Saturday, April 26, 2008

March: Korea's Ivy Craze

Time isn’t just ticking – it’s getting louder. As the semester draws to a close, Yalies get ready for a final hurrah on Spring Fling Day before confining themselves to libraries for finals. As the Olympics opening ceremony gets closer, shouts from rallies by the world and anti-rallies by the Chinese intensify. Interpol warns China of a major terror threat, didn’t our internal terror-radars detect this? Amid final exams, housing worries and last moments with friends, time is getting louder. (Maybe I’m just hearing my heart beat.)

I usually write specifically about China, but NYTimes published an article I couldn’t resist talking about – South Koreans’ Love of the Ivy League. Mr. Sam Dillon describes the lives of students at two prep schools in South KoreaDaewon Preparatory School and Minjok Leadership Academy – renown for their high success rates of students getting acceptances to American universities, particularly the Ivy League colleges. Student preparation is rigorous – studying from as early as 6 a.m. to as late as 2 a.m. or later (Some students apparently don’t sleep). Surveillance is intense to make sure students are not falling asleep as they cram for AP, IB and SAT tests. Aside from enduring the hard academic life, students also participate in clubs and sports.

I’m simply amazed that students in Korea have to go through that academic torture to get to the Ivy League. My own path to college admissions didn’t seem nearly as academically intense. During high school, my life was consumed by the marching band. Early morning practices, Tuesday night practices, Friday concerts and Saturday competitions defined my junior and senior years. I ran on the cross-country and track and field teams because I lacked the hand-ball coordination to play any other sport. On holidays and summer/winter vacations when I didn’t have marching band, I worked at my parents’ restaurant in San Francisco. I took my sets of APs and SATs, but I didn’t have time to study for those tests all day. My test scores were nowhere close to what Daewon and Minjok students are averaging.

I hope that the Korean education system changes so that the students have time to devote time to other things than standardized tests, such as volunteer service and independent projects. I feel like my Korean friends are burnt out while they’re at Yale, looking at a class as just another set of tests and essays to cram and write for. High scores are important to prove one’s understanding of a topic or one’s intelligence, but the cramming culture destroys the point of learning – to enrich one’s life. I understand that Koreans value education as a means to a better and happier life, but education itself is an art to enjoy. When history is reduced to dates and events, when science is reduced to facts and formulas, when language is reduced to grammar and structure, where is the beauty of learning? Mr. Dillon mentions that one girl is preparing for nine AP tests, none of which she’s taking classes for. She “buys and devours textbooks,” cramming into the wee hours of night. Question: why?


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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Aria: Annoying China

Reading the news these days really makes me wonder how much of the Beijing I got acquainted with last summer will change. The International Herald Tribune's article “New Rules for Expats in China” (4/23/08) reports on the recent law changes for foreigners in China and stories of law enforcement. The duration of stay offered by a tourist or student visa is more volatile, and the motley of rules that foreigners had been able to circumvent seems to be slowly enforced as the Chinese government and police react to “lewd” behavior and recreational drug use.
For one, China seems to discriminate people from countries that have protested along the Olympic torch relay. A French café owner in Beijing, complying with the rapid change in visa law despite the short notice by the government, cannot get a new visa. Complaining for a reason, the policeman responded, “It’s because you’re French.” A Swiss and a German planned to travel to China together. The Swiss tourist got a visa for thirty days. The German got one that lasted five days. They canceled the trip. Businessmen who travel liberally from Hong Kong to China are not pestered by visas that they never had to bother with. I haven’t read anything about an American tortured by the bureaucracy of the visa, but I’m worried.
Interestingly, the Chinese government denies any change to visa regulation. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu says, “The Chinese people will welcome foreign friends in a warm, enthusiastic and open-minded way.”
Why now? Why does the Chinese government decide to enforce so many laws on foreigners before a ceremony that they hope will attract foreigners? I can understand that Beijing wants to clean up its nightlife scene of all that it deems to be hedonistic excess, but won’t these sorts of restrictions only create regrettable repercussions? By setting up obstacles for us to boggle through just to get into the country, China is only ruining its reputation in our minds.
I’m already annoyed by all the housing issues I’m facing. Tsinghua University is reluctant to offer the Inter-University Program any sort of on-campus housing, so I may have to negotiate with local landlords to rent an apartment for a year. On the bright side, it’ll be an adventure on its own, but I’m also reading emails from the housing assistant at my program that landlord will be especially conniving to rob “foreign suckers” who cannot effectively bargain. Should I take this as a call to study some vocabulary on renting? IUP has already sent out their 学生租房手册. I almost deleted it, but it seems it’s my guide for my first two weeks in Beijing. Beautiful.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008


一件小事 (3/7/08)
“This is boring,” I think as I sit at the hospital, waiting for Dr. C. to come so that I can continue my dehydration research. “Not only are there no kids who vomit or shit water coming in these days, even the doctor is late.”
I close my Chinese book. I just reread Lu Xun’s “Yi Jian Xiao Shi” (一件小事), reviewing all the characters aimlessly. For our weekly writing assignment, we were assigned to write about our own little incidents similar to Lu Xun’s story. I exaggerated my first experience at a church, pondering as I watch the student seated several benches closer to the preacher how he can drink ridiculously and fuck a girl on Saturday night, yet wake up to come to such a holy place. I conclude that no religion can teach a person morals and virtues – one guides oneself. Whatever, I used new Chinese words to write that essay. I clear all the enrolled patient files, check with the nurses and doctors for any sign of the late doctor, and leave.
The New Haven winter wind is finally easing on this eve of Spring Break. The cloudy sky casts a dark blue hue on the buildings and cars. Fluorescent street lights pop on one by one. Across from the hospital’s main entrance, a man stands by his flower stand, soliciting on the grieving. The street lights cast shadows on the orange-dyed roses and blue daffodils neatly rolled into bouquets, $25 each. I walk faster, thinking of the lab reports that need to be written, waiting back at my dorm. The night paints another shade of black.
I pass by Subway and remember that all the dining halls are closed now. My stomach growls quietly. I take my MP3 off and step inside the store. A man in blue scrubs directs the sandwich maker to leave the olives off his sandwich. As I look up over their heads to see the sandwich selections, the waiter greets me. “Can I help you?”
“Uh…what’s the special deal today?” I glance quickly at the daily list. Friday – 6 inch tuna, $3.99. “How much is a footlong?”
“I’ll just go with the cold cut combo footlong, please.” (It was about a dollar cheaper.)
She works through the salad bar, looking up every now and then to see my nods of approval as she adds lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers on top of the deli meat. She presses the sandwich down and twists the wrap with one hand as she clicks on the cashier machine.
“You do accept credit, right?” I ask.
“No,” she replies.
“Oh. Debit then?”
“Our credit card reader is broken man,” says the other sandwich maker. He points to a sign taped onto the salad bar’s glass pane. “CASH ONLY.” Great – I have no cash.
“Is there an ATM around here? I can get cash really quickly. You don’t have to dispose the sandwi— ” I plead.
“I’ll pay his sandwich,” says the man donned in blue scrubs.
The waiters look at each other. I stand dumbfounded, mouth hanging open. I recover my voice, “No really, I just need an ATM, I can get cash really quic—”
“Don’t worry,” he mouths, as he hands a twenty to the cashier. She hands back the change to the man. “Give it to this boy.”
My face flushes. “Sir, this is too much, I can’t accep—”
“You’re a student, don’t worry man. Just be nice to somebody else.” He takes his sandwich and leaves the store.
I sheepishly take my sandwich, his change, and leave the store. My face is still red from his unexpected acts. The sandwich weighs heavily in my hand. I don’t deserve to eat this sandwich, I think, confused why he would do such a thing. What had I done for him? I don’t even know him. All I know is that he works at the hospital.
Raindrops make black polka dots on the gray cement. Fortunately, I am back in the college courtyard. Back in my room, I lay the sandwich on my table. I don’t know what to do with it.
I feel like Lu Xun right now.

错误 (2/28/08)
I’ve been making silly mistakes that I should not be making anymore, resorting to simple grammar to express my thoughts, squabbling over the slight variation in meaning between two words, listening to Chinese songs over and over, hoping to memorize the lyrics that I feel I will never have the chance to use in real conversation because of the difference between 书面语 and 口语. Today, I struggled writing an essay for my Chinese 150 class for an entire evening, only to see it edited sentence by sentence, word for word by my good friend whose Chinese is much better than mine. I stare at it now, wondering where I went wrong, lost on what I need to improve. Maybe I just need more sleep, but I know the same problem will annoy me tomorrow.

My friend gave me wonderful advice, however, on how I could improve.
“Sometimes,” he says, “you just have to use that word wrong so that you can see what your mistake is.”
I go back to the dormitories thinking I can use the characters I’ve learned in class perfectly. But when it comes to these Thursday nights before my essay is due, I struggle. I could submit a poorly written paper, receive a low grade with plenty of red corrections, correct it and resubmit it for full credit, but that’s just cheating for a better grade. I may learn something, but it would be learning that was initiated by the teacher’s corrections, not my own initiative and thought. Using a new word to the best of my understanding and then being corrected is more rewarding than saying disorderly bullshit and having the teacher muddle through your thought.

过程 (2/22/08)
It’ll be impossible to fill in the gap between last summer and now, so I will start where I can and hopefully remember to write more tidbits as time goes by.
I'm fascinated with Korean and Chinese history. I can't read my assigned readings for classes because I'm so absorbed in the books I borrow from the library. Nobody has ever taught me my homeland's history, and it would seem difficult to understand Chinese culture if I don't read some Chinese history. I spend hours at the East Asian Library at Sterling, delving into dynasties and kingdoms, mounting dictionary after dictionary on my desk - Chinese-Korean, Korean-English, Chinese-English, Korean-Chinese - and my physics book remains in my backpack, forgotten until past midnight, when I realize I actually have to do some work that's graded.
The program I will be attending this summer and (hopefully) for the next academic year is called the Inter-University Program, affectionately called by its alumni IUP (see the link on the right). The beauty about this program is its small class size (1:1 teacher student ratio) and focus on speaking and writing. My friend who went there last year is pressuring me every time he sees me to study guwen (classical Chinese), but who walks around speaking ancient Chinese? I'd rather take the Contemporary Idioms course, or Chinese Journalism. According to my friend, classical Chinese will improve my Chinese in every technical field - I'm not as convinced, but I have plenty of time to think.
I usually don't wake up to study, but lately I've been getting up before my 7:30am alarm for a cold shower before trodding off to Commons dining hall to eat while going over the languages I had studied the night before. I don't consider studying languages actual studying... it's just a hobby, a passion. Polish is getting harder (keeping up with the pronounciation is ridiculous), but I speak it every time I meet the Polish cashier lady at the Slifka Center. I'm mixing my French with Chinese. It's so hard to express something without juxtaposing a Chinese pronoun next to a French verb. "wo voudrais une pingguo."
I hope I'm not spreading myself too thin.

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