by an elementary school and a shrine or two. We also saw these great PSAs about gender equality and the merits of fewer children, which were all over the streets. I wonder how seriously they're taken.

"Caring for girls is caring for the the future of the nation." This village was big on the PSAs.

Another day we went to the market, which was a great opportunity to talk with people. Though generally after you've had a conversation with someone it feels rude not to buy anything, so we ended up with more stuff than necessary. Blessing got some pretty classy Gucci socks, and Pim bought a bubble gun that promised to be most exciting until we discovered it didn't come with batteries. Childish fun foiled.

What else...We went fishing one day, which was amusingly unsuccessful. Oh, and we made dumplings and noodles. All the food was delicious and very vegetarian friendly.

Our host was very demanding about the wrapping method. I'm glad I caught on quickly and escaped his censure. Chen laoshi kept reassuring us that there were many ways to wrap dumplings, but he wouldn't hear of it. That's all I'll say about that...

So that was my social study week. It was a good time for resting, getting out of the city (my lungs sang with happiness), and experiencing something I wouldn't have the opportunity to otherwise. And I was with good friends, so the fun times were great and even the less-than-great parts were okay. I'm happy with my decision to go. Now it's time for semester two of Chinese. I'm pretty pumped. If we've already improved this much in a month, I can't wait to see us at the end. (Oh so cheesy, but I really am that excited about language-learning...).

Saturday, July 11, 2009

At the halfway mark

Dang, it's already been a month since I've been here. Before our next semester starts, we have a week-long social study project, where we can choose to go to Shanghai or Inner Mongolia or the Shaolin Temple or (best of all) a farming village outside Beijing.

Our trip leaves on Sunday, so I'm spending this weekend relaxing, cleaning and preparing. When we get back I'll have to write my social study paper and then jump right into L4 Chinese.

Laundry Day
My room is currently invaded by drying clothes due to distrust of dryer and desire to conserve energy. The 服务员 laughed when she came in.

I feel like the past semester has gone by so fast that I haven't had any time to reflect on how far I've come with Chinese. For one, my speaking confidence has dramatically improved, thanks to the language pledge. I'd say I'm more confident speaking in poor Chinese than I am speaking gramatically correct Japanese now. (The atrophy of my Japanese is another topic...).

We went to the Silk Market yesterday, which was not my thing, but seeing so many foreigners getting ridiculously ripped off in their haggling was eyeopening. By just speaking Chinese we have such an advantage, though this might be counteracted by my guilt complex. The best part of the outing was when a seller said "要买就买,不买就算了" (If you're going to buy, then buy. If not forget it.), which was direct from our textbook. I probably confused the woman with my subsequent glee.

Overall, shopping in China is such a stressor. There's no such thing as browsing, and salespeople will literally take you by the arm ("Lady-- you buy tshirt?") and pull you into their stall. When you look at things they like to pull out something else and ask you if you like it. Somehow they always pick out the last thing I would possibly consider buying. Chinese and American ideas of fashion are very different. There's a lot of flounciness going on here. And cheap synthetic materials. We occasionally come across something that we've seen our teachers wear--or more surreally, that a friend has back at home.

Well anyway, today instead of visiting the Temple of Heaven, I'm taking it easy. I'm going to walk around a bit and review some Japanese. I did compile a list of potential sites to visit in the future. Input appreciated:
  1. Beijing Museum of Tap Water
  2. Horse Culture Museum of China
  3. China Museum of Agriculture (Okay, this one is for real. Too bad no one will want to go with me.)
  4. The Bee Museum of China
  5. China Display Hall of Quaternary Glacier Relics
There are also some organic farms on the outskirts of Beijing that are open to visitors that I want to check out. The farm we're going to is (I'm fairly sure) not organic, and I'm curious to see what organic farming looks like in China. I've seen some organic produce in the grocery store, but it's hard to tell because food labeling regulation in China is really whack. Some packaged foods have no ingredient list or nutritional information at all. Also, instead of calories they use kilojoules. This was quite a confusion at first. I was so impressed that a bottle of juice could provide a days worth of calories.

Oh China.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Not understanding differences in culture can lead to dance parties."

Title courtesy of today's small class and the wonderful similarity between the words "misunderstanding" and "dance party".

Please note my ability to simultaneously paddle and photograph.

This weekend was a whirlwind of touristing. On Friday after Chinese table we headed to the Summer Palace. We rented a paddle boat and paddled around the lake with an adorable 14 year old Chinese girl from Chengdu. There might have been an attempt to translate "I'm on a boat" into Chinese. It might have failed miserably.

After debarking and exchanging emails with our new "妹妹“, we wandered around the grounds, which were spacious and not too crowded. As with most outings, we ran into a group of Yalies (we're everywhere!), bought ice cream and were photographed with some Chinese people.

At least this photo was consensual.

Friday night I went to a rooftop beach birthday party, which was... different. Any opportunity to walk around barefoot is always appreciated, though.

Saturday was an HBA outing to the Ming tombs, which were okay. Actually pretty boring, but I feel like I should be nice and cheerful on this blog. They were large and historically significant, there we go. The best part was the long path of stone animals.

It was necessary to pose with each one, obvs.

Sunday I ventured onto the subway for the first time, which was an adventure. One of the transfers was ridiculously circuitous, but otherwise it went smoothly and we popped up at Wangfujing. We ate at a hotpot place, which was food heaven, then had frozen yogurt, which was whatever heaven squared equals. Then we remembered that we had come all this way not to stuff our faces, but to visit the Forbidden City, so we headed off.

Kaixin has the misguided idea that one should try to look natural and relaxed in pictures. It sort of cramps my style.

Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones who had heard about this "Forbidden City" place. The place was packed, and the weather was sticky. Brushing sweaty arms with hoards of Chinese people to get a glimpse of a chair... or an empty room is not really my cup of tea, so I appreciated the emperors' very nicely color-coordinated (read: all the same) architecture and watched people be interesting.

Next we went to Beihai park, to see the white dagoba of Chinese 110 course packet fame.

No, I'm not trying to be all artsy with my intense angle, we were just too cheap to buy the entrance ticket and this was as close as I could get.

Beihai park is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? Because it has the white dagoba? Why does having the white dagoba make it beautiful? Because in front there's a lake, behind it are trees, and the left and right sides are all bamboo.
There was temporary disillusionment when we could not find the bamboo to the left and right, but fear not, it was there. I might have to talk with Zhou laoshi about this though because "all bamboo" is somewhat of an exaggeration.

Pause to examine the word dagoba, which led me to perhaps the greatest wiki disambiguation page ever:

Dagoba may refer to:


  • Stupa, the Buddhist building style.
It's the last one I was looking for.

It rained a bit while we were there, and afterwards the sky was clear-ish, which made everything much more enjoyable. The park was my favorite part of the day...besides frozen yogurt.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Dreaming in Chinese

At orientation our head teacher, Feng Laoshi, told us we'd soon start dreaming in Chinese, which would be a proud milestone in our journey to fluency, worthy of celebration and fanfare, etc etc. Truth be told, I've found my dreams in Chinese less of a triumph and more of a continuation of daily communication struggle. Por ejemplo,

1) I'm standing outside, washing my arms with a bar of soap (...uh) and Yu laoshi comes up to me, points at the soap and asks me in Chinese if I know what soap is called in Chinese. I say no, and he says something like "kuan", which is definitely not the word for soap (thanks dream Yu-laoshi). I repeat "kuan", and then lo and behold it's not "kuan", it's "kuAN". We repeat the word several times and then I wake up annoyed that I can't even get tones right of words my own subconscious made up. Bummer.

2) My classmates and I are washing a bicycle. A teacher comes up to us, and suddenly the bicycle is a tiny clown-sized car. We're all surprised. Then it's an Accord. The teacher strokes it and says to us "怎么这么panda?", or "How is it so 'panda'?". I am confused, then wake up.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Requisite Schedule Post

I feel now that I've finally settled into the swing of things here. Here's what I do every day!

"Big" class: We start everyday with a dictation, then the teacher goes over the day's lesson. There are 8-9 students in a class.

9:15-9:25 Break #1: Convince myself I don't need coffee. Stand around in groups and sigh a lot, generally discussing sleep or lack thereof.

9:25-9:50 Reading class: Now we're in our "small" class groups. We read out loud from the day's chapter. It's like pronunciation boot camp. I like it because it gives my brain a break from grammar.

9:50-10:10 Break #2: Continuation of coffee struggle. Stand around in groups and complain about the people in our small class, who inevitably always speak too slow/fast, ask too many questions or are amazing/horrible at Chinese.

10:10-11:00 "Small" class: Same four students and teacher as reading class, but this time we go back through the day's grammar and are drilled on each sentence pattern. Some teachers are better at asking questions than others. I like any teacher who manages to keep the ratio of questions about famous sights in Beijing/food in Beijing/impressions of Beijing/how Beijing is just like American cities if not better/diarrhea to interesting questions relatively low.

Break #3: Stand around in groups and discuss how hungry we are but how it's now not worth it to buy a snack, mull over lunch options and the viability of sleep before one-on-one class.

11:10-12:00 "Small" class continued.

12:00 Lunch! Either at the cafeteria or any one of the numerous restaurants nearby. Unless it's Tuesday or Friday, which means we have Chinese table.

1:30-2:20 (or 2:25 to 3:15)
One-on-one: Sit and talk with a teacher for 50 minutes, which is great fun. I'm constantly baffled by the sorts of questions about America Chinese people ask. "I know they say it's safe to drink the water, but can you really drink it?" "If everyone votes for president, who counts all the votes?" "Do you think Walden is essential to understanding American youth?" That last one is courtesy of my language tutor, who is always coming out of left field. I feel like my questions are disappointingly straight forward.

3:30-5:00 Extracurricular: Calligraphy class is getting better, though my left-handedness is no help. I've hit the big time--got a poem I copied hanging in the window a la kindergarten. It's real professional. I accidentally wrote my name too big, so it runs into the last line of the poem. This week I also went to singing-Chinese-songs class, which was essentially very thorough karaoke preparation. We first go through the lyrics to understand the meaning, then read it aloud, then listen to it, then sing along with the music, then sing without music, then again with the music, then once more with feeling. And by feeling I mean ridiculous gesturing. I may be speaking too soon, but I think Chinese people find illustrative gesturing far less ridiculous than Americans.

So there's my weekday (besides homework, eating, sleeping...). Today we went to the Summer Palace, which was splendid enough to merit its own post. It involved adopting a 14 year old for an hour, trying to sing "I'm on a boat" in Chinese and oh yeah, looking at pretty buildings.