Saturday, June 24, 2006

It's been a crazy week. Between the start of classes, the language pledge, and still trying to adapt to Beijing life, it's probably fair to say everyone's been kept on their toes. This next week, we'll start afternoon classes, which consist of a weekly 1-on-1 and daily "language practicum" exercises - going out in Beijing to practice our newly learned material.

CET-organized trips have started, also, which gets us out and about to new places in the city. On friday, we went to see a Chinese Acrobats show, which was great. There are a ton of troupes in Beijing, and the particular one we saw was obviously a little sketchier than some of the really well-funded, high-end shows. Nonetheless, the show was still great. I just created a Webshots account, and you can see some pictures of the show and of life in Beijing at the link at the bottom of this post.

Yesterday we went to see the Temple of Heaven. I'm not as educated on the site's history as I would like to be, but it is a huge compound where the emperor would visit once a year for 3 days to pray for good harvests. The ceremonies were extremely elaborate, as is to be expected, and included sacrifices of animals raised on-site, and and ritual performance of music used exclusively for this event, from a dedicated observatory, also on-site. The magnitude of everything was just amazing. The imperial dining room was a building probably the size of a football field, to give an idea. Furthermore, all the buildings, which were constructed in the early 15th century, were all built using exclusively wood and stone - no traces of metal. The architecture was amazing, and the grounds were equally impressive. When walking between areas on the compound, the pathways are flanked by Cypress forests, planted in formation. Apparently, there are some 3000 trees, most of which are over 600 years old.

Today I'll do some studying for our daily quiz tomorrow, and perhaps make a run to our local Carrefour (essentially a French Wal-Mart) to buy some groceries. The fruit here is great, and I've included a picture of some interesting local varieties. Some ping pong may be in order, as well, since a fierce rivalry has just sprouted between myself and a friend following our investment in some decent paddles.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

An interesting vignette: "Wo bu keyi shuo yingwen! (I'm not allowed to speak English!)" I said to the owner of a stall in a clothing market. She tried to correct me, since I appeared to be making a common mistake, saying "I'm not allowed to" when I really meant "I am not able to". I corrected her right back...I was, at least this time, confident that I had made sense. Even after explaining it, she was still quite confused, and to be honest, I don't blame her. The language pledge is definitely a strange concept: send a group of foreigners to a strange country, and then remove any sort of clear communication from their daily lives, essentially reducing them to different stages of early childhood, depending on chinese proficiency. In case anyone didn't know about this aspect of the program, I'm not allowed to speak any English for the next ~2 months. Perhaps even stranger is that I'm thrilled they did this to us. Any language student knows that it's always tough to practice your skills in social situations, so it's pretty cool that I can speak Chinese with my peers and not annoy anyone too much. The most interesting thing about the pledge, though, is seeing the 100 level beginning students starting to learn. They're getting along surprisingly well, but it's still very tough for them to both communicate their thoughts and understand more advanced students. I'm sure that they will have amassed a huge vocabulary by the time they leave, it will be very interesting to see how it works out.

Aside from the pledge, it's nice to be in class again. There's always a struggle between structure and freedom, and this last week in Beijing without a schedule was a bit much. It was great to have some time to meet each other and get to know our area, but I wouldn't want to live this way for an extended period. As one of my program-mates said, you could probably spend 3 years in Beijing living as we were and you would neither learn nor accomplish anything. Plus, there's only so much you can do to improve your language without properly learning the technical aspects. Classes are going well so far, it's a lot of work and fast-paced, but we're learning very practical material.

Happy belated fathers day to any dads reading, and I'll have pictures up soon, promise.

Friday, June 16, 2006

It's around 8:00 am here, and I've been noticing that people in Beijing seem to start their days very early. Apparently, the sun rises a bit earlier than in the states, but I haven't been able to fully confirm that yet. Yesterday morning, I awoke to a man doing Taiqi outside of my window which was an apropos greeting to the city. The time difference to Eastern time is exactly 12 hours, which actually works out quite well communicating with home, but I'm still fending off the lingering effects of jet lag. It's kind of strange, one night I feel great and ready to explore Beijing's nightlife, and the next, I can barely keep my eyes open. Hopefully I'll finish adapting soon.

Our roommates moved in yesterday, which provided some fun, yet extremely awkward interaction. My roommate, Zhang Zi Tong, is from Beijing and is studying marketing at a nearby school. Unlike a lot of the others, he has no classes this summer, and his other dorm room is only about 2 blocks away. Hopefully this means I'll see a lot of him. In terms of communication, it's kind of touch and go. I can almost always communicate my thoughts, albeit on a basic level, but understanding on my part can be difficult. This is how it has been in general so far, so I hope and expect that my listening will improve quickly. Another interesting note is that my roommate speaks in a very typical Beijing accent (somewhat mumbled with lots of 'r' sounds), which is kind of tricky to understand right now, but I think it will really help me pick up on nuances among different dialects.

A big part of life here has revolved around food so far, which is fine by me. In short, Beijing food is amazing. While some say that the food in northern China is very greasy and salty in comparison to some of the lighter, spicier southern foods, I have no complaints so far. A few nights ago we went out for Korean Barbecue. I've had this in the states before once, but it was on a different level here. The way it works is that you order raw meat, mainly beef and lamb, and they set up a small charcoal bbq on your table. Usually people at the table cook their own meat as they eat, but for some reason, one of the waitresses took a liking to us (or maybe was just amused and frustrated by our incompetence at grilling), and stayed at our table for most of the meal, cooking for us. We were with about 10 other students from our program, yet only we received this treatment...strange, especially since she wasn't fishing for tips, which are taboo in China. In any case, it was delicious. Last night, I went out for Hotpot with my roommate and some friends with their roommates. Hot pot is a very popular meal in China, and it consists of a pot of boiling water brought to your table, in which you cook sliced meats and vegetables. It was great to try "Shuanyangrou" - thinly sliced mutton, which is one of Beijing's most famous foods, along with Peking Duck. The dinner conversation was at times slow, but we had some good laughs nonetheless.

Alright, I'm going to head over to breakfast. We have a scavenger hunt planned for today, which will hopefully help us get to know Beijing a bit better. The city is huge, much bigger than New York, and we've only seen a small part so far. I'll post again soon with pictures, thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Greetings from Beijing! We arrived wednesday night after a relatively comfortable 17-hour trip (JFK-tokyo-Beijing). CET picked us up at the airport and after a 45-minute bus ride to campus, we moved into our rooms, which are simple but very comfortable. Our roommates haven't yet arrived, but we will meet them today (Friday) and become acquainted. Since we arrived, I have split my time between orientations, placement exams and neighborhood exploration.

From what I've seen so far, Beijing is an amazing city. The smog is heavy and the weather can be a bit warm for my tastes, but everyone is very friendly, the food is excellent, and the city is very inexpensive...a 1.5 liter bottle of water, for example, costs roughly $0.30. Best of all, bargaining is rarely, if not never, taboo. Case in point, while shopping for cell phones, a more fluent member of the program helped my friend bargain down the price of a phone for nearly 2 hours! Not once did the store workers become annoyed or is just a normal part of the beijing shopping experience. Electronics, unfortunately, are the one exemption to the usually reasonable prices, although phones, cameras etc. are usually imported from japan, so they are generally much more advanced than in the US.

I'm having a great time so far, and I can't wait for the start of classes, and especially, the implementation of the language pledge, both on monday. I'll post again soon with more details about my roommate and my adventures in Beijing!

Monday, June 12, 2006

So it's Monday night, and after a short week home, I'm in the process of packing for my flight tomorrow. The last couple of weeks have been a bit crazy. At this time last week, I was still in Minnesota, and after a brief stay in the tri-state area, it's off to Asia. I guess there's not much to say right now, but here's a basic, tentative itinerary just to keep everyone in the loop:

June 13-Aug. 14: Beijing, Studying at CET Beijing Language program
Aug 14-Sept. 7: Travelling south - planned stops in Changsha (Hunan), Hong Kong and Singapore. I'm not sure exactly what else just yet.
Sept. 7-Nov. 15: Carleton Tianjin Seminar, in Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Chengde, Tianjin and Shanghai.

Thanks for checking in, I should have some news and pictures from China up soon!