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.

1 comment:

  1. Ethan, you're clearly having an amazing time, obviously making the most of it. This blog is amazing, too.

    "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.'"

    WOW! That is very, VERY cool.