Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Skipping Class, Listening to the Radio

I feel stilted when I write something topical. My little videos, as Melanie assures me, are "thrilling." Didn't I say the erhu in the background would make it fantastic? :) Today was interesting enough for me to just talk about what happened.

I'm in C+ now. I worked like crazy for four weeks in D, then instead of moving up, I moved down. This level is really good for me, though, and I think I'll still learn a lot. I have speaking class every day for half of the morning, then either reading or listening for the other half. But my reading teacher is horrible, and since I'm not in high school any more, I don't have to deal with that.

Accordingly, I spent two hours in the school library this morning skipping class in the most blissful studying session I've had practically ever. I was reading, and comprehending, and learning. Then I went to speaking class and learned some more.

I'm struck by how Chinese is so different from English in some respects--they use the same word for animals making noise, like barking or chirping, as they do for kids making noise, and that offends me--and yet occasionally I run into an instance where Chinese actually makes sense. For example, in Chinese you can say that you know so-and-so "through" a mutual friend, just like we do in English. And today I just learned that when your kids are gone to college or whatever, it's also an "empty nest."

I've started a part-time job every afternoon that deserves explanation. I was on the bus a few nights ago when a middle-aged Korean woman asked me in accented English what country I was from. Then she asked if I was an English tutor, to which I said I certainly could be. "Do you have a plan?" she asked, and the answer was obviously supposed to be yes. She asked for my number (the parallels between this encounter and my chance meeting of now-let go Suzie have not been lost on my friends) and we talked briefly about what she was looking for. "How many days a week?" "Five." "And how long each time?" "Six hours." What? "And can you start tomorrow?"

I signed up to do two hours each day to the tune of 100 kuai an hour, which is about three times as much as I would make working at McDonald's back home. It turns out the Korean woman I met on the bus is actually just the middleman skimming some off the top for gathering students and teachers and having an apartment-turned-classroom to offer. I talked her into paying my taxi fare, so I'm all for the set-up. The two kids I teach are Korean middle-schoolers who don't really want to be there. I like teaching, though, and have had a good time trying to make them have a good time the past two days.

Tonight I went out to eat with my Chinese Mom and Dad. Mom was picky about where we sat, and did a really good job playing up her outrage when she found some bad meat. ("Look!" she said to Dad excitedly. "This soup they're giving us for free now cost 78 kuai!")

On our way home, they tuned into an English radio station, and I listened to some song by The Fray. It was the first time I've been in a car listening to English-language radio in more than half a year. I do miss America. And once I leave, I'll miss China. 这是一个问题。

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Life in Beijing

Grammie has given rave reviews of the videos I've made. I'm not very good at it, but I figured if I put the sweet sound of the Chinese erhu in the background, then what video could go wrong?

I hope it's uploaded.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Breaking Up

I did upload the videos, but the post displayed before my last one (since I created it earlier), and now the videos won't play for some reason. It's too bad.

If you need to have a relationship to end one, I guess Suzie's been my girlfriend for a while, because we broke up. People say that the only decent way to break up with someone is in person. A phone call is horribly disrespectful, text message unthinkable. I can't even imagine what people will think when I say that I had my friend write the text messages that broke up with my girlfriend.

Actually, I do know how people will react, because there were several girls at my table when I did it. Seven or eight of us were out celebrating Emma's birthday. Suzie texted me a clingy question about why I hadn't replied to an earlier text. I tried to say that it was because I had nothing to say, but didn't say that well enough. That afternoon we had had a text message fight--I think--because our phone conversation didn't go well, I hung up rather quickly, and she got mad.

And sitting in the restaurant I realized that my Chinese was too bad to handle this. Not necessarily at its current stage, but if I met anyone who spoke English and looked pretty, I would have no problem dropping Suzie, and that was a much more casual place than she was at. As I found out when my friend Tony composed the well-worded break-up text. The only relevant vocabulary I could bring to the table was "to break up" (literally "to stop holding hands"), and any combination I could think of using that would sound really harsh. Tony wrote a very nice message about how my Chinese sucked too much for us to continue, and that it would be best for us not to be together.

"What? You don't like me?" Suzie replied.

We clarified. The process was not helped by the girls sitting next to Tony and me, who let out a sympathetic "aww" on behalf of Suzie any time we opened our mouths.

"I didn't think this would happen," Suzie continued. "You really don't want to hang out any more? We were doing so well."

About that time, my phone died, our dinner ended, and I was a single man again. Well, single-r, since I had denied having a girlfriend the whole time. Honestly, I was more relieved than anything else. I wasn't trying to be mean. I just think that when you feel like hanging up every time you talk on the phone, there's a problem.

We didn't know each other for a long time. I don't even think I've mentioned Suzie as many times in this blog as I have my epic sunburn (which, in the final count, befreckled my ear with two brown dots).

But all the girls still think I'm a heart breaker.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Military History Museum

There's a very multi-medic post coming, but videos take a while to upload. While we're waiting, I'll talk about the Military History Museum.

I was told that this museum was really cool. It has its own subway stop for easy foreigner access and has been especially Olympified. I have a really low museum tolerance, so I think it was good that I made it through three of the four floors before retreating.

My favorite part was the floor with real, inactive tanks a few feet away. And, if you pull a Grandad and ignore the sign saying not to touch anything, right within your grasp.

What will really carry you through until my videos upload is this sign. You don't understand propaganda until you see it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Student Formerly Known as D-Level

I finished my first four-week program at BLCU a few days ago. On August 20th, I'll be going back to America. I haven't blogged in a few days because I've been collecting video to demonstrate our varying levels of Chinese.

Here is Whitney, an American who was in A-level.

I interviewed someone from B-level, but then I accidentally deleted it. Oops. So now we're skipping ahead to D-level, with a guy from my class who's Peruvian-American.

And here's a piece from the worst guy in D-level. I think his was the least grammatical of all of these interviews.

There was one other average American white guy in my class. He's the one I went to church with.

And this is what most of the kids in my class sounded like: The native speakers who were in our D-level class because they weren't fluent at reading.

So for those of you not listening to four hours of Chinese a day, I hope that provides a good introduction to the way Chinese actually sounds. And hopefully all these samples aren't overwhelming, because I had enough of that this last month.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chinese Church and Swimming Lessons

Yesterday a friend and I went to a registered ("Three Self") Chinese church. That's the kind of church that China says is legal, except when it says it isn't--which happened a few decades ago and caused all the underground churches to flourish. The church has a deal with the Chinese government to be silent on the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. Wikipedia does note, though, that some churches have some leeway on that, and the one I went to must have been one of them, because the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was explicit in the Romans sermon text.

My friend and I arrived twenty minutes before the service started and were already shuffled into the 300+ person overflow room where we watched everything going on upstairs on video.

I was so fascinated to see what a Chinese church would be like. Even if I had understood all of the message, I would still have been distracted trying to observe: What kind of people came? (mostly girls) What were they wearing? (better clothes than normal) What did they bring with them? (a Bible, I think, and/or a book of hymns) And so on.

I was interested in figuring out what the four or five other foreigners were doing there, too. Missionaries can speak Chinese and find it too ostentatious to go to a Chinese service like that, and students are usually in one place long enough to try to mesh with a church in a foreign language. After carefully watching the foreigners--who were all Americans speaking English to surrounding Chinese people who obviously knew them--I concluded that it was evangelically-oriented Americans in Beijing for a short time who had Chinese friends interested in Christianity. I talked with them afterward and found I was right.

Language-wise, let's just say it's good that I'm used to the content of church, because I had to fill in a lot of blanks. "Trusting in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior" hasn't really come up as vocabulary in class. I heard it a lot, though, because they baptized 44 people. It was really amazing to see.

On a totally separate note, today I learned that my mom (real mom, not Chinese mom) is right when she says you should bring a swimming suit with you everywhere you go. Otherwise you may end up wearing something like the man on the left here:

And since I don't carry the swimsuit I brought all the way from America in my backpack, I did look like that man when I went to Beijing's swimming pool with Suzie today. It was an incentive to stay in the slimy-bottomed pool. When I got in, Suzie didn't eve know how to hold her breath under water. When we got out, she was doing the breaststroke for several meters at a time.

It was difficult to teach someone to swim in Chinese when the only related word I knew was "to swim." But like trying to attend church in Chinese, it's more the effort that counts.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Night on the Town

I've been in Beijing a few weeks now, so I think it's time I blogged about what I do on the weekends.

Here's what happens. Friday comes, the diligent go to class at 8:00 like usual. The afternoon is frittered away with fun, people eat dinner, and then everything starts like it's a new day. Plans are made, people get together, everyone in Beijing finds a taxi and goes out. There is one street that has a strip of clubs and bars which everyone knows, even the ones who can't write their own name in Chinese.

It's complicated in my case because I live with a Chinese family rather than with everyone else at school. Usually if we go out I end up just sleeping on somebody's couch rather than paying for a taxi to go home late at night.

Last night was pretty typical of my weekends. After dinner, I went to school and watched a (pirated) movie with Emma, this girl I know pretty well. Then, around 11, we met up with other people from school and rented a small van to take us to the club that someone had decided we would go to. The driver got lost, but around midnight we arrived, just when things were getting going.

I would describe the club in usual terms, but I'm struck by how similar it is to my daily bus commute: crowded beyond belief, everyone sweating, people jockeying for the seats, no one able to have a conversation. Our bodies reverberating from the music about equaled the jolting I get from the stop-and-start of the bus.

There are significant differences, however. Getting into the club was more than 100 times more expensive than boarding the bus. Surprisingly, there are more poles on the bus than in the club. People are generally more drunk in the club, and less tired. There are lasers in the clubs, and shiny decorations, and the only thing shiny on buses are people's iPods.

Oh, and the dancing. Chinese people, in general, don't know how to dance, and them being risque is what we Americans see at 7th grade school dances. But they try really hard, and since the music is mostly in English, it just feels like they're trying to be American and failing. Correspondingly, my self-esteem is always boosted by going to a club in China and knowing that I'm better than everyone because I know what "I'm bringing sexy back" means. (Well, as much as it has a meaning.)

I tire of the techno beats, smoke, lights, sound, and people pretty fast, so I left with Emma at only 2 am. She and I had a long discussion at McDonald's where we promised we wouldn't fall in love with each other, because she has a serious boyfriend and that would make things complicated. By the time I went to bed Chinese were out making baozi already for breakfast and the sun was coming up.

At 5 am, Friday--the sequel!--was over and I crashed on a couch way too small for me that felt fantastic. And that's how we do here in the Beijing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Getting a Physical

When your best hope for a passing grade relies on your perfect attendance, it's really frustrating to have to miss a day of class. On the other hand, when the biggest source of stress in your life is going to class, missing a day provides a nice break. I had to miss class today because the (seemingly only) place in Beijing to get physicals only does them in the morning.

Why get a physical? The answer isn't varsity ping-pong. My Chengdu residence permit expires at the end of the month, and as part of the expensive extension process, I had to get a physical to prove to China that I'm still healthy enough to live in their country for another month. Interestingly enough, if I were still in Chengdu I wouldn't need to do it.

But I was sad to miss the things we discuss in class:

It's hard to see in the picture, but our teacher found colored chalk and was giving us a color-coded explanation of the universe in Chinese. In red was the sun, in blue was the atmosphere surrounding the white earth, and in yellow was the ozone layer. He's about to give us a thorough explanation of how global warming works. What I find amazing is that everyone in China knows science and math. The other day my reading teacher wanted to explain a word that had to do with "rate" and she drew a graph on the board and looked like she was going to launch into calculus class for a few minutes.

The doctor's office was a slick operation. You signed in at a booth that had English, received a card with a lot of stickers, and then went to each of several offices to get yourself checked. Heart rate for one, height and weight for another, EKG (or a similar acronym that involves simulating the electric chair), vision, and so on. At each station the doctor takes one of your stickers to show that you've been taken care of. It felt strangely like a carnival. When I ran out of stickers, it was time to go.

I'm still healthy enough to not have China reject me. At the vision booth, though, they had the color-blind dot-test. On one of the circles the hidden number was perfectly clear, but the other one took me several minutes before I mostly guessed that it was 5 and ended up being correct. It reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine when the kid who's hasn't talked for several years to show his dedication to being a fighter jet pilot, and then realizes that he's disqualified because he doesn't have perfect vision. But being a teacher, a writer, and Supreme Court Justice don't take perfect vision, so I'm still safe.

After my physical (which, if anyone is curious did not include turning my head and coughing), I climbed a mountain with Suzie. And took pictures.

I think speaking in Chinese the whole way up and down a mountain must count for something, right? Because tomorrow's the last day before our finals, and I'm pretty sure I haven't done enough normal homework to make me feel comfortable. But at least now China is reasonably sure I won't die of discomfort. It's a reassuring thought.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I've been in China six months now. Officially it might have been yesterday, but with the time difference between America and China (and the fact that I didn't blog yesterday), today is just as good. Six months is a long time. It's one fortieth of my life, and that's counting baby years that you don't remember.

Today was an encouraging day to hit my six month mark at, though. As I've been relating, I picked a class that was over my head in the hopes that I'd grow and have been discouraged that I'm not a giant yet. It's a rare day that I don't look like an idiot in class. And yet...

Our homework was to memorize the three sections in our lesson text to be able to recite them in class the next day. I knew that since more than half our class had been absent because a school field trip to Inner Mongolia returned late, that they would be exempt. That meant that I would definitely be called on to recite the lesson. I also knew that our teacher takes volunteers for each section, so if I could memorize the first section really well, then I would be able to have some hand in my own execution.

The urgency of knowing that I would have to speak combined with the strategic knowledge about only needing to know the first section really well and got me in a decent mood for class.

Sure enough, the field trippers were off the hook. Sure enough, he asked for volunteers. And then I recited my passage. Don't think that this was a marvelous memorization feat. I plowed through it, had a slightly embarrassing dialogue where I confessed that I messed up a phrase because I didn't really understand what it meant, and deviated at the end to give only the general idea instead of the exact words. But when I was finished, my teacher had an expression approaching a proud smile and said, "Not bad."

Then when we were discussing the topic "generation gap" in small groups, I think I accidentally said my sister was retarded. Progress is slow. In some ways, I wish I was here for longer, because I feel like just when I've gotten the hang of my teacher's expectations, the "term" is over and we have to change to a different teacher for the second four weeks.

We start discussing our last chapter tomorrow: Environmental Pollution and Protection. And as I've found out during my night of looking things up, I'm only 87 words short of being able to discuss it. Those words range from "carbon monoxide" and "erosion" to more innocuous words like "plant." You ask me how I could have taken Chinese for so long and still not know the word for plant, but I'll just tell you that I'm not surprised. When it's not "tempuratura" like back in the easy days of Spanish, which takes about ten seconds to memorize, learning 温度 and the corresponding pronunciation leaves less time for words like "plants."

However, if anyone would like to discuss air pollution in China in Chinese, give me a few days and I should be able to talk like I know something. Or at least I'll be able to recite my part of the lesson.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

China Controls the World

I went to the Great Wall of China yesterday.

You can't look at a wall that used to stretch for over 4,000 miles and not be impressed by China's dominion. But we were more amazed at China's control over the weather. Look at the blue sky. Marvel at the lack of pollution. I'm pretty sure on a normal day I wouldn't even have been able to see the wall from where I took that picture.

I'm not kidding about China controlling the weather. The Olympics are coming, and China isn't going to let little things like nature get in the way. They've been closing down factories outside of the city, and taken measures to reduce the number of cars on the road, and so on. What I just learned yesterday is that they can also control to some extent when it rains. Anyone with real scientific knowledge should feel free to comment here. Apparently, they can shoot chemicals into the air and make it rain, which improves visibility after that quite a bit. And it just happened to be nice weather on a Saturday, when all the visiting foreigners were free?

By the two hour ride to the Great Wall, my impression of China's ability to control the world was probably far higher than it actually is, but still. I didn't know anyone could make it rain when they wanted.

We weren't complaining. The weather was fantastic. I got a lot of good pictures.

The Great Wall of China:

And the Great Wall of China:

And the Great Wall of China:

The most amazing part is looking at one part of the Wall and wondering how in the world they kept building it over the mountains farther than the eye can see. In all of these pictures, you can see the towers where guards could live--and light the torch to stop the invaders, of course. But I think everyone knows how that works. Who hasn't seen Mulan?

There were surprisingly few people to share the Wall with. Here's one, though. Some people in my program are the ones trekking up, the people in Chinese bamboo hats are the workers who collect empty bottles (since it would look tacky to have trashcans along the way) and sell you souvenirs, and I don't know what the umbrellas are about.

And that was the Great Wall. I pass by the bird's nest (the Olympic stadium) every day on my way to and from school. I wonder if China will dominate the world in a throw-back to the good ole days of its powerful reign? At least we'll be sure to have good weather watching them try to make it happen.

*EDIT* Of course they're my pictures! The official ones aren't as good. Seriously, the picture on my entrance ticket is a close-up shot of the Wall shrouded in fog. The pictures in this post are the ones you get when China's steamrolling the world for the Olympics.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stress Reliever

I made it through another week of class and decided to go shopping tonight to celebrate. Girly? Mabye. But I've figured out that China is the best place for me to buy shorts. I'm skinnier than almost everyone in the States, but here I'm about average. Then I paid a ridiculous amount for Häagen-Dazs, and finished by buying a few DVDs.

I'm sad to say that the online high-five I offered yesterday for figuring out how to translate a number from the Chinese to the American way of organizing them goes unrewarded. You guys left me hanging? David was close, but missed a zero. (A "wiggety" is 10,000,000, which has eight zeros. Subtract one to get rid of the decimal and you should be left with seven zeros, not six. See yesterday's post and the comments.)

Today in class we talked about putting emotion into our Chinese. I found it really fascinating, because I've always wondered how to be sarcastic in Chinese. I'm not very good at it. Speaking of sarcasm, a little treat for you all: the video I promised several months ago of the sports day at my school in Chengdu. I think my tone of voice was a little over-the-top, but you still might enjoy watching my little documentary.

I'm going to go marvel at my new pair of stress-relieving shorts.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

My Progress

I'm killing myself to learn Chinese (it's probably bad that I've proudly noted the 1/4 mark of my 8-week session), I should at least be giving progress reports.

They say that you should take foreign languages to understand a different way of looking at the world. I think Chinese is so different that it should count as three languages. For example, in Chinese, they don't even divide numbers the same way we do. Those crazy Europeans mix up their commas and decimals to end up with numbers like 533,8 for the number close to 534, and we Americans think that's pretty off the wall. China kicks it up several notches.

In English, we make a new unit every three digits: after tens and hundreds we get a thousand, after ten thousand and one hundred thousand we get a million, after ten million and one hundred million we get a billion, and so on.

In Chinese, they divide things into groups of four digits. The first digit is the tens, then the hundreds, then the thousands, then the new unit, which in Chinese is called a wan but what I'm going to call a jiggety. Then you have ten jiggety, one hundred jiggety, a thousand jiggety, and then a new unit: in Chinese, it's yi, but I'm going to call it a wiggety.

For relatively small numbers things aren't too complicated. You get used to the idea that one hundred jiggety means a million, that houses in the States cost tens of jiggety, and so on. But then you read an article about GDP in China (in Chinese, after your reading teacher has given you a crash course in vocabulary related to business), and you're suddenly hit with huge numbers that are difficult to translate. If you hear, for example, the number "five thousand seventy seven point four wiggety," how much is that? An online high five for the first person to comment the answer.

Speaking of the words "how much," I had an embarrassing encounter today. I was outside of my apartment juggling when a bored security guard realizes that I have skills. I pause my music when I see he wants to ask me a question, and respond based mainly on hearing "how much" in his question. I'll relate our exchange the way an impartial Chinese observer would hear it.

Guard: "How much time have you spent practicing all that?"
Foreigner: "Mm, each of these juggling clubs costs about $30, American."

My poor conversation skills didn't stop him from calling over his buddy, who was drunk on duty. The two guards spent several minutes protecting the apartment complex a few feet from me and distracted me a lot with their interest.

Nevertheless, I think my Chinese is getting better. My preparation, if not my skill, now exceeds a few people in class who love Chinese partying more than Chinese vocab. Almost every night I'm convinced that it's too hard and that I can't possibly finish everything. Then I go to sleep and it usually works out the next morning.

My Chinese family rounds out my learning. Often I get frustrated when I can't understand what my Mom says, because I'm spending so much time in class and still see no progress with her. But when I think about it, in class I'm learning expressions like "a long night means lots of bad dreams" (to convince people not to put things off) and not "when you take a crap, you don't need to throw the toilet paper into the trash can because we have a fancy toilet that can handle it."

I'm really excited that tomorrow is Friday.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Forbidden City

I don't have anything exciting to say about Suzie (even the most enthralling text message conversations are limited by my time and Chinese ability), and I'm not sure that that kind of information is what people are interested in when they read this blog. So I'm going to talk about the Forbidden City.

It was a cool idea. "Let's make a city, but then decide that we're more special and live in a special inner city with our own walls and moat and not let anyone come in for hundreds of years." But then the exclusivity is over and everyone realizes that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil only features fruit.

There were some buildings. People used to live in them, like most old places I've visited in China. That's really all I got out of it. And Tiananmen Square, which is adjacent, was unrevolutionary.

They did have a garden there, where I posed.

And there was an artificial little fountain, with a sign on the side.

But this is the worst translated sign in all of Beijing, since they've gotten it together for the Olympics, and it's not even that bad.

I guess I should have one picture of the actual Forbidden City itself, though, so it looks like I've written a detailed review of the place.

It's a pretty popular spot for people to visit. But if I were a travel guide people trusted, I wouldn't recommend it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Date? Or Two?

When you only have two months, you gotta act fast. Friday after class I met a girl, Sun Wei, on the bus. After my Chinese Mom was worried that she was a prostitute, I bluntly asked her, "Are you a bad person?" She didn't appreciate my thoroughness and we had our first fight--by text message, because with background noise, reception problems, and my bad Chinese, I couldn't understand anything she said by phone.

We were back in the green by Saturday, though (and Mom said that after considering, she mostly just wanted to make sure anyone I met on the bus wouldn't be escorted into the house, which was fine with me). I decided that since it was the weekend, I should make a move and invite her to come do karaoke with the people from our program. Miraculously, I communicated where to meet, we met, and arrived at the apartment where we were all hanging out before going karaoke-ing. All my friends thought she was a cool girl, and we spent several minutes lovingly brainstorming an English name for her: Suzie. My closest friend, Emma, speaks hardly any Chinese, but really wanted things to succeed for us, so she spoke some horrific Chinese and I translated between them a bit.

It must have been boring for Suzie, since she doesn't speak any English, and most people in our program speak worse Chinese than I do. She pulled me aside once and said she felt--something, I didn't fully understand the word--and that she wanted me to try to include her more. She ended up having to leave before we actually left for karaoke, but that worked out well because we only sang songs in English. So the time went pretty well.

The question mark in the title of this post, though, reflects that I don't really know what this time meant. I'm hardly capable of a relationship in America, let alone in a culture I have little experience with. I don't know what her expectations were, and I don't have the language skills to ask very well. We were definitely together at the party, but we were with lots of people, and that was the lowest level of interaction we could have but still see each other.

Whatever Suzie thought, I had a pretty good time, and was glad that other people who haven't been deprived of Western beauty for several months still thought she was pretty.

This is all further complicated by what I admit have been mixed messages from me. I get her number, then question her integrity, then ask her to come to a party--then I freaked out afterward and said that since I thought she probably wasn't a Christian, I just wanted us to be friends. Then she replied with something that seemed like she was a Christian? I kept asking questions to figure out what she meant, and finally she asked why I was so inquisitive about that. "Well," I said. "I don't want to have a girlfriend who's not a Christian."

I sent this message off without much thought, and then realized that looked at a certain way, it might imply that we already were going out. She didn't answer for several minutes, while I thought about how I was flirting with a culture in which relationships are so unspoken that just asking a girl if she has a boyfriend can be considered asking her out. Suzie finally replied: "You're only here for two months, right?"

So then it seemed like I was the impetuous one and she was the reasonable one, but I quickly texted back (using a recently learned vocab word), "I think I spoke too candidly... sorry." She laughed it off, text-message style, and we said goodnight.

This afternoon she didn't have work so we went to an arcade and had a lot of fun. As we were leaving, she told me that I'm way more reserved than Americans she's heard of. In fact, I'm worse than Chinese people at looking like I'm having a good time. I tried to tell her that I'm not good at smiling, but I don't know if she believed me.

I feel like this is all kind of insignificant relationship stuff to be talking about, but maybe the fact that it's with someone I can barely communicate with makes it more interesting?

Friday, July 4, 2008

4th of July in China

Happy 4th of July! Coincidentally, this is my 100th post, so there's a double celebration in order. My day had a lot to it, so I'll move quickly to fit it all in.

Maybe I had so many things happen because my day lasts so long. I woke up at 6:30 to be at the bus stop by 7:00, wasn't late for school, and only made a fool of myself in class the first time I answered questions. ("I don't understand what you just said," my teacher told me frankly after my attempt to make a sentence didn't fit the realities of Chinese grammar. "Are you even speaking Chinese?" He doesn't play around.)

It was only during one of our breaks that I realized it was the fourth of July. I tried to get in a patriotic mood, but it was difficult when most of my classmates aren't American.

After lunch I got on the bus to go home. It was the hottest day of the week plus that I've been here, and more humid than any day I've seen in Orlando--and that's saying something. I could see the humidity. So when I got on the bus, I wanted a seat but I also wanted to be near an open window. I shifted chairs once when it was available, and then the girl next to me noticed that I was eager to cool off. She offered me a tissue to wipe my face with, I said thank you, she said you're welcome.

That normally is about the most interaction I have with people on buses. You just don't talk to people on a bus in China. So me and this girl next to me sat there for a few more stops until I realized that the booklet she was perusing was the book of all the bus stops in Beijing. "That looks really useful," I said to her. "Where can you buy one?"

She told me, insisted that I take her copy of the bus stop book, and we started chatting. She's about my age, working now after she came to Beijing from somewhere else in China. I think, based primarily on the anti-cancer pink ribbon she had on a flyer-turned-fan and how much she said the word "doctor," that she goes around convincing Chinese women to get mammograms. I think.

I tried to tell her about myself, but often my reach exceeds my grasp. "Sorry," I said one time when I couldn't put together a sentence. "I speak so badly."

"You don't speak badly," she insisted. "I just can't understand what you say a lot of the time."

She was actually a pretty girl, so I enjoyed talking to her for the rest of my ride. Right before I got off, she realized that she was riding the wrong direction, so we happened to get off the bus at the same stop. "Here, take this," I said to her in what I hoped was a playful tone of voice. I offered her the bus route book. "It's very useful." That's right, I made a joke in Chinese. When we got off the bus, I started to walk away, kicking myself for not asking for her number in awkward Chinese. Then she called me back and asked me for mine.

We exchanged numbers, got our names straightened out (hers is Sun Wei), and then I came back home feeling pretty good about myself.

And then I tried to get advice about the situation from my Mom. "What?" she says as she cuts up vegetables to make jiaozi. "You met some girl on the bus? What are you thinking? You don't just talk to people on buses in China."

I was thrown off that she wasn't congratulating me on my prowess.

"She could be a prostitute! And now she knows where we live!"

I said that actually she only knows what bus stop I get off at, but that didn't help very much.

Mom continued to tell me why it was a horrible idea, and I understood practically nothing she said. "Get it?" she would say. I would say no. She'd rephrase and I wouldn't understand that either.

I got really frustrated and confused because I really thought this girl was nice, but the vocabulary I've been learning doesn't include words to discuss the probability that someone is or is not a prostitute. I could only say that there are good people who ride buses, too.

Our conversation was left on that unclear note because I had to leave to hang out with my friends. By the time I got to school, all the precipitation that had been building up during the day was being poured out. I felt like I was in a movie walking from the bus stop to the rendezvous apartment, holding my umbrella in front of me because of the wind, getting the bottom part of my pants soaked and risking my umbrella ripping.

Eventually, a soggy group of eight of us went out. We ate dinner, then went to a bar and tried to play a drinking game in Chinese, then went to a club.

"You know," I told the taxi driver on our way there. Today is an American holiday."

"No, I didn't know," the driver said.

"Yeah, it's when we broke away from England." Somehow that didn't satisfy my need to proclaim America's greatness like fireworks would have.

It was my first time going out in Beijing, and we had a really fun time. It's exhausting to have no idea what's going on all the time. Even when I understand things in class or at home, I still don't really understand what people mean when they say things. My mom had some final injunction about the girl I met before I left, but I hadn't understood that either. It was nice to be with a group of English-speakers dancing to songs in English.

There were several Americans at the club, and one of them finally took it into his own hands to celebrate the Fourth of July. In one of the most awesome, vulgar displays I've seen, this guy taped a small American flag to his crotch, stood on the edge of the second floor overlooking everyone below, and started dancing in the style popular these days where the main component is hip thrusts. All the Americans cheered, and once I figured out what he meant by it, I felt surprisingly patriotic. Now that's prowess! I thought.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I figure if I'm studying Chinese all day, and this blog is supposed to describe how my life is (although how much of an "adventure" studying is, I admit I'm not sure), then I figure writing the title of this post in Chinese is also appropriate.

The words come from the lesson text which we've all memorized and mean "His demands are really intense." In our lesson, it relates to how Chinese fathers place a ton of pressure on their kid, because they want them to make something of themselves and have only one kid to do it. But in our class, our teacher's demands are pretty high, too. Our teacher explains that if we just paraphrase the text then it doesn't help us very much. Our working vocabulary will only increase if we can actually use the words and grammar patterns in context.

So without saying "memorize these two pages of really tough Chinese sentences," he's said "memorize these two pages of really tough Chinese sentences." Yesterday I spent all night from dinner until about eleven o'clock memorizing the passages so when he called on me this morning I would be able to live up to his standards. I think I actually wasn't too far off from that.

This week so far, though, I've spent so much time on that lesson that I've ignored my listening and reading classes. It's not a lack of effort--it's a lack of time. I'm getting more accustomed now to being in Chinese mode for four hours every morning, but it still tires me out so that I can't think about Chinese until several hours after lunch. And by the time I look up words for several hours (no exaggeration), I don't have any more time to go over the words we're supposed to be learning for our other class.

Almost everyone in my class grew up speaking Chinese, so for them memorizing in Chinese comes very naturally. Not so for me. Our teacher is really intimidating, too. The only example I can think of is one that no one but my brother and sister will understand, but I'll give it anyway. When we were little we took swimming lessons in the summer, and the way Mrs. Graves talked is the same way my teacher does, except he's not fat and he talks in Chinese.

But things are getting better. I broke down and bought an electronic dictionary yesterday, like everyone else in my class. I must be a serious Chinese student now. It cost about $125, and is amazing. I'll show it to you when I get back to the States. The definitions are really good, the stylus works well for writing characters, the interface isn't too bad. It's almost a pleasure to use, which is good since I'm going to be spending so much time with it.

If I haven't already explained the traditional way you look up a character yet, let me do so. Let's take the first word of the title of this post as an example.

First, you have to find what's called the "radical." I wrote a whole post about radicals a while ago, so I won't cover them again, but sometimes it's hard to say which part is the radical. In our example, is it the top half with two vertical lines coming from one horizontal line into a box? Or is it the bottom half, with three strokes that make a triangle in the middle? In this case, the radical is the top half.

Then you count the number of strokes the radical has. Here, to make the top half it takes six strokes.

Then you open your dictionary and find the number that corresponds to your radical. There are over 200 radicals, so that's why the radicals are arranged by number of strokes.

Then you count how many strokes are left. Here, the bottom has three strokes left.

Then you turn in your dictionary to all of the words that have your radical and your number of remaining ("remnant") strokes. So here we'd be looking at a list of words with this certain 6-stroke radical and three more strokes.

Then you find the word and turn to the page number where the definition is given.

It's only at that point, after six steps, that you discover that the word is pronounced "yao" with first tone (although, you will read, it's usually pronounced with fourth tone).

Now, with my sweet electronic dictionary, I just pop it open, write the character, and despite my sloppy, non-native handwriting, the dictionary will recognize what word I've written and display it. Click on the entry I want and I'm there.

Here's a picture of me in my Chinese house playing with it:

The reason I don't have a shirt on is because it's really hot and when my Mom said, "Why don't you take your shirt off? You're inside; you don't have to be so formal." I couldn't resist.

Have to get back to my homework. Looking forward to the weekend.