June 20, 2008. Beijing China.
Well I woke up this morning with no way to hold my head that didn't…oh wait… different story.
Most of Beijing's mornings start with a haze low over the city, even when it is not humid, and it doesn't burn off with the sun. I have not yet adjusted to the 12 hour time change, and still wake up before my alarm. The first day of summer brought a forecast of higher temperatures; the next few days are going to break 90F. Exercising is hard. Some people go out running through the streets and come back coughing up particulate matter; others go the local park… and come back coughing up particulate matter. It's inescapable except indoors with the air on, which is where you will find me. The campus (which is not much of a campus, 4 buildings with courtyard in the middle) has a small exercise room with a treadmill, some free weights, a few weight machines ironically named 'ORIENT Weight Trainers,' a ping pong table, and one of those shaker things that nobody knows how to use and could be sold at a Qing dynasty antique market.
I'm afraid I have shamed my family's height and name with my poor basketball skills. I don't know how they measured the basketball hoops, but they are about 9'8", which is just short enough for me to dunk. Luckily, Confucius say, "Dunk man got game."
One nice thing about doing such a prestigious program is that more than half of the people are from Ivy League schools, and spend most of their time studying—not being athletic, so moderately athletic people can really bring up the bar. But really, am I here to play sports? No, I'm here to study (what a segue)
The program I am in is called CET. They cater to many prestigious universities; Yale, Harvard, Boston University, and Johns Hopkins all are affiliated and regularly send students on CET programs. Liu Fang, the director of the Beijing Chinese Language Program prior to coming to CET taught at Middlebury's Chinese Summer Language Program for 13 years, enough said.
Class starts at 8:30 with a dictation quiz, where the teacher will read a sentence containing some of the day's vocabulary, and we have to listen and write it down (in Chinese characters). Then we have grammar drill class for two hours, and then speech class for two more hours. 4 people meet with one professor, and the professor leads speaking exercises using the day's grammar and vocabulary. Lunch is served in the cafeteria, and the teachers (there are about 20 of them) all eat with the students. After lunch we have a 1-on-1 session with professors, 30 minutes where you can ask personal questions and continue to go over the day's lesson. Each day we start a new lesson, each lesson has anywhere between 40 and 60 new words, and 10-15 new grammar constructions. Every Friday we have a 2 hour written test, an oral quiz, and a paper due every Monday. On top of all of this we have 4 pages of homework a night, 2 to review the previous day's lesson, 2 that reinforce the next day's. Did I also mention that there is a language pledge? As of 8 am last Monday, no English is to be spoken at any time (except Wednesday nights in the break room, from 8-10 the ban is lifted to give students a time to vent). Warnings are issued if English is spoken, and three warnings are grounds for expulsion. Never have I seen so many intellectuals at so much of a loss for words. Almost every conversation trails off with a hand gesture universally known as "forget it" and a sigh of frustration. I wonder how many of those conversations would have been important? I'll never know.
I have determined that there is a certain type of people that do a program like this, in a country like this, with a language this hard. First of all, all of the people that do it are to some extent masochistic. As fun as being in Beijing is, subjecting oneself to these levels of pollution and denying oneself of ones native tongue are not the most pleasurable experiences. These people can be divided into four different groups.
First, you have the geeks. The geeks genuinely love China and Chinese. They love playing computer games, watching kung fu, and reading manga. Their greatest dream is to live in a monastery somewhere deep in China, play Warcraft, and study Wushu until they have all of 'the answers' and max out their gold. These people tend are easy going but eccentric, and have few friends (who share similar tastes). They always are majoring in Chinese or Asian studies, white, and male with scruffy beards and t-shirts that display internet jargon.
Next you have the intellectuals, who want to study Chinese because they see it as a great way to further themselves and their majors. (Usually in Public Health, Medicine, or other service related fields.) They want money and can smell the opportunity to exploit the very people they are learning from (Ironic?). They have many friends, all studying similar subjects. They are serious about their studies.
Third, we have the unknowns. They do not share a common field of interest; in fact they study everything from apiculture to nihilism (how much is there to know?) and generally do not know why they are studying Chinese. When pressed, they may bumble through reasons like, "My mom collects antiques," or "I read a book once called 'The Story about Ping' and thought that it was interesting," which leave you scratching your head wondering if your question was actually answered and you missed it, or they really have no idea and said the first thing they thought remotely having to do with Chinese in hope that you would empathize.
Lastly, we have the group that is completely lost, FOBs (or planes if you will) if you will who are still wondering why they signed up for Chinese instead of testing out of Spanish and running with the credit like their friends did. This group is the most likely to break the language pledge, and tends to conform to the American stereotype, bars, nightclubs, and complaints.
They warned us that privacy in China is not the same as what we are used to, and they were right. This is immediately apparent in some public restrooms, which usually have walls to pee against (males) and squat toilets with no doors. Picture it. Enough said.
My roommate (Xu Jie) is my age, and likes to play sports, computer games and eat. Sounds just like your average Jo, right? Last night we chatted for an hour about the States, China, and how they are different. I think that he has trouble fathoming some of the things I say. I say capitalism and he sees McDonalds, American cars, the NBA and thinks that he knows us. He sells beer at a stand for $1 an hour, and has no hopes of coming to the states because procuring a visa is too hard and too expensive. It shocked him when I told him I hunt, in China people are not even allowed to own guns. (Even added for bias) He told me he would be scared to go to New York because of all the homicides. Thank you, Hollywood.
The culture here is subtly different. Sometimes it is easy to forget that I am on the other side of the world, but my delusions of proximity to home are quickly dashed when I can't read anything or understand much of what is said. Eating is a show every time I go out (at least once a day) and is utterly enjoyable but frustrating. We never quite know what we are ordering, except we can read what type of meat the dish contains and see pictures (sometimes). I am becoming quite proficient with chopsticks, and adjusting to drinking hot teat out of tiny, cups that seems to be laughing at me with all of their insatiateness hidden in the illegible characters beautifully written on the china. It is perfectly acceptable to slurp, shovel, and pile food, and hands are always an option. I've become great at asking if every dish contains nuts, and I am always assured without hesitation that there are none. At least they think about it in the states. Food is so cheap. Last night I went out with 6 people. We ate at a Korean barbeque, had a private table and a private waitress, order 8 dishes and dessert, all for less than 7 dollars a person. That's the most expensive meal of the trip. Most of the dinners I have had have been around 4 dollars.
Much to my family's dismay, I did have a rather…unfortunate (for them) incident last night…I ate Lucky's second cousin, Jojo. Cold and spicy, oh so delicious. 狗肉。Dog. After checking that off my list of things to eat, I still have cat, birds nest soup, and shark fin soup, the latter which I hear is expensive (you are basically paying to ensure the extinction of a species) and delicious (don't tell PETA). I hear in the south of China you can actually eat a mammal that is an endangered species. When in Rome…
One interesting difference, which I think shows the difference in culture is how they keep score when they are playing sports. If I win a point, it's 0-1. If we play to 21, I win when it's χ-21. I still win if I get 21 points, but the score would be 0-21. It's backwards. (Or are we?) I guess that's what you get for being upside down all the time. (See cold play's 2002 album)
I think that that is enough for this week. Tomorrow we have a scavenger hunt around a part of the city called Hohai, which should be interesting. Next weekend we go to XI'AN, which is where the terracotta soldiers are, I can't wait.