Sunday, June 24, 2007

Song Number 2: "Wo bu neng shuo Yingwen"

Feng Laoshi told us that in one day we will study one week's worth of Chinese. He forgot to tell us that each day will also feel like one week.

At Beijing Language and Culture University (Beiyu) tall trees and bamboos are everywhere, with scatterings of raw stone tables and boulder chairs. Students from all over the world make the campus a global microcosm. One ear picks up West African French, the other Korean, blurred by Chinese dialect. I haven't found the mass of homogeneous black hair that I expected. Students sport the latest hairstyles, complete with red streaks, brown highlights, and perfectly uneven lengths. I feel somewhat at home, surrounded by fellow students and friends.

Outside the University, the scenery is different. Taxis and local buses crowd the streets, driving in lanes, on lanes, between lanes, whatever is necessary to go forward. American traffic control would probably have run of ticket paper by standing just at one intersection. The ever busy Chinese start their days early with sun, which brightens Beijing through the omnipresent gray clouds as early as five o'clock in the morning. A ten minute walk toward the Wudaokou train station already shows early-bird street sellers and buyers, bargaining for fruit, underwear, toys, books - five more minutes of strolling reveals Korean restaurants, karaoke bars, and Pizza Hut. The intersections are always busy, a crossroads for bikers, wagoners, walkers, drivers, and the occasional mule.

Before the first day, Feng laoshi, the program director, has the students sign the Language Pledge, or as we are now limited to calling it, "Yu yan shi yue." Chinese is our language. We know nothing but Chinese. We talk in Chinese. We listen to friends using Chinese. For the next 8-9 weeks, we know nothing but Chinese. English is nonexistent, except when we write emails, talk to our parents, and are in life and death situations. When talked to in English, we respond, "Wo bu neng shuo Yingwen" (I can't speak English). Chinese is our language.

The school day is busy, starting at 8 o'clock. For me, it starts at 6 AM. Despite setting the alarm clock to 7 AM, Beijing sun brightens the room and spikes my biological clock. After quickly getting ready, I sit down at my desk and quickly write down the characters I will be tested on for that day. Immediately after, I'm out of the dorms on the way to the classroom building. On the way, I'll pick up a couple baozi (steamed meat-stuffed buns) for breakfast. From 8 to 9:15 is DaBanKe (Big Class), where we are lectured on that day's lecture. Following DaBanKe are one Reading Class and two XiaoBanKe (Little Classes), where we are drilled on our understanding of the grammar and pronouciation of the text. Then, lunchtime. Finally, there is my favorite class, DanBanKe. During DanBanKe, students engage in one on one conversations with the teachers, the teacher giving out the frequent corrections to our sentences as we struggle to express thoughts with limited vocabulary. My conversations have ranged from love and women's rights to Chinese politics and linguistics. At 2:20PM, I return back to the dorms and unwind, relaxing by working out or browsing the extracurricular activities provided by Harvard, from wushu to Chinese cooking to calligraphy. However, relaxing doesn't last long. I'm back in my dorm, sitting at my desk, doing homework and memorizing new characters. In the past week, each day has averaged about 80 words a day. By midnight, I try to sleep, lest a character still hasn't stuck in my head, or I just have a big enough headache.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. On Thursday, I furiously review all the vocabulary and grammar in preparation for Friday's kaoshi (exam). Following the written exam, I must recite the essay I finished writing on Thursday, memorized. At last, the weekend has started. I am in safe haven.

But then there's laundry.

edit - Complaints of no photos coming in. Technical difficulties have been overcome as of Sunday, June 24, 2007. Please stay tuned for pictures of HBA life, shopping in Beijing, the Forbidden City, and Beijing Opera.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Song Number 1: Chasing the Sun

Simply put, the plane ride to Beijing was not pleasant. Sitting in one spot for half a day is painful. Thankfully, I had Chinese to take my mind off things. A man from Chengdu sitting next to me was so kind to help me review vocabulary and grammar. I heard myself using the basic dialogue responses that Zhou laoshi had prepared. Chinese 115 at Yale is amazing.
Every so often while I studied, I looked outside the window to enjoy the scenery. The plane took me through every possible geographic region - I saw the Pacific, the Canadian mountain range, its forests, the freezing waters of the North Pole at noon (icebergs included), Chinese desert, Chinese tundra, Chinese farmland... all under the sun. I moved with the sun, rotating around the Earth, casting my shadow 30,000 feet up in the air, my orange round ball of a friend some 65 million miles away.
The humidity hit me like a batting ram when I got off the plane. After customs and baggage claim, I saw thousands of Chinese teenagers crowded around the entrance with orange balloons, waiting for some celebrity to come. I felt pairs of eyes follow me all the way out of the airport - why do they make it so evident?
I took a bus to Wudaokou, thankfully met up with a senior Light Fellow called Jason, who helped me get a taxi to my couchsurfing host's address. My host was really relaxed - an Austrian native, he makes his living taking amazing photographs and teaching English. He's pretty good at Japanese, but his Chinese is not up to par, yet. Like me, he said that he came to China to see it before the Olympic Games' tourists do.
The first afternoon and night there I felt myself blending into the crowd, joining the Asian mass. Occasionally I found myself gawking (though subtlely) at other foreigners, but I think I looked at them more to hear a bit of that comforting English language than for their foreign appearance. The only people who know I'm a foreigner are the waitresses. I'd spend too long poring over the menu while others know immediately what they want. Despite my language barrier (for now), the waitresses were really nice, speaking broken English and unbroken Chinese, while I made sense of them with broken Chinese and unbroken English.
People don't sleep very early in Wudaokou. I took a walk after a much needed shower, and night life is bizarre here. On the main street where everyone from the nearby apartments gather, groups of anywhere from five to fifteen sat in a circle, eating meat kabobs, noodles, and drinking huge bottles of beer. I walked a bit further down to the park, and saw old couples practicing how to waltz to some Chinese singer out of the '80s. After dodging incoming waltzers, the big street was filled with teenagers and other foreigners, some going to nightclubs, some to bars, some to karaoke, some to their homes, some to join their friends for a usual nine-o'clock-meat'n'beer-meal. The drivers liberally honk horns, groups of friends yell raucously into the night, and I lied on my host's couch, overcome by fatigue and jetlag.

edit 8:40 AM BST
I ate xiao baozi and ma2la4mi3sian4 (small meat dumplings and spicy noodles with vegetables) for breakfast. I must pack now, and go to Beijing Language and Culture University to register with Harvard.
note: Nobody seems to cook themselves breakfast in the morning.
note: Drink lots of water. Liters and liters more.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I'm sitting on those un-welcoming drab gray cushion chairs at the airport, waiting for my 8:10 AM flight. Waking up on time to get to the airport was actually pretty easy - I guess some of the post-Yale test anxiety still lingers. Or maybe I'm just excited.

I'm not sure how to define my excitement. According to my parents, I generally contain any sort of enthusiasm with some sort of "Korean" dignity, whatever that means. On the way to the airport, my dad went on about how East Asian people know etiquette better than Westerners. But isn't etiquette relative? Take the Eastern and Western approaches to drinking soup. Western manners insist on no slurping noise, whereas in Korea, Japan, and China, slurping one's soup is considered perfectly acceptable - how else would the soup cool down? I'm guessing my dad meant that I take the unexpected on with a cool head with common sense, and, in his own words, "You're neither too happy or too sad." I see some truth in that. I'm happy that I'll set foot on new ground, but I'm not hyperventilating, "I'm going to China! I'm going to China!". I'm curious to see what the country's like, and how people are there. On the other hand, I'm sad that I'll be missing the chance to see my best friends, who will come after I leave. I'm sad to leave my family, and Willy. But I know that when I come back, they will be there, and I'll bring more stories to the dinner table.

I didn't plan to go to China before I started college. It just... happened. I thought that I'd be sitting in some lab or hospital right now, volunteering and researching, making my resume pretty for medical school. But how could I pass up a trip to China, all expenses covered? My language lectors had been amazing during my freshman year, giving me hilarious and often profound insight into Chinese culture and its state today. I want to use my knowledge and to see the sights I had only glimpsed in history textbooks. I want to see China before the Olympics in 2008, and the infestation of the world population in China. Yes, infestation is a strong word, and I know China's already very developed, but I want to see the mass of heads with homogenous black hair for myself.

My first rest place will be at a fellow couchsurfer's place. I can't give his name for privacy reasons. What is a couchsurfer, you ask? Couchsurfing is an internationally known method of travel, where independent travelers can sleep on other traveler's couches... for free. You can contact a couchsurfer online, ask for a couch, and hopefully you'll get one to rest on. It's all a system of trust - you pray to whatever deity you believe in that, as you sleep, your host will not sell your organs to the highest bidder. I exaggerate - there have there been such a case, according to the site. Here's the site for all of you who are interested: This will be my first couchsurfing experience and I've never met my couchsurfer, nor do I clearly know how to get to his apartment, but it will be exciting to ride Beijing buses and taxis for the first time and meet completely random people. Stay tuned. I assure you, there will be a third post.

I just recently finished The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, so I am compelled to add this final note: I hope you have your towel.

edit, 10:47 AM, Vancouver International Airport
I feel too lazy to get food or browse the duty-free shops at the moment. Vancouver is a beautiful city, a lot like Hong Kong (said the person next to me). Lots of little islands, beautiful clouds, but brown murky bay. Pity I won't be here for long.While I was waiting in the Canadian customs line, I happened to talk with a lady who published a book on bribery, and was going to China to talk about it to a government committee. She told me we were lucky to be stuck with U.S. bureaucracy and red tape rather than have to deal with developing government corruption. For example, in order for one to obtain a driver's license in America, one simply has to follow a few set age and knowledge rules, paying set fees here and there. The worst nuance that the American can complain about is waiting in line. As she said, "My students in India told me that to get a license there (in India), one could go about it legally and wait for days, or they could bribe the person behind the counter, have the driver's license personally delivered to their door, and have a commercial trucker's license to boot." I asked her what the word for bribery in Chinese was, and she said "hong2 bao1." Isn't that literally "red envelope"? I'm puzzled by this conversation, and a bit nervous. At least when I was in Tunisia I had a sense of Western values despite the Islamic influence, but what set of rules (or lack thereof) have I decided to subject myself to?

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