Thursday, September 23, 2010


I'm in.

Sometime in October, I'll be in the aforementioned Chinese-language debate for foreign students studying abroad in Beijing. 4 of my fellow students have also been invited to attend... I hate to say this, but I'm relieved because that means that unless I completely crack, I won't be the worst in the debate. Unfortunately, it also means that if we're on fixed teams based on university, we won't be very strong.

Training starts tomorrow (two hours), though it seems it'll be less frequent than I had expected; I know that David worked on language prep every single day when he was getting ready for the CCTV competition at the end of last summer.

I'll keep you informed how it's coming along.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lu Xun Failed

Lu Xun (鲁迅),  one of the pioneers of "common speech" (白话) as an acceptable writing style and the author of the first major Chinese short story ('Western-style') written in 白话, is far and away the most famous modern Chinese author. Every Chinese student has been introduced to the man at least once (I'm up to thrice so far) and read at least one of his essays or short stories (I'm probably up to around ten, 3 or 4 of them in Chinese). [He's also the first link that comes up in the autocomplete listing when I start typing "en.wik..." in Firefox's address bar; I guess we're buds.] He wrote from 1910s into the 1930s, a time of massive change in China, and was both a pioneering writer and a leading thinker; he also made the first translations of some pretty important Western books. Mao Zedong(毛泽东) was a huge fan, and because of that Lu Xun was the only major author of his time to escape criticism during the Cultural Revolution. His works are included in every Chinese child's literature curriculum at some point or several during his or her education.

One interesting fact that I learned about Lu Xun in Introduction #2 (thanks again, HBA) is that he studied abroad in Japan with the original intent to study medicine. Then one day in class, or so the story goes, a professor put on a slide of the Japanese executing an accused Chinese spy (this was just after the Russo-Japanese War). Lu Xun was moved not by the man about to die, but rather by the impotence and even complicity of the surrounding group of Chinese onlookers, who were just standing about watching the show. It was that slide that made him decide that China's spiritual ills were more in need of curing than its physical ills, and as he felt that the best way for him to do that was to become a writer, he dropped out to do so.

Lu Xun certainly had plenty of influence on China, and I can't imagine anyone Chinese calling him unsuccessful. And yet, I think that the "spiritual illness" he saw in the slide still exists here; even after all of the ink he spilled throughout his career, that slide might as well be a photo taken yesterday.

Take the incident of the boy run over thrice by a car. The linked video is somewhat disturbing, but I'm with Lu Xun on this one: the most chilling part is not the death, but rather the people who clearly see what happened and then either stand about doing absolutely nothing or go about their daily lives. A few even seem to rush quickly by when they notice that something has happened, not wanting anything to interrupt their daily routine. Nobody takes out a cell phone, which many of them probably own.

More frightening, and clear, is the story of the June attack on an investigative science journalist in Beijing, about a mile south from where I live. In his interview with Evan Osnos (a New Yorker reporter of whom I've become a big fan in recent days), he described the attack in detail; there's a lot about metal pipes and how he got away, but these words stand out to me:
"When I was being attacked, there were many people watching, but the attackers didn’t have to care because, perhaps according to their experience, no one would stand up and help. No one would even dare to call the police. Based on all of this evidence, the two attackers were probably experienced professionals. Their intention was to kill me on the spot, or leave me bleed to death by preventing me from getting to the hospital."

In China, I tend not to be afraid of situations that might put me on edge in America, and lately I have been thinking that a major reason for that is probably this gut feeling that the Chinese, as a race, are astonishingly... meek. That's a questionably sweeping generalization, or it might even be criticized for not being general enough, but it's one to which I will hold for the time being.

Maybe I've become too tied up in China and the Chinese: after watching that video and reading that report, I felt ashamed, melancholy, and most of all furious. It all felt very personal. Then again, maybe that has nothing to do with China and is just my reaction as a human being.

And then, there is always the other side. The chauffeur who ran the boy over ran off to make the emergency call; the science investigator, standing in the middle of the street covered in blood, was taken to the hospital by a passing taxi driver. And there are even the everyday people become heroes - like the soldier who sacrificed his own life to save two others in the midst of an oil spill, or the bicycle-throwing man who stopped thieves from getting away with a stolen purse.

And yet I can't help but imagine the despair and utter sense of failure that Lu Xun would feel if, 100 years later, he jumped online to see what was being talked about in the Chinese blogosphere.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Anti-Japanese Sentiment

Today is 9-18, remembered by the Chinese as the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident, in which Japan began its invasion of Manchuria on the pretext of securing the area after an explosion in a Japanese-owned railroad line; the bomb is generally believed to have been set by Japanese militants. From that date until 1945, Japan occupied varying amounts of China; at its height, Japan's control included cities and railroads ("lines and points") all along China's east coast. The bloodiest year was probably 1937, when Japan pushed down from Manchuria to take cities farther in the south, notably Shanghai and Nanjing (you may have heard of the "Rape of Nanking" or the "Nanjing Massacre").

More recently, last week the Japanese military confiscated a fishing boat and arrested its crew around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, ownership of which is contested by China. So, Chinese nationalism being what it is and anti-Japanese sentiment having been pretty agitated recently, there has been a lot of speculation and media reporting about possible protests, particularly those being organized online. China's government, though, clearly doesn't want anything untoward happening; from what I understand, protests are almost always stamped out immediately here, and now would undoubtedly be a particularly bad time for the windows of the Japanese Embassy to get smashed in. According to the LA Times, in the past few days China's internet censors have been hard at work, deleting posts attempting to organize protests and even blocking all internet search results that mention of the islands in internet searches.

Either it worked, or the Chinese just don't care all that much after all. Beijing's protesters numbered in the dozens today, and the LA Times reports that they dispersed after marching from the Japanese Embassy to the Chinese Foreign Ministry earlier today; the largest group that I've seen reports on (in Shenzhen) was merely "over 100."

At any rate, late this afternoon I had nothing particular to do and had forgotten to bring the ID I needed to get a card at the National Library, so (semi-disregarding what the Light Fellowship, State Department, Yale, etc have to say about staying away from protests... oops), a friend and I headed over to the Japanese Embassy to check it out. Of the large, one-block foreign legation complex in which the Japanese Embassy (among many others) is situated, three sides were entirely ringed with policemen/PSB officers, with companies of military police at the key gates and intersections and marching around the perimeter. It was also pretty clear to me that there were a lot of plainclothes policemen around, especially at the intersection closest to the embassy. Police vans were everywhere. We were turned away at four points, though one we just sort of walked around because there was a second cordon farther up so nobody at the first one seemed to care a great deal.

On the way back, we sat down to rest (i.e., listen to the handful of Chinese onlookers standing outside the aforementioned first cordon waiting for something to happen), and I heard one of them say, "[he] hit a Japanese reporter. If I had been there of course I would have stopped him; let him (the reporter) [~take back news of] the rage of the Chinese people!"

Friday, September 17, 2010

Back in Big, Bad Beijing: Life @ ACC

Back in Big, Bad Beijing: Life at ACC

First off, I promise that the travelogue is coming. It will be fascinating, unpredictable, and even, dare I say, picaresque.

For now, my main task is to convince all of you that I’m still alive and bring you up to date with my new life in the ACC language program at the Central University of Ethnicities (中央民族大学, aka 民大 or “Minzu”) here in Beijing.

In the newest of news, unconfirmed reports have it that I may or may not participate in October’s Beijing City Foreign Students’ Chinese Language Debate, which will most likely be widely televised and intolerably embarrassing. Being who I am, I’m so excited by the opportunity that I get goosebumps when I think about it – though, then again, that’s probably from fear. In total, Minzu can enter 5 of its foreign students into the competition, and after ACC’s preliminary round after today’s weekly test, I can honestly say that I think I performed the best. (For this, I have to thank my summer training at HBA. Debating was a close second for my favorite few days of course material.)

There are still other foreign students to consider – I hear that about 8 or 9 are directly enrolled at Minzu, and thus they’re surely better at Chinese than I will ever be in the foreseeable future – but my hope is that whoever’s making the decisions will want to send at least one token representative from ACC, and that that representative will be yours truly. My mind often goes blank when I debate in English, and in Chinese it’s much worse, but if I am chosen then I’ll get special training and preparation, which will hopefully help me get over that a little bit while also being great for my Chinese ability. At any rate, now I’m getting ahead of myself; I’ll post an update as soon as I know whether or not I’ll actually be participating in the Beijing debate.

In general, I’m a bit disappointed by ACC. I started off as one of only three 5th-year students, which I was particularly happy about because ACC (unlike HBA) seems to take placement very seriously. (That said, they did accidently place a 3rd-year student in 5th year… congrats to Yalie and HBA-er Paul Robalino on his performance on the placement test!) At any rate, by the day before classes started, I had already decided for sure that I wanted to jump down to 4th year: besides only having one classmate (Paul had immediately, and rightfully, fled the 5th-year scene), the number of new words required of us every night was just ridiculous – from what I hear, on par with the higher levels of PIB but with the added component of classical Chinese or media supplements. I’ve never agreed with the “learn 150 words tonight and hopefully you’ll remember 50 of them next week” philosophy; especially given my weak points right now (listening!) I’d rather master 50 words every night and spend any extra time doing things like watching Chinese TV, listening to BBC’s Mandarin Service (incidentally, that’s blocked in China, as is Gmail of late… as is this blog), or slowly slogging through “Twilight” in Chinese (yes, this is a true fact). Or, you know, sleeping.

Anyway, while 4th year has plenty of content to offer me – I’m getting 50 or so new words a night, plus some supplementary material – I’m deeply disappointed in the way it’s taught, especially given that ACC’s been around for quite a while (at least a decade). I know that this might be considered “repeating 4th year” for me, but at the same time, taking HBA as a comparison, I would still expect the teachers to provide more of a challenge in class (in terms of speaking speed, etc), have better-developed teaching plans/materials (their PowerPoints tend to confuse the eye), to know what needs to be focused on (i.e., grammar and sentence patterns need more time than any given vocab word), and most importantly to understand how to get students to make their own sentences (correctly) using the new material. The latter is particularly disappointing, and I often find myself and my classmates making full use of that uncanny ability of language learners to say a sentence “along with” (i.e., a quarter of a second behind) the teacher without knowing precisely what the teacher means for us to say.

Also, though this is mostly my fault for switching levels and I don’t mean to be arrogant, I’d say that only two of the classmates I’ve encountered are anywhere my level of Chinese (the fifth-year is… an odd one, and not particularly talkative); and my roommate, though good-hearted, is only just struggling through 3rd year. Sometimes, I feel like my spoken Chinese is even getting a tiny bit worse every day. Fortunately (?), we only have three hours of non-1-on-1 (that’s an eyeful) class per day, and I hope that as I get accustomed to what ACC requires of me I will be able to spend more and more time working on my “independent report” (all students have to complete one by the end of the semester) and doing the extracurricular things mentioned above, along with some exercise & English news; I’ve also signed up to learn Chinese chess, Go, ping-pong, and once-weekly one-on-one pronunciation training.

The living conditions here are a mixed bag but have a lot of potential. We’re living in doubles in a foreign students’ dorm that the university at one time attempted to illegally convert into a 4-star hotel (using government-provided money), so my room is gigantic and has all the amenities. Service, though, is vaguely back at dorm standards (i.e., I know that cleaners exist but they have yet to enter our room), and because renovations have just ended (and it’s not, in the end, become a four-star hotel), there is a towering list of things that need to be fixed, not the least of which (while it was hot) was our air conditioning, and (now that it’s gotten cool) the abysmal sound the post-fixing air conditioning makes throughout the night; plus there’s the matter of the water on my floor being entirely unreliable. (Fortunately I’ve not yet been caught with no water in the middle of a shower.) The worst, because it seems unlikely to change, is the fact that the internet is just abysmal.

The campus, though, far outdoes BLCU (where I was over the summer) in just about every aspect. There are a lot fewer foreign students – in fact, I think that besides ACC and perhaps one other program, there are only the handful directly attending Minzu and then CIB, a speaking-focused Chinese language program made up mainly of Japanese students. Also, the Chinese population here (16,000 or so) is incredibly diverse, with all 56 ethnicities represented in either the teacher or student population; walking down the street, you can easily pick out a lot of non-Han Chinese and hear several different languages being spoken. In fact, I would be really excited to have (I should say “make,” shouldn’t I) the opportunity to meet some students myself. Besides that, we’ve got plenty of restaurants and little shops just off campus (including an “adult store,” which I’m trying to find less shocking after seeing two others in Beijing this summer), with the largest library in the nation basically next door and the largest electronics market complex in Beijing just up the street.

Most importantly, of course, is the food. Our cafeteria is cheap, good (as cafeterias go), and varied, and what’s more, we have a phenomenal 包子 (steamed buns) place just off the west gate, where my daily breakfast is 3x better than it was at BLCU and also 3x cheaper. It is there, in fact, that I have discovered the best breakfast on earth: seemingly a large, simple pork 包子 , but inside the pork ball is… wait for it… a bird’s egg. Once you’ve squeezed the oil out, it’s a masterpiece, and I fully plan on eating at least one every morning until I’m forced to leave.

[photograph pending]

Other fun facts:

  • I’m now watching a TV show about the Second Sino-Japanese War called (roughly translated) “Spy War Pioneer”; imagine two James Bonds working together, and the bad guys are the entire Japanese army. Believe it or not, this show is significantly less ridiculous than the two that I actually bought in Urumqi, one of which involves classic flying-through-the-air martial arts and one of which takes as a main character a girl who indirectly and inadvertently gets her father killed and her brother maimed in the first 20 minutes of the show.
  • Last weekend, I went to Beihai Park! It’s gorgeous and on par with the Great Ming Lake in Jinan.

  • I officially have my very first Chinese student ID! Now I can get student discounts, swipe for lunches, and (hopefully?) buy train tickets in advance.

  • For the past several months, my favorite (and, currently, only) towel has had an ever-growing rip in it, and last week it got serious enough that I began fearing for the towel’s safety. So a few days ago, I took up the mini kit that my father oh so helpfully provided upon my departure from home (thanks, dad), opened up an online instructional video, and sewed my first stitches. It was a day that I never thought would come – and, some might say after seeing the photo, should never come again. Still, it’s serviceable, and it broke neither after my shower nor in the washing/drying process, so I’ll call that a win. For the curious among ye, the stitch – or the half of it that I got right – is called a blind stitch.

I will leave you with that award-winning photograph. Look for the Xinjiang Diaries in a few days.

Missing you all,

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Program Report: HBA 4th Year, Summer 2010

Below is my final report on my experience at HBA this year. Feel free to hold out for an upcoming post (with pictures!) on my travels to Xinjiang if you find it too dry.


Harvard-Beijing Academy: Final Report
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, summer 2010, 4th year

Note: In an effort to make this comprehensive and gear it toward future Fellows, I will begin with some basic information about the daily schedule, curriculum, etc., and conclude with my personal experience, including an evaluation and suggestions for improvement or program choice.

Program Basics

Weekly routine:
 - Mon-Thu: Lecture (16 students) 8:00-9:20, reading aloud (4 students) 9:30-9:50, small class (same 4 students) 10:10-11:00, small class #2 (same 4 during first semester; changes to 2-person conversation class in second semester) 11:10-12:00. Lunch 12:00 (Tue & Fri: Chinese table - semi-mandatory, tasty, free), one-on-one class 1:30-2:20 or 2:20-3:10. Then some extracurricular options, one lecture-type event a week (usually not mandatory), an optional (up to) 3 hours per week with a Chinese language partner, and of course homework.
 - Fri: Testing in the morning following a similar schedule; afternoon is free.
 - Weekends: free, though HBA organizes (and pays for) various trips in/around Beijing (Great Wall, Lao She Tea House, etc).

 - Fourth year, while it takes some getting used to if you haven’t had the HBA/PIB experience in the past, is very doable, and tests are actually easy. Not counting morning review, o n average I would consider 4 hours a solid amount of time to prepare the next day’s lesson, 5 if you want to review and thereby master a greater % of the material. That said, I know that my preparation time is generally longer than most others’.

Class size (this year): high 30s in 2nd year, low 20s in 3rd year, 16 in 4th year, 8 in 5th year. Total: 86. Of those, 6 in 4th year and 7 in 5th year were heritage learners.

Length: 9 weeks

Other features:
 - Social study project: 5th week. Options: Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, Qingdao, Beijing (self-directed), Hebei villages, Shaolin Temple, Xi’An (anticipated). Note that these trips are self-funded and can be expensive! (Inner Mongolia, the most costly, was about 2500 RMB all told.)
 - Language pledge: very well respected, though this varies between friend groups. Begins to break down over the social study week in the middle of the program.
 - Fantastic “dorms,” essentially single hotel rooms with bathrooms inside each.

Experience & Evaluation

HBA was probably the best program for me this semester; that said, my experience was mixed. I will try to write from every angle I can think of, and then add more content if I think of it later.

Overall improvement has been most obvious in the areas of writing and speaking. My speaking improved mainly because of the environment and adherence to the language pledge; among other things, it no longer feels tiring to speak in Chinese, and that’s a big step in itself. I also realized soon after arriving in Beijing how comparatively terrible the language environment in Taipei had been (though I’m sure that one factor was my very low level of Chinese last summer) and how glad I was to be in Beijing at a program where the language pledge was respected. In terms of writing, I put my improvement down to the curriculum and the frequent writing requirements (mainly expository, but some also descriptive). Also, I can clearly see some foresight in the curriculum’s focus on grammar/sentence patterns as opposed to vocabulary: we can always look up new words on our own as we read more Chinese in the future, but we won’t always have a teacher on hand to explain a new grammatical construction.

My abiding disappointment is that I still find myself unable to communicate effectively by most standards. This is mostly due to my weakness in listening comprehension. I think this is partly natural – I’d say that whether it’s song lyrics in English or learning a phrase in a new language by ear, I have a bit more difficulty picking out words and pronunciation than the average person, and besides that, Chinese is a language of homonyms. That said, I also regret that 4th year of HBA had no real listening component to it; most of us can understand the teachers most of the time, but real-world Chinese is another question entirely. And as it turns out, the best way to improve spoken and heard Chinese – i.e., talking to people – is a dead end if in every conversation one’s interlocutor has to put a lot of effort into making him/herself understood. In short, despite particular efforts (until halfway through this summer, I always prepared Chinese lessons by first listening three times, even spending all of third year picking out new vocabulary by sound instead of reading), my listening has become a very obvious barrier to improvement, and to the extent that the issue isn’t limited to me, I blame HBA’s 4th year curriculum for failing to foresee that problem and help compensate for it.

This brings me to an observation I’ve made about systemic curriculum failure in the Chinese as a Foreign Language community. The Chinese classes and curricula that I have encountered I would count as some of the best in the world; however, a lot of Chinese programs (not just Yale and Harvard, I’ve discovered) have decided that somewhere in the second or third year it’s time to get serious and start delving into politics, economics, and literature. I would have no problem with this were Chinese as (comparatively) easy to acquire as a Romance language – but it’s not, and we’re not young enough to naturally pick up the colloquial expressions and key vocabulary that they skip over in order to discuss the 1979 Opening and Reform in second-year HBA. And once you’re into fourth year, any hope of building your base of common vocabulary and expressions is but a fantasy: in between reading a piece by Lu Xun (early modern, and full of now-unused vocabulary) and an article on the economics of traffic jams, you simply don’t have the time to learn how to recognize, repeat, and write words like “purple” and “elbow,” let alone learn colloquialisms. Every semester of Chinese I take feels a bit like building on a house of cards.

And now for some commentary on specific aspects of the program and the summer as a whole:

1. Language pledge: As I mentioned earlier, the language pledge was instrumental to the leap that my spoken Chinese took this summer. That said, there are pitfalls and I definitely stumbled into quite a few of them. I became friends with two classmates who were basically opposite in speaking ability: one spoke Chinese at home and one definitely had some trouble expressing himself and talked pretty rarely. The problem with the latter is obvious; having a conversation with someone whose Chinese is worse than yours, especially someone who doesn’t speak much, isn’t going to do a whole lot to raise the bar. The problem with the former (besides constant envy) is that there’s a continual push to speak faster, sometimes at the expense of accuracy, and the best speaker tends to be the de facto representative when a small group is ordering food or asking a question.

2. Heritage Learners… and their uses: It’s been a love-hate relationship. They speak fast and tend to have area accents (some of them quite strong), and have some very set errors and inaccuracies in their speech. Except for the most conscientious, they are also much more likely to break the language pledge; they see it as not very necessary. On the other hand, they were my bridge to speaking with actual Chinese people: they speak semi-fluently but their language tends to be pretty simple, and they would sometimes throw in some common colloquial expressions I’d never heard. It was also much easier to go on outings with the teachers when the heritage learners were around to make conversation.

3. The Area: Conducive to staying inside one’s room. The majority of the students on campus are foreigners, especially during the summer, and it’s small so not much is happening – especially during the summer. Also, Wudaokou is itself full of foreign students, and mostly good for the weekends (read: eating out and drinking).

4. Dating: I very briefly dated a Chinese girl. Looking back, I don’t think the language barrier is insurmountable, but for it to work you need to have similar interests or a similar sense of humor, or click in some very noticeable way. Chatting with someone with whom one has little in common can be awkward in English, and it seems like it’s going to be the last thing that I learn in Chinese. As far as relationships with classmates go: if you’re not going to keep the language pledge (at least for the most part), it’s going to undercut much of the hard work you’re doing at HBA. But if you both have the same goal – i.e., putting your Chinese first – it can work out just fine.

5. Teachers: Despite the pittance they get paid (something like $4.50 USD an hour?!) and the fact that the vast majority of them are still graduate students (mostly at the BLCU), I think that most of them were excellent, and all of them incredibly dedicated. Competition for an HBA position is apparently pretty fierce, as it’s great experience to put on a resume, and the strength of the (very structured) curriculum and continual evaluations allows even the inexperienced teachers to pull through and improve. My only source of disappointment was that most of us only got friendly with the teachers near the very end of the program, as the barriers only started to come down during the social study week.

6. Attendance Policy: Overboard, even ridiculous. I got sick during the second week, and the “if you’re not in the hospital, you’re in class” rule made that entire week a haze for me; retention dropped to new lows, and I’m sure that it would have been much more efficient had I been able to sleep it off for two days and come back swinging. Also, some of the activities that are nominally optional are in practice mandatory, e.g. some lectures (even if they’re not that good) and Chinese table.

7. Free Time: I can’t really say that I took advantage of Beijing this summer. I have all of this fall to do so (hopefully), but at the same time, it was a very one-sided summer and I didn’t do a lot of basic life things that one should do – e.g., regularly attend cooking class, keep up on the news, exercise a bit, see more than a few sights around town, start regularly watching some Chinese TV and reading a Chinese novel.

In sum, I learned a lot, retained a decent amount, and improved significantly. I still have a ways to go, though, and am looking at ways to expand my Chinese education and make it more practical. Fortunately I still have one full semester in Beijing and another in Taiwan to make this happen.