MHC in Beijing

Mount Holyoke's intensive, eight-week course in Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University

August 06, 2006

Three Weeks Left?!?!?

Well this blog is well overdue. The program is five weeks in and I only have three weeks left until I return home. It is hard to believe how time flies. These days I find myself less eager to write about my journey as those things that before were interesting or unique are becoming more comfortable and routine for me. For example, when I first arrived here, the food would send me into a fit of homesickness. I just needed some time to get used to it. I have to admit, however, I still get a few chills up my spine every time I step into one of squatty potties here. How we all do miss good old American style bathrooms.

Yesterday, the group ventured to the Great Wall. Even after a long drive and vertical climb up a mountain side, the seventh wonder of the world was completely worth it. 10,000 km is the length of this structure and the group was only able to walk about three towers worth. Unfortunately, it was an overtly cloudy day and we could barely see the adjoining tower. The view from the top was rather blurred. Despite this setback, I was amazed. To my surprise the walkways on top of the wall were really crooked. For as many miles as you can see, this wall seems so structured in contrast to the dips and dives of the mountain scenery. I had imagined it to be as sound and perfect as it looks from afar. Nevertheless, at times I felt like I was walking at a steep angle to the land below. I supposed that when creating a structure that crawls and contours mountains so great, one doesn’t worry about whether or not everything was even. I can just see someone out there with a little leveling gadget walking every foot to measure. Something like this would have been a bit unnecessary.

Now it is time do some studying on this lovely Sunday afternoon. Sundays are the only day I do not like the fact that we here are day ahead of everyone back home. On Fridays, I am thrilled I finished the week off before my parents, but by Sunday night when I am studying characters, I really envy that they are just woke up to full day of relaxation!

July 29, 2006

Another week has come and gone . . .

As the title says, another week has come and gone for us MHC students in Beijing . . . and, well, for MHC students everywhere, I suppose. Yesterday was an important day for us because we had our midterms and our mid-semester projects, which were 10-minute skits that we performed in groups. It was a lot of fun (the skits, I mean, not the midterm), and everyone's skits were very funny. I particularly liked Kaitlin's impression of Wang Laoshi and the 3rd year skit where they made fun of the Beijing Opera. But still, everyone did a great job. After we finished our skits the teachers brought us pizza and we had a mini-celebration together. It was a lot of fun, but, of course, the pizza was about as similar to American pizza as American Chinese food is similar to real Chinese food. Basically there was almost no sauce, and barely any cheese. It was a little upsetting, but it had pineapple on top so that made up for everything.

This week's classes have been MUCH better than before. Our teachers are starting to loosen up, our male teacher has realized that we aren't going to attack him mid-lecture, and we're doing fun and useful stuff like looking at pictures and learning things about China. People are a lot more motivated, and everyone seems a lot happier in class, which is always good.

Next week we have our last lesson from our "Integrated Chinese" book and we're starting the new book that Wang Laoshi and Huang Laoshi wrote for our program. This is a great relief to everyone, because most of us really don't like the "Integrated Chinese" book we've been using for the past year and a half. Frankly it's a poorly written book. It seems like the writers just wrote a bunch of simple dialogues that kept increasing in difficulty, and from those dialogues wrote out vocab lists and grammar "rules." So after every lesson all but the most important vocab we had learned was never gone over again (and if it was, it was reused once or twice a couple of lessons later), and the book also never taught us some of the most useful words to know in the Chinese language. For example, if we strictly followed the book we would know how to say "The people on the top will crush the people on the bottom to death," but we wouldn't know how to say "Where's the nearest hospital?" or "'Where's the clock?' 'It's hanging on the wall over the map of China.'" Simple things like that. But this new book promises to be much better. It's even prettier than the old one (as you can see for yourself if you look above), which always counts for something.

So, I suppose I should leave today's entry at that. I'll try to update next week, but I'm pretty sure we're going to the Great Wall (Wang Laoshi's pretty much the only person who's ever certain about where we're going), so it might have to wait. Goodbye for now!

July 22, 2006

The long-awaited update

I'm sorry that it's taken so long for me to update. We had some technical difficulties in setting up Kaitlyn's blog and I didn't want to be hogging all the spotlight, :D !

What an eventful three weeks it's been! Three weeks? Has it really only been that long? I feel like I've been here for forever. I remember the first full day I was here I locked myself up in my room, terrified of having to go out and speak Chinese to get people to help me, because my roommate still hadn't arrived. Lol, and now I'm walking all the way to the bookstore near Wudaokou (about a 15-20 minute walk) by myself and even talked to the shopkeeper by myself! It's amazing how even a few weeks can change a person completely.

Beijing is, well, Beijing. It's smoggy, dirty, and filled with people selling stuff on the sidewalks, walking, riding their bikes, driving cars, and even the occasional donkey/horse cart or two. At this point I suppose I'm as used to it as I'll ever be, although it still can be a little overwhelming at times. The people (excluding the annoying peddlers) are nice, for the most part and very tolerant of my slow and often incorrect Mandarin. But still, I get stared at quite a bit, particularly when I'm talking to one of my classmates or my tutor in Chinese. At first it struck me as rather odd, but then I realized that it's far less strange for a Chinese person to speak English than it is for a white American to speak Chinese. I remember this one time in Hong Qiao when Megan rather loudly told Lindsey to wait for a minute in Chinese and the next thing I hear is some of the Chinese people behind us giggling and whispering among themselves "That must be here friend!" Lol, we must be very amusing to them!

Well, I suppose I should talk a little bit about our classes and what we actually do here for schoolwork before I talk about the fun stuff. Every week we have classes from Monday until Friday. Starting at 8 in the morning every Monday-Thursday we have a character quiz on the vocab we were assigned to learn the night before. After that until around 10 we have lectures given by Huang Laoshi on Grammar and go over the new vocab together to clarify the meaning of all the words. Then we usually read the text aloud once or twice, and answer the questions orally with a partner. Then after 10 we split up into two groups and have drill sessions with our two drill instructors, Xiao Wang Laoshi, and Guo Laoshi. Up until this point they've been mostly going over the same text that we went over for 2 hours before about 5 or 6 times and going over the same grammar structures we went over in the lecture, which is all about 10 or so times as boring and unuseful as it sounds. Fortunately though, a few of us went to Wang Laoshi (who is the Mt. Holyoke professor in charge of the program) and talked with her about our concerns. Hopefully next week everything will change and we'll get to do some fun things like read books, watch TV shows, and play games. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

After class we have an hour and a half lunch break, after which we either have (depending on the day) tutoring sessions with our tutor or Culture Classes, both of which are fun for the most part. All of our tutors are nice and are also very patient with us and our inability to speak Chinese even proficiently, and the Culture Classes are a lot of fun. Last week we had Tai Chi classes, and the week before we had calligraphy classes! After we're done with the afternoon activities we're done for the day, and I usually either go back to the dorm and fiddle on the internet or do my homework. We usually go out to dinner, but sometimes we stay in and eat peanut butter and jelly or Ramen noodles, mmmmmmmmm!

Speaking of food, the food here is very good, and remarkably cheap! At most of the restaurants its customary here to get several dishes and share them, so most meals usually cost between 10 and 15 yuan, which is between $1-$2. It's amazing how even students can go out to eat all the time and not go bankrupt! You could never do that in America! I'm actually going to miss it once I go back and have to pay between $15-$20 a meal, lol!

Writing those last few sentences made me think of my Chinese abilities, and how they've improved. I actually nearly wrote "Meiguo" instead of America, because my brain's very confused by all this Chinese and I have actually started thinking in "Chinglish," as we call it. While I feel that my understanding of Chinese grammar has not really improved as much as I would like it to have, my vocabulary, listening comprehension, and even my reading comprehension have improved in great leaps and bounds. My speaking, on the other hand, is still a little bit on the slow and hesitant side, but hopefully that will catch up with everything else soon! Still, even though I recongnize my general improvement, there still are good and bad days for me. Some days I feel like I can understand everything that's going on around me and have both answered and asked questions both intelligently and grammatically correct. Then other days I feel like I can't understand a word of what people are saying and can barely speak two words in Chinese. Hopefully this will pass with time and I can have far more up days than down days. It's probably just a phase.

Well, I should probably get back to work. I had planned on reading my Schaum's Book of Chinese Grammar today and finish my letter to my German penpal, so I really should get back to work! Until next time!


So Much to Do, So Much to See

We students have been attending class now for about three weeks. Our time here in Beijing is going by so quickly. A regular week day consists of a four hour morning session of classes, two hour tutoring sessions, and cultural classes bi-weekly. Each week we are covering an extensive amount of material, but luckily have just enough time to get off campus and use it. One third year student recently discovered a little tea shop not far from campus. She frequents the spot regularly and I have been fortunate enough to join her. The middle age couple that owns the shops invites us in for tea and chat. We not only got to try some really delicious teas, but also practice our Chinese with some very nice locals.

Each and every day my Chinese is improving. Apart from speaking the language both in class and at tutoring sessions, getting out into the city really tests my skills. My first weekend here, a few students and I took a taxi to Hong Qiao Shi Chang, a market traditionally known for its pearls. Most markets were, at one time, outdoors and filled numerous streets. Today, Hong Qiao occupies a four story building with everything from fake Coach Purses to roller blades. I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed with the whole bargaining situation. In most places like these, vendors will throw out a price far too high for the particular good. As such, one must be firm. We mastered the essential phrases like “Bu yao!” (Don’t want) as shop owners grappled for our business and perfected looks of utter disgust at some of the prices shop owners offered. Since this first visit to Hong Qiao, I have frequented other markets such as the Silk Market and clothes market. I look forward to another visit each time I leave.

The program itself has offered us some wonderful opportunities. So far, the entire group has ventured to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Beijing Opera; each place rich with wonderful sights and soaked in history. My amazement at the Forbidden City (known here as Gu Gong) has yet to dissipate. Gu Gong covers an area of 720,000 square meters. It is one of the last remaining locations with the traditional wood structures of ancient China as many similar structures were torn down during the Cultural Revolution. Here, I viewed everything from diamonds the size of rocks and clocks the size of my kitchen pantry. One palace was filled with over one hundred magnificent clocks given by British and Swiss clockmakers to emperors. These clocks, sometimes up to 10 feet high with unending detail, were used to improve relations between the countries. One clock we saw, built in 1740, had a medium sized gentleman in it, who, when you pressed a certain button, actually wrote characters (of which praised the emperor of the time). The feature was so well designed that to this day it continues to work.

My favorite part of the Forbidden City was learning about the history, particularly the Empress CiXi. For a long time, this woman held position as one of the most influential people in the empire. I saw both CiXi’s palace and the well in which she had murdered a very famous concubine. The story goes that when her husband began initiating reform in China, CiXi didn’t like it. As such, she put her husband under house arrest and had the arms cut off of his most loyal and supportive concubine so this girl might be stuffed in a well to drown.

On our venture to the Summer Palace, my friends and I witnessed another example of CiXi’s rather backwards thinking compared to other world leaders at the time. Rather than building a navy for China, she decided to not only construct the summer palace, but likewise a marble boat for her own use. And, believe it or not, this boat coincidentally doesn’t float. Although the investment in the summer palace may not have been the best move for China at the time, the construction of it has left a treasure to the city of Beijing. The whole scene is breathtaking. My classmates and I spent two hours on paddle boat on the lake that occupies more than 1/3 of the whole area. The thousands of willow trees that line the water only add to the beauty.

The Beijing Opera was the group’s most recent excursion. We got to view the performers putting on their make-up and enjoy some tasty treats before the show. We listened as both men and women sang in a high soprano and watched as acrobatics flipped this way and that. It was so entertaining that and hour and forty-five minutes later, we felt as if only five minutes had passed.

Thus far, the sights have been wonderful, the food tasty, and the academics rigorous. Now it is time for me to get some lunch!

July 19, 2006

Welcome to Beijing!

Hello, my name is Kait Szydlowski and I am spending my summer studying at Beijing Language and Culture University. As a potential Asian Studies minor, I came here with the intention to not only improve my Mandarin, but more importantly experience first hand Chinese culture (at least here in Beijing). Whether it is training for this year's MHC cross country season with 30 other people on the track at 5:30 in the morning with 30 or chatting with tea shop owners down the street, I have already seen and experienced so much here at BCLU. I look forward to writing about more of this wonderful experience.