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.
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,