Thursday, October 28, 2010

reasons why I'm so very over debating

1. Our topic, upon reflection, is abysmal. Which is more important: IQ or EQ ('emotional quotient')? Let me answer that question with a question of my own, Alex: Is it possible to discuss the relative importance of two things which are integral?
2. Sometimes, I hate every member of my team, to varying degrees and for varying reasons.
3. We won't be receiving any detailed scores from our last debate, so there's no way to know where we need to improve.
4. We finally got to see the video taken of our opponent's first match, and it turns out they're much better than the teacher who watched all of the first-round debates had led us to believe.
5. I've had to turn down several opportunities to hang out with Chinese friends, and one ticket to [I think] join the live audience of some new CCTV show with my former English student and her family. If we advance once or twice more, I may also have to abandon my longstanding plan to go to Laiwu, Shandong Province and visit my old high school's new Chinese 'sister school.'
6. The teacher vaguely in charge of us - the same one who didn't make sure we had the informational handouts and rules on the day when the competition was explained to us - is still horrible at keeping us informed on basic things like where and when our next competition will be. She also took it upon herself to decide that the (funny and very well-received) opening scene/performance I painstakingly prepared today wasn't supportive enough of our side of the debate topic, and switched it out in favor of a painfully preachy and insipid little edited song.
7. Today I was not only exhausted but also vaguely aching all over. I really hope it's not the first symptom of a cold. Anyway I took several naps for a total of something over 3 hours and have been eating clementines by the half-kilo (that's how we roll here), so I hope that'll do the trick.
8. In slightly less than 7.5 hours, I'll be taking a rather large midterm. I still need at least two hours to prepare, plus a much-sought-after shower. (Hot water's been stopped over the past two days as they fix the plumbing somewhere deep under our part of the university.)

This was my relaxation for the day (admittedly, not counting sleeping): gettin' it all out. Forgive me.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Road Goes Ever On and On

We won this morning's debate!

The opposition, to be honest, was disappointingly weak - but then again, we didn't dominate them nearly as much as we should have, so it's good that we had a softball to start with and test our weak points. Add another 20 or so hours throughout this coming week and we'll be ready for the second round - quarter-finals - next Saturday morning.

Last night I could barely fall asleep despite how exhausted I was, and when I finally did it was with the words of my speech echoing in my head; when I woke up in the morning, I was silently singing the lyrics of our mini song-presentation. But when we actually got on stage... well, 30 minutes seems shockingly short when you've prepared for over 30 hours.

The slightly bitter portion of all of this is that this coming week is also midterms at ACC, and our director seems entirely convinced that the two (now three!) students attending debate prep can simultaneously prepare 3 new lessons, 2 oral tests, and a written test... we're going to see if we can get her to waive at least one of the oral portions in favor of us becoming awesome debaters instead.

Tomorrow I think I'm the one picking our next topic out of a hat... hopefully it's a good one, we're on the side with the advantage, and we're not facing a killer school full of near-fluent Koreans like BLCU (the one I was at this summer, where the Harvard program is). Lotta pressure... but I volunteered. I'm feeling lucky.

I'm also really hoping I can be the 4th speaker next time; to be honest I think I'd do it better than the current 4th speaker (my classmate), and it'd also be much more fun than memorizing a story. Unless it's a really excellent story.

Going to sleep for two hours at the very least,

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Micro Update

Debate: Practice and individual preparation combined are up to 4-5 hours per day now. I'm getting more and more excited about this every day, though at the same time, I'll be happy when it's all over because this schedule is insane. Also, my tolerance for the girl on our team who speaks fluent Chinese is rapidly evaporating; she's much more interested in saying things and taking charge of the process than she is in getting the logic straight and keeping the big picture in sight. So hopefully these factors will help me avoid being too crushed if we lose. Anyway, after a lot of internal debate our three main arguments are finally set (they're essentially the same three I proposed three days ago, but I guess it was good to think through all of the other options), and now we're moving on to the fun parts: stats, moving examples, anticipating the enemy's attack, preparing crushing rhetorical questions to leave our audience laughing and our opponents in tears, etc. I'm starting to think there's a remote but real possibility that I won't feel like a huge liability to the team. This is partly aided by a new development: it seems like another ACC student will for various reasons be replacing one of the Asian students.

Travelogue: About 3/5 of the way through. It's happening, but by now I'm thinking of skipping the whole blogging process and going directly to signing a contract with a publishing company to write a novel :-p You won't want to read it, but I suppose you can always skim through for the photos.

Harry Potter: 30 days, baby. It opens on a Friday night and ACC has already scheduled a play-viewing, but in this case I'm 100% willing to forgo cultural activities to go see Part I of 'Deathly Hallows'. In English, mind you; I won't stand for any of this 'let's go see it in Chinese with English subs' crap.

Taipei: I've been thinking a lot about Taipei lately. For one, I recently Skyped Jun Xiang (竣翔), my friend and language exchange partner from last year. I'm really excited to go back, and desperately hoping that when I do I'll find that I have attained my semi-secret medium-term goal in Chinese: to be able to comfortably hang out and have fun with him and his family. For another, I've been getting more and more sick of Beijing - the traffic, the lack of lines/queues, the bustle of worker ants ignoring other worker ants, the pollution (which got particularly horrible last weekend), and now the dry cold that I was warned about before coming here.
View from my 6th-floor window, 2:00/3:00 PM last Saturday. Visibility: about one city block.
The higher the floor you're on, the more it looks like the city has just been firebombed.
Very few people on the streets, and most vendors have gone home.

Yet another reason I've been thinking of Taipei lately is that I've had a few reminders of my Chinese as it was little over a year ago. I remember being unable to talk for significant periods of time without translation; doing everything semi-official or difficult in English; and forcing all of my interlocutors to pay special attention to their words and mine in order to have even a hope of basic mutual understanding. I would never, ever understand Chinese over the phone. Recently, I dealt with some plane ticket and credit card authorization issues over the phone, and the only time I needed to use English was when I had to explain to them what their error message said. I also talked to one of Jun Xiang's friends over Skype, and got the strong impression that I'm basically a whole new person in his eyes - which makes sense, now that we can communicate at a reasonable level. Although that's not an excuse to slack - after all, I'm still not nearly satisfied - it is the sort of realization that I need to keep in mind in order to really have a grasp on how my Chinese ability is improving.

Beijing: At the same time, for the first time I feel like I'm beginning a semblance of a life here in Beijing. (The major exception being food. By the time I leave the country, I will bleed MSG.) I've been a few friends recently and hoping to meet more in the near future; this has turned Beijing from 'a great place to study Chinese, hang out, and see sights' into 'the home of people I care about.' I recently answered one of them, 'No, I won't miss Beijing itself, but I'll miss the people and the memories,' but on second thought I don't think that looking back it will be all that easy to distinguish one from the other. Well, Beijing, it'll have to be a love-hate relationship, I suppose.

You: I'm also missing you. Every few days now I get the need to update my blog, or get in touch with someone or another, or connect with the people back in ol' Connecticut. It takes time and is no good for my studies, but there it is and unavoidable.

Good night and good luck,

Friday, October 15, 2010

I will probably burst into tears before this next week is out.

This will most likely occur during one of our daily 3-hour debate meetings/training sessions. Today I tried and failed to explain to one of our coaches why I thought her argument about the role of the Internet - which drew from media studies, anthropology, and of course a bit of philosophy - was unnecessarily complicated and just as prone to error as the points a few of us had brought up earlier. Fail fail fail. And they want me to be the 4th speaker, who summarizes the debate at the end... surely ye jest.

When all is said and done, I will undeniably be a better man for all of this.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Temp Update

In the past 11 days...

  1. I attended a wedding. Photos and story coming after...
  2. travelogue update. Which I have started writing. This is a true fact. I've discovered that the writing is taking much longer than I expected, as the word count is much greater than anticipated - particularly because I saw, learned, and thought a lot of new things over a brief two weeks. Be patient.
  3. I am now officially on vacation for four days. This will ensure the completion of #1, above. I originally meant to climb 黄山 (Yellow Mountain) during this vacation, but returned my ticket just a few hours ago because the weather report wasn't looking good. I figure if I want to enjoy the experience I had better not go when it's raining, especially as I hear the steps on the west side are torturous even in good weather, so I figure I'd be looking at me feet the whole time at best, breaking something at worst. I could go somewhere else near-ish Beijing, but with the 黄山 idea no more, I've realized that there are a lot of things I need/want to do/catch up on - everything from finishing the State Department summer internship application to helping a friend with some English translations to reading some of the Chinese book my teacher lent me.
  4. And it's a good thing I stayed, too: after weeks of barely any news, the debate has finally reared its head once more. After attending an information session for all participants, I think I finally understand what's going on. 16 universities in Beijing will each send one team of foreign students, most of them clearly Asian and very good at Chinese, to engage in what can best be described as a 'performance-like debate' on a very abstract or otherwise subjective question. (Our first-round resolution is, 'The internet bring people closer together.') The teams get about a week and a half to train and prepare before each round (Round 1 is on 10/23), so when we arrive we're expected to have polished certain portions of our presentation - our introductions and mini performance before the debate starts, a three-pronged argument in support of our side of the resolution, a supporting story that can incite the audience's sympathy, and portions of our closing remarks including the recitation of a relevant passage from a famous Chinese work. The rest - the 'questioning' portion and the terrifying 'free debate' segment - will be much more spontaneous.

    Each team has 4 members, and each member has a very specific role (except for free debate, in which everyone is expected to participate). I'm kind of shocked that I'm on the team, as we had a very confusing 'surprise! final selection' round some weeks ago and there were definitely four graduate students who spoke much better Chinese than me, but perhaps it was because one of them was slightly crazy and the other was very passive throughout the mock debate. At any rate, I'm the only non-Asian on the team - besides the ol' US of A, we're also repping Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Thailand - but two ACC students and (I think) the semi-crazy lady (from Malaysia?) will hypothetically be our alternates. I expect to be given a memorization-heavy and response-light part, either First Speaker (explain our main points) or Second Speaker (tell a story that shows why we're right). Minzu is organizing our team fairly poorly, I think, but it seems like my teammates are all really serious about getting started right away with a few hours of training and probably dinner every day for at least a week, so this does have the potential to be a fantastic experience. It also means I'm going to have to be much more careful about my time, though, but that I think I can manage.

Friday, October 1, 2010

One More Week in the Life

Foreword: I have been and still am very, very, very busy, so I have set a new goal for the travel blog update: next weekend, as things will hopefully have quieted down by then. If I don't get it done by then, I will be forced to amend that to "sometime before I completely forget."

New things:

  • Extracurriculars have started. On a weekly basis, I'm taking:
     - Pronunciation: I've been told, to my extreme delight though not full agreement, that my pronunciation is excellent and it would be a waste of time to have me read off a page, so starting next week it will become "watch an episode of a Chinese sitcom together and learn some colloquialisms."
     - Chinese chess (象棋): Shockingly similar to 'international'/Western chess, but when I looked up the history it made a lot of sense, as both Western chess and Chinese chess are derivatives of a similar, very old Indian game. I'm sure the seemingly slight differences - mostly in the movement of the pieces and the idea that the goal is to kill the king instead of secure a checkmate - result in entirely different gameplay; I haven't seen for myself yet, though, since our teacher (a student at Minzu) has spent both classes so far talking about everything from Chinese phrases to ancient history to whether it's better to address us using our English or our Chinese names. By the end of the second class (1 hour each), we had learned the names, locations, and movements of all but one of the pieces. I'm probably the only one who's really enjoying it, though, since he talks fairly fast and I've taken to considering chess class as an hour of rigorous listening comprehension exercise.
     - "Go" (围棋), a two-player Chinese board game with around 2,500 years of history. Like chess, it's very military based; the object is to end the game controlling the majority of the space thereon. If your pieces fully surround another player's, you "eat" his, gaining the area for yourself; the "围" of "围棋" means "encirclement." My roommate and I happen to be the only ones taking this class, and we've kind of become 围棋 fiends. 围棋, like our chess, has traditionally been the game of intellectuals and the elite - and still is, judging by the amount of times I've seen old men playing 象棋 on sidewalks or in parks (100 or so) versus the amount of times I've seen 围棋 being played (0). There's a phrase in Chinese that means 'having mastered the arts of the intellectual/elite': 琴棋书画, each character referring to a different skill. If you count piano as the modern equivalent of the old zither-like stringed instrument that they used to play, then I'll have attained mediocrity in half of the skills of the intellectual by the end of the summer. Go me!

    [candid photo of my - fantastic - rommate]

     - Ping-pong: I've temporarily abandoned my very unique and only semi-effective way of playing to learn the classic Asian paddle-holding technique, and I've actually gotten semi-okay at the return... when the ball is served to a very specific spot on the table. I expect to be able to report further improvement over the coming weeks.
  • Last weekend, I climbed the Great Wall for the second time - a different section. It was a lot of fun, at times pretty arduous but very doable because people kept stopping. And this time around, I took pictures!
  • I've met my language partner, whom (I think) ACC pays to meet with me an hour per week, and he's fantastic. We played ping-pong and chatted this week, and now that I've mentioned I'm interested in getting back into soccer a bit, I'm expecting a call from him when he and his friends get together to kick the ball around some evenings.
  • I'm more and more impressed at how diverse Minzu really is; my language partner estimates that only a third of the students are Han. (This percentage is extremely low, considering that Han Chinese make up over 90% of Chinese overall.) This morning I caught a glimpse of the end of either a performance or a rehearsal, with everyone in full traditional garb:

  • My Chinese family (also organized through ACC) is excellent, though we've only met once so far. (It's kind of a production to get together with them, and I've been really busy with both the above and the below.) The father oversees 1,000 or so researchers/engineers/etc in developing and testing the national railroad system; the mother is a sociology professor at Minzu; and the daughter (my 'little sister') is in her second-to-last year of high school, studying ridiculously hard and hoping to get into a top American college. My ACC 'little sister' (we're two students to a family), an International Relations and Economics major at Brown, is also quite cool in her own right.
  • Classes - well, to be fair, just the first two hours every day (large and small lecture) -  still make me feel like clawing my eyes out. I think that for a few months now I've been wishing the Light Fellowship had a China award for self-study and the hiring of a tutor, so I've been seeing classes and curricula as a semi-necessary evil, but far beyond that issue, ACC itself is riddled with very fixable teaching deficiencies. I've spoken with the director already (she scheduled ten minutes with every student this past weekend), but things seem unlikely to change and I miss HBA more every day.
  • Last week, the Chinese celebrated the mid-autumn festival (中秋节), which I guess you can put on par with our Thanksgiving: most people got around 3 days off (not us), and everyone who could went home to be with their families. The festival, like New Year's, follows the lunar calendar, as this past full moon marked the middle of autumn. Today is yet another important date: Chinese National Day (国庆节), which I'm sure has seen some parades and fireworks (I'm far too tired to go looking for them) and which will give most people (also not us) a week of vacation from work and school. Chinese school "vacations," though, as I've discovered, deserve quotes around them: they are preceded by extra, supplementary classes on weekends so that no instruction time is missed. (I don't know if that's also true for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), but I'm guessing not since I think it comes between semesters.)
  • I went shopping today! It's been autumn-y of late - the change was really sudden, right from hot to cold with nothing in between - and I hear that autumn itself doesn't last very long, so I went a-buying after lunch today. As it turns out (and I'd heard rumors to this effect), prices of decent-quality clothing in China actually aren't that great. Still, I did what I could - wrestled some shopkeepers to the floor with my bargaining prowess, etc - and returned with the following, converted into U.S. prices for your convenience:
     - 5 long sleeved shirts, 2 thick & 3 thin: ~$5.00 per
     - a pair of nice-looking black shoes (not sure about quality, but I'll only be wearing them once or twice): ~$7.50
     - two pairs of jeans: ~$7.50 per
     - the prize - a gorgeous, red, double-layer winter jacket with removable shell: $30.00. And yes, the fuzzy material on the inside is as soft and luscious as it looks.

    At any rate, I think I'm set for the winter at this point (I don't know that the Chinese do undershirts, so I suppose I'll just use my t-shirts if I need an extra layer), except that I probably should have looked harder for a pair of corduroys instead of that second pair of jeans.
  • The other cool thing that happened while I was shopping (besides the shouting match between the police and a young man who felt that they had insulted him) was that I came across two really unique musicians playing for money in the pedestrian tunnels around the clothing malls. The first was a guitar-playing Inner Mongolian with an absolutely phenomenal voice. His tunnel wasn't very busy, so with the added effect of the acoustics I was just blown away. He sang something that sounded to be semi-traditional Mongolian, or with Mongolian influence (I was reminded of the chant-like songs and the throat singing we heard while we were there this summer), but with a (Western) acoustic guitar to accompany him. I covertly taped a minute and a half with my voice recorder (I had planned to do interviews today; see below), but it was in my pocket and I don't have the right cable for it right now so I have no idea how it turned out. I wondered why he wasn't somewhere professional, but I suspect it has something to do with his face - he has a black-and-blue sort of disfigurement on one side - and I decided not to ask.

    The second was, of all surprises, a white girl. People actually stopped to listen to her (/gawk at her), I among them: a Westerner playing guitar and singing for money in the pedestrian tunnels is a very, very rare sight, one which I for one had never seen before today and probably will never see again before I leave Beijing. As a matter of fact, come to think of it, white people doing anything in Beijing (and Taiwan) outside of a few designated activities - learning Chinese, teaching English, going to bars/parks/tourist sites, or being semi-important somewhere (i.e., consulting, tech, and/or foreign relations) - is pretty rare. Anyway, it turned out that the girl is attending CET Beijing (another Chinese language program here), and just came out to play a bit of her own music and have some fun. I think she picked the wrong place, as she was really close to the zoo and her voice was getting lost in the passing crowds, but I would definitely do the same if I had the skill; it's novel for everyone concerned, and you don't have to worry too much about criticism. As it turned out, what you do have to worry about is the fuzz, and we both got shooed away for taking up space in a far-too-crowded tunnel. No, no discrimination: the Chinese vendors got kicked out too.
  • This weekend is going to be insane. The teachers have decided that, in addition to a regular night's homework and our classic twice-a-week essay, we also have to go interview several people for our ongoing individual report/project and write a cohesive summary and analysis of 1,000 characters or so. More importantly, I'm going to be spending about a day and a half attending a wedding: One of my former students from the Bridges ESL tutoring program is a retiree who lives near Beijing, and has invited me to go see her relative get married. Because of time/traffic issues, she's picking me up on Saturday afternoon; the wedding is on Sunday, and she knows I have school on Monday so I assume I'll be getting back in sometime (rather late) Sunday night. I'm really, really excited, even though I know I shouldn't be assuming it will be as extravagant or even as traditional as it looks in the movies.