The madness begins

After only a week in Beijing, I feel like I’ve been here for much longer than I have, and at the same time I still have no idea what’s going on 99.9% of the time. I had a blessedly easy time navigating the airport, but I think that’s because in comparison to Russian (I took Aeroflot to Beijing via Moscow) Chinese was comfortingly familiar. I was late to meet the person picking me up from the airport because it took an hour to get through the passport line– of the 20-something queues, around 16 were marked for ‘Chinese nationals,’ two for ‘Foreigners’ and two were closed. After that my bag was already circling the baggage claim.

Shi Wei, or Shi Laoshi (teacher) was waiting for me outside the secure area. It turned out she’s both a teacher in my program, and a roommate—she’s incredibly nice, and very energetic and excited about everything. We ran around looking for the best opportunity to grab a taxi, and then we were on the way to the apartment. I was only slightly surprised at how minimal my comprehension of her conversation with the taxi driver was, but it was definitely an intimidating foreshadowing of language struggles to come. Every so often she paused to point things out to me as we passed them, including the Olympic structures (the ‘bird’s nest’ and ‘water cube’) from the 2008 Olympics. We arrived at our enormous multi-building apartment complex, and voila: home for the next couple months. I was surprised at how large the apartment was. Shi Wei lives there full-time, and students come and go by the semester. There’s her room, and two other bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. The best part: It’s surprisingly and thankfully well-heated. The trade-off: The next time I have a comfortable, relaxing shower will be a small miracle. My bathroom has a tub, set slightly off the wall, that has a showerhead (not mounted on the wall) and no shower curtain around it. Therefore, showering without flooding the rest of the bathroom is mildly difficult. The way to accomplish this is fairly uncomfortable, and therefore showering has become a 100% practical endeavor.

Of the apartments that immersion students live in, ours is the only one in this complex in the Haidian district—it’s only a 10ish minute walk to the Beida gate, and then a 5ish minute walk to our school building. The other immersion apartments are in Wudaokou, which is I think a little more than twice as far of a walk, and is where many of the bars/nightlife places are. Overall, I’m much happier to live in a more neighborhood-type area.

When we first arrived, and through the couple days of class, most people were still gone celebrating the Spring Festival. Arriving at this time was very deceiving: I didn’t realize how shut down the city was at the time. Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way here. Walking to school is a battle, because the difference is: even if you have the green walk sign, the cars (and buses!) turning right don’t act like it. It’s only from living in DC that I’m not completely stressed out by it, but even New York traffic looks small-town friendly in comparison. The difference being that here, it’s just the way it is, and no one really yells or gets upset about it, except for the occasional “I’m coming, I don’t want to hit you” honk.

The hotpot place: Dingdingyang rotary hotpot

And dragonfruit for dessert.

The first two days of orientation we were thankfully still allowed to speak English. The second day was devoted to helping us figure out the subway, and running around a little bit. We went to this rotary hot pot place in the mall that was seriously delicious.

The Chinese-only pledge began the moment we woke up on the first school day. The schedule is incredibly intense: 9:00-12:00 we learn and drill the lesson for the day, 12:00-1:30 is a break for lunch, 1:30 – 2:30 is a discussion class, the topic usually pertaining to the lesson to reinforce new vocabulary, etc., 2:30 – 3:30 is oral, or kouyu, class, where we practice more everyday situations. From 3:30 on, everyone in the class takes a turn with a 30-minute one-on-one session with the discussion teacher. After the one-on-one is already mostly homework, finding/fixing something to eat, trying to converse with other immersion students in any way possible, and trying to get to bed at a decent hour.

The gate of humility: The back entrance to the history department building

I’m in Level 3 of 5. My roommate Zoe is in the Level 5 class, so conversing with her on the day-to-day basis outside of class has already been incredibly helpful for me. Even though she insists it’s not a problem, I do hope to improve quickly so she doesn’t have to explain quite so much.

Being deprived of English is incredibly shocking. My reading and writing is very good (for the level that I’m at, allow me to qualify), but my spoken, in my opinion, is horrendous in comparison. I’ve been dismayed by how slow my comprehension of Chinese spoken at a normal speaking rate is, but everyone assures me that’s the thing that improves the most quickly. It’s only the end of the first week, but I have already noticed a slight difference.

This struggle to communicate reminds me a lot of Caroline. It’s funny that I had to come all the way to China to understand a little better what she really goes through. What’s most frustrating about Chinese-only isn’t that Chinese is difficult (although it definitely is) but that you’re having deeper thoughts and experiencing feelings that you are literally unable to express to another person. Caroline’s intelligence and understanding of what’s going on far surpasses her ability to communicate about it, and I now understand slightly more how difficult that must be, not even just Monday through Friday, but every day of your life. On the other hand, it’s an incredible motivator to learn that much more quickly. Luckily my roommate is similarly motivated to make speaking as normal as possible, so we’re going to try as much as possible to speak Chinese-only, even on weekends. My goal after I leave here is to have the ability to hold general conversations with native speakers that are fluid and not complete linguistic warfare in my head.

Navigating foods I don’t recognize with only the meaning I can glean from a package whose characters I’ve never seen before is difficult. I knew my vocabulary was small, but I had no idea how small. The first day of school during the lunch break we went to grab food at one of the zillions of noodle joints near campus, and I couldn’t read a word of the menu on the wall. It wouldn’t be so bad, except everything moves so fast here: When there are twenty people in line behind you in a lunch rush, the last thing the person at the cash register wants to do is take an extra precious minute to try to explain a noodle or rice dish to a foreigner with the vocabulary of a three-year-old child. Because even if I asked, “What is that?” chances are I ‘m not yet able to understand the answer anyway. Thus far, the best I’ve been able to do is to point and hope. Embarrassingly enough, I did take one of the paper menus from a restaurant to “study” a little bit, in the hope that eventually I can ask what something is, and understand some of the response.

In the time I’ve already spent at supermarkets, restaurants, the subway and various other public places, it’s been very frustrating to realize how impractical my “textbook” Chinese is.  Yesterday my roommates and I went to a Carrefour, which I’d never heard of, but is apparently a European chain, and here is like a multi-level-Costco-sized Walmart. After walking around in a complete daze, looking like the completely lost foreigner that I am, and waiting in line for twenty minutes for a check-out stand, the cashier said, at the speed of light, “Ni yao yi ge daizi ma?” Of course that’s not what I heard, though. I asked her to repeat it, and I swear she said it even faster. She obviously was not planning to play charades with me to get her point across either. So we stared blankly at each other, meanwhile there are still a million people in line behind me, just wanting me to get out of the way so they could get on with their lives. Luckily my roommate lived in Shanghai for a year, so she knew what the woman was saying, and told me what she said—“You want a bag?” The word I had learned for bag was not “daizi,” so I had no idea.

Even though I knew before I came that this city is incredibly dense, and people, by necessity, have less expectations for personal space, the way they treat space is incredibly interesting. At the Carrefour, and in similarly jam-packed places, no one seems to notice that people are trying to get by, or that you’re in the way, etc. etc. While standing in that checkout line, my roommates and I were playing our own personal game of Frogger, trying to get out of people’s way. And somehow that created more disturbance than other people, who didn’t seem necessarily to notice or give way, but things still flowed around them. It’s incredible the way people here seem to find space where there is none, again I think because their expectation is lower. An opening I would neglect to recognize as a passable space is fully utilized here.

So, somehow I’ve managed to turn this into a short novel—apologies!  I guess it’s several days of pent-up English. Being here is crazy, and amazing, and intense, and ridiculous and great, but I miss all of you at home, both in DC and Dallas, and I hope you’re all doing well! Thanks for keeping up with me here!