Margaret: 超声波 – chāoshēngbō – ultrasonic wave (This is one of my vocab words.)

September 6, 2011

Today was day one of classes!  I was like a kindergartener, up early and all excited for the first day. Last week all the international students sat the Chinese placement exam. Let’s just say it was absolute death.  I was lucky if the listening passages went too quickly in one ear and out the other. I would say I was guessing on 95% of the exam. The reading passages continued to get longer and longer, followed by fewer and fewer questions. I struggled through the essay in extremely elementary Chinese. There were many many moments when I wanted to give up and turn my exam in, but I wouldn’t allow myself to do so. After the exam, I found out many people had done just that, not even attempting the essay. I was proud of myself for finishing.

The next day I arrived outside the Russian building to a see of foreign students all flustered and pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the bulletin board where the results had been posted. I was relieved: Intermediate hanyu or intensive Chinese level 16 and intermediate kouyu or speaking level 14. I will have hanyu four days a week for two hours at a time, and kouyu three days a week also for two hours at a time. Next week we will begin electives, and since I am an intermediate student, I can take between four and six hours of the following:

  • Intermediate Chinese characters
  • Intermediate business Chinese language
  • Intermediate writing
  • Home with Kids – A Multi-skill Chinese course (uses a comedy series to teach Chinese and about Chinese daily life)
  • Pronunciation correction
  • Intermediate Chinese grammar
  • Intermediate listening comprehension
  • Intermediate newspapers and periodicals reading
  • Series lecture on Chinese culture

I know which ones I am tempted to take, but I think I’ve narrowed it down to Chinese characters and pronunciation correction as I believe these will help me the most in the long run.  The nice thing is I can choose two more next semester, so maybe then I can take business language.

Flustered and sweating profusely already at eight this morning, I found my hanyu class and took a seat. Out of fifteen people, there are four girls including myself. Five of the guys are from Norway and seem to all know each other. How did that happen? There is one other American, who is half Japanese and half Chinese. My teacher, Zhang Laoshi, is very happy and kind, but I could only understand about five percent of what was said in the entire two hours of class.  It sounded something like this:

Jing chang ling zhuan ye shi hao de bu jue guan yi di zhen dao yao Mao Zedong ti zhong da yuan qi qu di nong shui ba er li tian tun bo dun man dan zen cui dui gan zao kuai gai gao goose zi zui ming hu he ping gui mei he fu gu hua lan jiu la le si xi xue lao she qiong mao tai xiong yun huai huan nin zhuang ying gei wo xiao chu shao mai le wan hai liang dou ge jian men gu cheng gong dong you xi ren bie shu wang quan bag liao shi nan di ai hou qian jie ken man.

For two hours. Two hours! Everyone else was nodding and asking questions, so I deduced that I might in fact be the worst in the class. The only time I spoke was to introduce myself, which I handled fine. However, I couldn’t even understand what the homework assignment is! As I result I learned to recognize, write, pronounce, and use in a sentence all thirty-five of the vocabulary words in the first chapter tonight. This was no easy feat. The professor also said something about a mingzi de gushi, or literally “name story,” but I have no idea what a name story is! I may take a stab at it and write an essay tomorrow, but that’s the problem, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be written or spoken or what! We shall see how class goes tomorrow when the professor actually begins teaching out of the book…

Kouyu was much more heshi, or suitable, to my level. Lu Chen is my laoshi, and she seems very sweet and easygoing. There are many Americans in this class, but unfortunately they all seem to be from the same program and therefore know each other already.  It’s amazing how small of a world it is. In my kouyu class alone, there is a guy from Florida who graduated from St. Olaf College. Another guy who goes to Madison tapped me on the shoulder and said he and I have a mutual friend from the U of M.  Funny thing is I never told him my English name or where I was from.  Quite creepy.  A group of my friends met up with another group to eat dinner tonight, and one of the girls said she recognized me.  She asked me if I went to Minnesota and if I lived in Middlebrook Hall on the eighth floor my freshman year.  WHAT!?!?!?!  As it turns out, we had lived on the same residence hall floor for a year, and we had even had a conversation. She had taken a gap year to attend the University of Minnesota in order to set up a chapter of her student group, the Silk Road, at Minnesota before starting her undergrad at Cornell. We had discussed how difficult our Chinese classes were in the Middlebrook study lounge. And now we were in the basement of a Korean BBQ restaurant in Beijing, China. Nuts…

Anyways, I am worried about how my classes are shaping up. As it turns out, nobody tried on the placement exam. I am in the highest level of all of my friends, most of who speak proficient to even fluent conversational Chinese. Oh shoot, I tried too hard. I am somewhat regretting trying so hard now, but no matter what I’m not going down without a fight. I am a student. I came here to be a student, and I will always be first and foremost a student. This and working are what fulfill me in life. I studied Chinese for two years, I filled out all the applications, I tracked down all the scholarships, I wrote essay after countless essay, I made all the connections, sent all the emails, filled out all the visa documents (a special thanks to Mom who helped me schedule appointments and mail things while I was working out in the fields during the workday).  I covered every square inch of this entire process, and often my parents didn’t even know what was going on behind the scenes because I was simply taking care of it myself. To be here now, living this wonderful life, it’s just crazy to think about all of that and know that I made all of this happen. I have had a certain amount of luck, but I’ve fought for so much.  Looking at all of it now, I’m going to give hanyu everything I’ve got, and I know that that is a whole lot.  And when I come out of this, not only will my Chinese be amazing, but I will also have more discipline than anyone else I know.

Okay, so I feel like I’ve spoken quite a bit about how awesome and cheap and convenient everything is, so here the major frustrations I have been grappling with since day one:

My dissatisfaction with my interactions here with other expats has been growing exponentially since day one.  Why?  I have had the same conversation about 109,204,382 times already.  It goes as follows:

  • Are you American?  (If yes, the conversation continues.  If no, the conversation only continues about half the time.)
  • What state are you from?  (Number one answer is California, followed closely by New England states.)
  • So what are you doing at Peking University?  (This is one of three answers: Studying Chinese, getting a Masters in some kind of business-related program, or “ON VACATION DUUUUDE!  YEAH MAN IT’S TOTALLY BALLIN’!  I BASICALLY JUST CAME HERE TO PARTY.”  The latter is exclusively Californian, but not all Californians answer this way.)
  • How is your Chinese? (This is also one of three answers:  very buhao, conversationally proficient thanks to Asian-American parents, or “So I taught English in ______ Province this past summer.  I guess you could say I’m pretty good.”)
  • What is your major back home?  (This has several answers: business, international business, business strategy, business management, business, business, and business.)
  • What do you want to do with your life?  (This is a Margy question. People are either taken totally off guard and can’t answer it, or they say entrepreneurship or investment banking.)

The conversation usually ends there.  Rachel Dewoskin speaks extensively about this in her book Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China. I wish I had it now so I could get the direct quotations, but even before coming to China, I had an idea of what expats would be like.  When you meet an expatriate, it’s exciting because there’s always this hope that you’re going to make some kind of meaningful connection as two outsiders in this massive city.  And then you have the same conversation, asking the same questions, find out the same information, and there are you’re left, as lonely as when you began. For Rachel, it was loneliness, but I think for me, these conversations leave me entirely intellectually dissatisfied.   I can’t even stand to listen to entrepreneurial mumbo jumbo anymore because it’s all the same!  These white kids want to make some business venture with China, but they don’t know what it’s going to be yet.  I think I need to start trying harder to dig deeper initially with these people in attempts to make a lasting connection.  Hopefully now that I am in class, things will improve.

Another other major issue is that there is no food around here.  There is a café a few feet from my door, but the only food it sells is ice cream, bagelwichs, paninis, and hot dogs. And btw, this is China, so these are very very loose interpretations of bagelwichs, paninis, and hot dogs.  To go to a dining area, I have to walk into campus, which is around twenty-five minutes. Otherwise, a bus or taxi may be taken to Wudaokou, the expat student hangout, where Western foods are widely available, albeit expensive.  Neither of those options really makes sense, so the other night I found myself headed to the mini student convenience store in the next dorm over.  What did I end up with?  Korean Oreo O’s, “Italian beef” cup noodles, fake orange juice, and a banana.  Mmmmm yummmm.  More recently it was pork cup noodles (much worse than the beef), a banana, Lays, and a Coke. Gotta stop eating cup noodles…

I’ve already met quite a few bad people here.  I really wanted China to be my be-all end-all of sorts, like I would just magically meet these amazing people with whom I can sip wine and have stimulating conversations with after class everyday.  I was in denial that there would be any bad people here.  Wrong!  Let’s just say I received quite a bit of unwanted attention while walking around Ames, Iowa, this past summer.  In China this issue has become worse and multicultural.  Exhibit A:  At “orientation” (which was actually just a few cops speaking only in Chinese showing us a powerpoint presentation of bloodied international students who drank too much or took too many drugs and got in a fight with the police.  According to these campus cops, the students in these pictures are all either in jail or deceased.  No joke.), I met a tall, dark, handsome (with the most perfect stubbly beard!) guy named Konstantine from Macedonia. I embarrassingly admitted to having no clue where Macedonia is, only to receive his retort of, “Bah, typical American.” However, he was funny.  He was really funny actually.  When he found out we live in the same building, he invited me to come by for a drink later on in the evening.  As it turns out, he hates the seed company (Monsanto) that I worked for this past summer, believing that what we are doing is not “natural.”  What is natural anyway?  He’s also a conspiracy theorist and believes the United States government planned and instigated 9/11 and also planted nuclear weapons under Japan to cause the earthquake and tsunami.  He hates America but not Americans but nevertheless decided to take his hatred for America out on me.  The conversation changed and he told me he was a model back in Macedonia, deciding that I needed to flip through his photograph portfolio.  Sure enough, underwear ads!  It was entirely entirely awkward!  Perhaps I should have been flattered?  He was a model I guess…  I eventually stormed out. Oh the people you meet abroad.  Let’s just say I’m no longer in denial.

Okay, to end on a happy note, here are a few funny things:

I live in more or less a dormitory park, and in the center is a garden/courtyard that is a nice place to hang out.  Even though everyone that lives in Zhongguanxinyuan is a student, there are always tons of moms with little Asian babies running around!!!  I don’t know where they come from or why they are there, but at any given time you may find ten of the cutest Asian babies playing together.  Tiffany and I just about die every time!  In this same area, I saw an old Chinese man with a big fat pug!  It’s unusual to see people with dogs as pets in Beijing, so seeing this today absolutely cracked me up.  It will probably be the first and last pug I ever see in China.

Every since I moved into my room at Zhongguanxinyuan, the power has been automatically shutting off whenever it feels like it.  My roommate and I will manually turn it on, but then it will shut off five minutes later.  She has called the maintenance people about five different times, and they’ve even come five different times, but nothing that they’ve done has fixed the problem.  The other day I walked into my room to find two Chinese electricians in my room and all of the outlets completely torn out of the walls!  I came back hours later, the problem is finally fixed!

The café in my dorm is always playing sort of old American jazzy music.  It’s really nice environment to study in.  The other day when I was in there around lunchtime, Christmas music came on!!!  The people working there don’t speak English, so they probably had no idea!

Because Tiffany is a PhD student, she gets invited to things that the other international students don’t always hear about.  The other morning we filed into a huge turf soccer stadium for a welcome ceremony.  Walking down the street towards the stadium was like looking down the streets at the Minnesota state fair.  Once inside, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Rows and rows and rows of people, all Chinese.  I believe it was the only white person there, and there were thousands of people.  All the speeches were in Chinese, but it was still amazing to behold.  The national song was sung, and in that moment it sounded to Communist and revolutionary.  t

A cool thing to do in China is to go to a 7/11, buy drinks, and sit on the steps to drink and chat together. This just seems like such a strange but fun thing to do!  The other night after a night out at HouHai, a beautiful lake surrounded by fun places, we hit the 7/11 at 2 or 3 am in the morning to finish off the night.  I think China is on to something here.

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