Friday, December 31, 2010

My Journey to the West (~8/21-9/8, 2010)

The long-awaited travelogue is HERE! If you were expecting more pretty pictures, don’t despair – all of the photos that I thought were semi-worth keeping can be found at Feel free to follow along with the relevant album as you read about my travels.

For now, most of the content below is a recounting of events; in future posts, I’ll be exploring some more thoughts, ideas, and analyses that I jotted down while I was on the road.

But let’s get to it:

As with many great adventures, this one unfolded in a westerly fashion. My belongings comprised nearly everything I had brought with me for the year, all packed into a large hiking backpack (yes, Yale classmates - the one I bought for FOOT); I left the laptop and some study materials with the cousin of a friend from HBA. My route, which spanned several thousand kilometers across the north of China, is pictured below.

Getting There, Stage A: The Train

My first stop was Xi’An (西安), the ancient capital of the Chinese empire. Because it was the weekend and Xi’An is both a popular international & domestic tourist destination and a transportation hub between ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ China, buying tickets three days in advance didn’t cut it: I got stuck with a standing ticket on a 14-hour overnight train. For those who didn’t read my posts from June, the capacity regulations on Chinese trains go a little bit like this: ‘Tickets are sold out if and only if an extra body cannot physically fit on the train.’  (This only applies to the cars with seats; the much pricier sleeper cars are meant to be more spacious, and deny entry to anyone without a ticket for a bunk.) This was also, by a tiny sliver, the most crowded train I’ve ever been on, and we were really pushing the aforementioned regulation to the limit. The following photo doesn’t do it justice, but take a look anyway – and when you do, keep in mind that all the seats are full, and that these people are neither boarding nor disembarking, but rather have likely been standing in roughly the same spot for ten hours. The guy second from front, who is probably asleep, sums it up pretty well.
Train attendants will periodically push a very narrow metal cart through the aisles, selling toys and drinks and overpriced food. In a feat of physics that I will never understand, they somehow get through, every time.

All that said… as it turns out, it’s not all that bad. The first twelve hours were surprisingly doable, and except for a half-hour nap I was standing the whole way. (Full disclosure: as any hardened train-stander knows, leaning against the sides of seats is a key survival tactic, and I made ample use of all opportunities to take the pressure off my feet.) As the clock slid toward 5 AM, though, I just couldn’t do it any more: I sat down in a vague replica of the fetal position and fell asleep for hours #13 and #14, though I was woken at least a half-dozen times by people going to the bathroom and I would often find myself pitching to one side as my head lost its balance.


Xi’An, formerly known as Chang’An (长安), was in various incarnations the capital of several Chinese dynasties, for a total of  almost 2,000 years [I’m a bit hazy on this number; history students, correct me svp.], and also the Silk Road gateway between China-that-was and the vast west. Its most famous attraction is the nearby home of the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑), several thousand life-sized, hand-crafted, wonderfully detailed guardians of the resting place of the [秦始皇] (259-210 B.C.), the first emperor of unified China. The warriors are split into three pits, the largest and most famous of which has been enclosed in architecture reminiscent of an airplane hangar:
As you can see from the photo, the vast majority of the warriors are, shall we say, less than whole. These pits were not discovered until the late 1970s, and by that time they had sustained a lot of damage from water, air, and shifting earth. There’s still a lot of work being done to piece new soldiers together; you can see a few photos of what looks like a recently restored and tagged regiment in my Photobucket album.

As it turns out, the pits of terracotta warriors comprise just one piece of the emperor’s vast memorial. The grounds are set up like a small city, and have been the source of a wealth of historically significant artifacts, including tools, replicas, and skeletons (both human and animal). The most famous of these were found together with the warriors: two half-size scale models of bronze chariots, each made out of thousands of working parts.

Xi’An proper has, to my knowledge, just one really interesting tourist site to visit (the Bell Tower and Muslim Quarter being fairly unimpressive), and that is the city wall. Thick as a 4-lane divided highway and supplemented by a moat to deter attackers, it makes the Great Wall seem like a token gesture. (Which, to an extent, it actually was; speaking of which, this fact will blow your mind.)

I rented a bike near the South Gate – also very impressive, with two layers of defense to keep enemies from taking advantage of the weakness of the gate itself – and spent a few hours on a bumpy ride around the wall separating the old city from the business and residential areas enveloping it.

The Photobucket album also has photos of the Bell Tower, which is nice but didn’t knock my socks off. Unrelated experiences that don’t merit full sentences of their own:
·      the acquisition an excellent backpack which I bargained down to $8.00 USD
·      the accidental-rubbing-of-spices-into-my-eye incident
·      some glorious Indian food, and the artistic shooting of the next YouTube sensation at the hostel
·      a fountain show at the Small Goose Pagoda

In all, Xi’An was rainy and gloomy and not exciting, so I moved my train ticket up and was on my way only a day and a half after arriving.

Getting There, Stage B: The Train, Revisited

The day-long train ride to Dunhuang in northwestern Gansu Province was leagues more comfortable: I had a seat, and a lot of people got off halfway (at Lanzhou/兰州) so I was able to stretch out. This would be a good place to mention that I actually love long rides on Chinese trains, especially when I have a seat. The city may force us to rub shoulders with our fellow humans, but the train adds the crucial component of time. Rare is the traveler who will sit for ten, fourteen, twenty-four hours and never ask where the rider seated opposite him is bound. This is even more true when the train is packed to the gills: besides the obvious physical closeness, people also develop that bond that comes from enduring hardship together – that same bond that is the unspoken goal of fraternity and society hazing and initiations.

By the end of longer train rides, you can even pick out groups that have formed over the hours – people who barely know each other playing cards, or talking about their futures, or sharing seats. More than once, I have mistaken two people who had never met each other before for relatives or good friends; more than once, I have ended up sharing seats with or leaning on someone I barely knew. I’m still in touch with two of the students I’ve met on trains, one of whom rode 9 hours on yet another train to see me off before I left the mainland. When I inquire about ticket prices these days, no matter how long the trip, I never even ask about the sleeper cars; if I were given one, I’d just end up trading it for a seat anyway.
 Mini bundles of mischief, met on the train to Dunhuang

Product warning: Most of this charm disappears if you’re already sick or otherwise uncomfortable, and you definitely lose sight of it from around 3AM to 7AM.

Dunhuang (敦煌)

Dunhuang, a relatively small Silk Road town, was a must-see on this journey because of the Thousand Buddha Caves. The caves house a trove of Buddhist sculptures and wall paintings, some of which date back as far as 400 A.D., not long after Buddhism began to enter via what is now Tibet. Also, thanks to the climate (arid/desert; it rains a grand total of 40mm per year in Dunhuang) and a lot of luck, many of the caves have been very, very well preserved. Below is the third-largest Buddha in China, and the Photobucket album also has a shot of the ‘Reclining Buddha.’ Excuse the quality of the photos, as they were taken surreptitiously.

Unfortunately, what Dunhuang is most famous for among scholars – the thousands of Buddhist sutras, prayers, commentaries, etc that were hidden in the small Library Cave – were bought/pillaged (depends on who you ask) by a Daoist monk/foreigners (also depends on who you ask) when they were discovered near the beginning of the 20th century. This of course is just one case of many (see Peru v. Yale over artifacts from Macchu Picchu): before Developing Country X realized that Artifact Y amounted to a national treasure, Artifact Y was sold to someone from Developed Country Z, usually at an unreasonably low price. In this case and others, the story is further complicated by the fact that Merchant Q had a questionable/non-existent claim to the items themselves, and being long dead can’t really be held to account for his actions; now whose property are they? A final twist: scholars in Developed Country Z will often claim that Developing Country X simply does not have the requisite infrastructure/interest/experience/stability to properly care for the artifacts, an argument particularly relevant in China given corruption and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

Indiana Jones will always wonder whether, if he had brought Incan artifacts back to America and refused to return them, he could have gotten his face on a U.S. postage stamp like Hiram Bingham.

To be honest, though, the best part of Dunhuang was not the caves, or even the thrice-per-year sandstorm we encountered on the drive back to town. The morning I got in to the hostel, I ran into 3 British students, two from Cambridge and one from Oxford; they had all spent the summer teaching English in Beijing. A combination of the four of us ended up sticking together for the next week. Tom is one of the Cambridge kids; he and I got along really well, and during our first (and last) night in Dunhuang, he and I decided to spring for a camel ride and camping trip in the desert. At first the wind was a killer – sand in the eyes, impossible to get the tents to stay up – but when it died down the night was absolutely perfect.
Riding into the desert. From left: Tom, me, some Chinese woman.

We had a brilliant full moon, and Tom is really into climbing things, so after asking the guide if the area was safe we headed out to tramp around the dunes. The first few were much shorter and easier to surmount than they appeared, so of course we got it into our heads to “walk up that big one over there, it will only take minutes.” An hour later, I would count it as the hardest climb of my life. It’s amazing how climbing in soft sand just takes everything out of you. It feels like not just your legs that are tired but also your entire body; once you’re spent you’re spent, and even waving your arms is out of the question. By about halfway up I was measuring my progress in 20-pace spurts, after which I would just collapse into the dune and rest for thirty seconds. Tom rows crew during the school year (whereas I do… nothing), so he wasn’t quite as destroyed by the climb as I was, but he had to take his share of rests as well. But finally, thanks to nothing else but sheer stubbornness, we made it.

Just as we conquered the mountain we heard the voice of a very angry guide calling us back. Going down probably took us all of a minute and a half, and then it was my job for the next ten minutes to placate the man, who had followed our footprints and was pretty much beside himself at the possibility that a wind would blow up and we would get lost and die. I reminded him that he had told me it was safe nearby, but admittedly, that the definition of “nearby” included that monster of a dune – which he told us the next morning was probably the tallest in Dunhuang’s Singing Sands – was kind of questionable, so I quickly gave up arguing with him and went into apology mode. At any rate, it all worked out and we’re both still alive, with some fantastic memories of adventure and conquest to boot.

Not having intended to climb a massive dune in the middle of the night, we did not bring our cameras and thus have no evidence to offer – but I did take this sweet shot of the sunrise and a camel.

Getting There, Stage C: The Bus

I was fine with getting out of Dunhuang on the second afternoon, but taking the so-called 16-hour (reality: 20-hour) bus to Urumqi on our way to Kashgar was definitely not my preferred method of transportation. At that point I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to hit the Southern Silk Road (the Silk Road splits into two routes around the Taklamakan Desert just west of Dunhuang), which has some smaller towns, is less traveled, and would get me away from the massively touristey trip that this had become. Unfortunately, I was stymied right from the start: the only bus route to the first town on the main road headed south simply wouldn’t take foreigners. I told her I was Spanish and not American, to see if that would make a difference, but I just got a “sorry, buddy” type of response. I don’t know what the issue is there, but I suspect that the tiny town in question is either a) near the site of some semi-secret rocket launches, or something of that sort (northwestern Qinghai Province has a population density approaching 0); or b) a region with a high ratio of Tibetan residents, possibly one in which some incident or another has happened recently. Qinghai, just east of Tibet, has a few Tibetan Autonomous Regions scattered throughout, as well as a significant population of Tibetans, some of whom are still nomads.

That road closed, and the new British friends having decided that the train would be inconvenient, I figured we were all going the same place anyway so I might as well buy a bus ticket too.

The Chinese sleeper bus was a new experience entirely.

The basic premise behind a sleeper bus is that you will be lying down the whole way – which, in general, you are, because only the aisles have actual headroom. In most buses there are 3 rows of bunks with two aisles in between; each row has about 6 double bunks. The bottom bunks are slightly more expensive, probably because they’re not as hot, it’s easier to get in and out, and there’s less shaking; personally, though, I prefer the upper bunks, especially if I can get one near a window. (That said, the middle is also decent if the temperature cooperates, because due to the construction of the bus the upper middle is the only place where you can legitimately sit up without banging your head.) Space (lengthwise) varies, and on the trip to Urumqi the two British guys and I quickly discovered that if we stretched out we almost – but didn’t quite – fit. The British girl, too, made a discovery: that they don’t actually clean the bunks in between use. We all felt horrible for her, as she turned out to have an allergic reaction to her bunk (or something in it), and by the end of the ride had red bumps all over; Tom and I parted with her and her boyfriend in Urumqi, but I heard that the rash didn’t go away until several days later.

For myself, I was fortunate to escape contracting the Scarlet Fever, or anything else for that matter, but I must admit that it wasn’t my favorite trip ever: I quickly discovered that trying to read Chinese characters on the top bunk of a lurching bus makes me feel ill, so I gave up and became a log for the rest of the trip. There’s not much else to do: the setup isn’t nearly as conducive to conversation as is a train. So by the end, all you’ve done for the past 20 hours is sleep, eat horrible Chinese snacks (there is not a single good on-the-go food item to be found at your average Chinese grocery store), and step out to stretch your legs now and then. I swear we must have stopped for bathroom breaks a total of thrice the entire trip; this is also where I gained valuable ‘relieve yourself by the side of the road and in the close proximity of your bus-mates’ experience.  But despite all of that time spent lying on a bed, when you finally arrive at your destination, your body still manages to muster the audacity to feel tired.
 One of Urumqi’s two major bus stops. It is unclear where the cow innards came from,
or why nobody is looking shocked that they are there.

Urumqi Stopover

We stayed in Urumqi just long enough for me to dislike it: The various taxis (as I found out later) are in the middle of meter fare readjustment, a process that might take up to a year, and in the meantime, to avoid people taking advantage of what have become very low fares, many taxi drivers (particularly those whose meters have not yet been adjusted) insist on bargaining for rides. Add to this a clear lack of supply, and you have yourself a traveler’s nightmare; one of the Brits had to wait about half an hour before finally giving up on getting to town from the train station without being ripped off.

But my main purpose for being in Urumqi was to transit to other places. First, I bought my ticket back to school – I had planned it so that I would get back to Urumqi from Kashgar in a week and then leave on the two-day train to Beijing. This is when I discovered that the rumors about early September being a really busy season for the train were, if anything, understated. It turns out that university students returning to school are allowed to buy tickets as far as a month in advance, and what’s more, certain blocks of tickets are set aside especially for them. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had the foresight (foreknowledge!) to bring my acceptance letter or university invitation with me when I went traveling, so the best I could get was a ticket for a hard seat on a train that left two days earlier than I had hoped. Then I bought two bus tickets to Kashgar, and Tom and I were on our way by late afternoon of the same day.

Getting There, Stage D: The Bus, Revisited

The bus from Urumqi to Kashgar, nominally under 24 hours, really runs around 26 or 27, if memory serves. Although Urumqi itself is mostly Han, it seemed that all of our fellow passengers were Uyghur, the Muslim, Turkish-descended minority ethnicity that populate the majority of Xinjiang Province. If you’ve heard of the Uyghur people recently, it has probably been in the context of the Urumqi Ughyur-Han riots two summers ago; there is definite separatist feeling among parts of the Uyghur community, and clearly a certain amount of Han-Uyghur ethnic tension. It’s a very, very sensitive issue – for example, when I click the above link from inside the great nation of China, all of Wikipedia becomes mysteriously inaccessible for 5-10 minutes.

Most of the other passengers lived in the west of the province and had no need of Mandarin in their daily lives, so besides the bus driver, I probably spoke the best Chinese in the vehicle. That made it a bit difficult to communicate, but Tom and I took this excellent 27-hour opportunity to nail down a few key phrases in Uyghur (the language, this time) that Tom found in his Lonely Planet guidebook. (Fun fact: Lonely Planet is also banned in China, because it shows Taiwan as a separate country on its maps and has a separate guidebook for the island. The Taiwan section of the Lonely Planet web site is also inaccessible.) This brought the children in the bunk in front of us no end of amusement, but in the end we nailed down a pretty solid base vocabulary: greetings, hello, goodbye, where are you going, what is your name, my name is, good, bad, yes, no, how much, coming through, plus a few common food names.

This bus was also, for whatever reason, much more humane than the last. We stopped several times for bathroom/smoke breaks – dare I say that the density of cigarettes in Xinjiang is greater than that in eastern China? Is that even possible? – as well as a couple of times for meals, though all of these were before down or after sunset because Ramadan had not yet ended. By the end of the trip, I was already fairly well acquainted with the Uyghur pulled noodles (thick and absolutely delicious) and the Uyghur version of na(a)n bread, which is much bigger, thicker, and harder than the Indian variety.

We also stopped innumerable times for inspections, one of the several measures put in place following the 2008 riots. (I will mention others below.) Although I have to admit that I felt pretty uneasy when I was called to the front on one occasion to confirm my citizenship, and I was too worried about getting my camera confiscated to even leave the case lying around in plain sight, the inspections themselves were a strange mix of rigor and laxness. The main purpose was to check everyone’s national ID cards (which can now be read electronically, unlike the old and easily forged old versions), probably looking for separatists and terrorists and troublemakers (these labels are pretty interchangeable as far as the government is concerned). However, in a few cases people had simply forgotten to bring theirs and they got through after only a minor fuss. A young guy who had forgotten his ID simply had his mother call in and vouch for him; a college girl who had forgotten hers was given the green light to keep traveling simply because she seemed harmless. For my part, I was happy to be able to present a Spanish ID to the authorities: there is some, likely government-inspired, sense among ordinary Chinese that the American government, media, and people all support Xinjiang/Uyghur separatism. To be fair, this may have a grain of truth to it, but the Chinese seem to think that this support goes further than mere sympathy, and I maintained that I was a Spaniard throughout most of my time in the province.


If, come next summer, you offered me a plane ticket to any of the places I visited during this two-week whirlwind adventure, I would without a moment’s hesitation pick Kashgar. Maybe it’s because on a very basic level I simply 喜新厌旧 - love the new and detest the old… and o Kashgar! how well you cater to that vice!

We got in at night, and the first thing I noticed was that the city center looks like a mini version of my mental image of Las Vegas. The streetlights comprise at least 6 colors of ever-changing neon bulbs; the bridges and tall buildings around the downtown lake are all lit from top to bottom; there is a Ferris wheel with a moving psychedelic rainbow radiating from the center.

The hostel Tom wanted to stay at had been shut down in the past year, so we were somewhat at a loss, but by complete chance an American café owner happened by on his motorbike and was able to give us a map and point us in the vague direction of a different hostel, which turned out to be a lovely place with cheap rates and an open-air courtyard.

We got up early on our first day to drive down what is easily the most beautiful road I’ve been on in my entire life: the Karokurum Highway, which is the road to Tashkurgan Pass and the Pakistani border. I took over 100 photos, 80 of which I’ve decided to keep.

About halfway to Pakistan is Karakul Lake, itself a jaw-dropping wonder. All I can add to the photos is to say that the largest visible peak is over 7,000 meters high, not much lower than the (nearby) 8,800m Everest itself. Here you can stay in a yurt with a local family, for something like $5 USD per day, including food. In fact, one of my new mini-dreams is to return and spend at least a few weeks of some summer doing just that – books by my side, beauty all around, and not a care in the world.

The next day, we went to take a look at Kashgar’s weekly livestock market, a short ride away from the town itself. Although we got there a little late – apparently the place is bustling come dawn, since these are farmers, after all – there were still plenty of last-minute deals going down. The main items were cows, donkeys, and sheep, a good specimen of the latter going for about the equivalent $100 USD. That struck some of my friends as a bit steep, but I can completely understand: for livestock farmers, stock equals capital, and sheep are a type of long-term investment.

Bargaining is a very physical activity: the buyer will run his hands over various sheep, and then take out a wad of bills (daily interactions all over China are still conducted almost entirely in cash), slowly starting to place money in the seller’s hand. If the seller feels that the price is too low, he will push the money away or otherwise make as if to return it back to the buyer, who may then start to add smaller bills. Only when the buyer accepts the money back is an agreement considered unreachable; only when the buyer and seller shake hands is a deal considered done. To be completely accurate, I should say, “shake hands in earnest”: at one point I saw a seller grasp a stone-faced buyer’s hand and pump it while the latter maintained the dead-fish grip… clearly, no deal was reached.

We eventually got bored there, so then we were off to the Sunday Market – which, I warn prospective travelers, operates every day and doesn’t deserve its fame unless you’re particularly excited about getting a good deal on clothing or school supplies.

The day after, on the advice of a Taiwanese traveler we met in the hostel, we went to see the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine (it’s a classic), which more importantly is the resting place of an important Uyghur imam and his entire family. One of the reasons I like Kashgar so much is that while I’m no art critic or museum fan, I really enjoy the geometry and the deep colors of Muslim art and architecture; you can see some of that in the photos of the tomb. I also loved both the chaotic alleys of older residences and the clean-cut look of the more modern buildings, all of which you can see in more detail in the Photobucket album.
 Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine/ordinary-smelling imam.

At the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine, I took a crash course in food poisoning. It was definitely the naan I had eaten in the morning, since that was all I had had all day – it was, as I mentioned, Ramadan, so in the mornings we were always presented with the difficult choice between gargantuan naan and infinite-density bagel. Anyway, that afternoon I joined the ranks of just about everyone I know from home who has ever been to Xinjiang, and discovered that my bagel had a little extra kick to it. Tom, who is studying medicine at Cambridge, helpfully informed me that there are two types of food poisoning, one in which the “poison” (created by bacteria) is already in the food, and one in which the bacteria is there but hasn’t yet grown and begun making the “poison.” The second type can last for days because you have now become the host for the bacteria itself… but fortunately this particularly bacteria had apparently been hanging out in the naan for long enough that my body recognized the poison and reacted right away. So the constantly-throwing-up phase, while excruciating, only lasted a few hours, and I was back on my feet that night.
My last photo of the tomb grounds before I decide I’m probably going to be sick.

On the third day, I missed my bus back to Urumqi. I had, for no particular reason, been absolutely sure my bus would leave at 11:30 PM; and that afternoon, when (also for no particular reason) I took another look at the ticket, I discovered that in reality I was meant to leave in the AM, and had missed it. This also meant that I would miss my train from Urumqi to Beijing – and that I would lose my precious seat on that train, as the rest of the tickets for other times were standing-room-only.

The cost of the bus and train tickets put together wasn’t an easy loss to swallow, especially given that the reason was my own foolishness, but the upshot was that I got to spend an extra day and a half in Kashgar. I used that time to visit the Old City, a jumble of quasi-ancient structures and narrow alleyways with a hard-to-reconcile mix of Han Chinese tourists snapping photos of old local families living out their daily lives. One fantastic thing about the old city, and indeed about all of Kashgar, is that it is not difficult to find true artisans at work. Hats, headscarves, brass kettles and more are all being made in little shops here and there, and even the higher prices of a semi-commercialized place like the Old City present a sharp contrast with the situation in the touristy areas of city centers in the east – where every shop sells the same cheap trinkets, probably all made in the same factory somewhere near Canton.
 The Old City, viewed from across the street.

 Making spouts for tea kettles.

Before leaving Kashgar behind, I should probably mention one of the characteristics of Xinjiang, and especially Kashgar, that struck me most: government presence. It can be seen in the soldiers clad in riot gear regrouping after evening patrol in the main square of the People’s Park, across from the statue of Mao Zedong in his Lenin pose; it can be read in the slogans that find their way onto every building and side street, promoting inter-ethnic cooperation, anti-terrorism, support for the rule of law, support for the army, a civil(ized) culture, and love for party, country, socialism, and city. Locals have clearly become very accustomed to the banners and signs, and many feel that increased security presence is good for stability, but at its root the culture of Kashgar is simply not Chinese. It is clear that the central government realizes this, and is putting a lot of effort into inculcating the local people with the idea that despite ethno-national difference, China is one country; implied, of course, is the grim resolve that China’s territorial integrity will not be compromised.   

For more photos of Xinjiang propaganda (with translations), and a brief explanation of the “civilized/peaceful household” rating system recently implemented in Xinjiang, don’t forget to take a look at the Photobucket album.

Urumqi, Back Again

A third bus ride and a new train ticket later, I was back in Urumqi for another day and a half. I spent most of my time wandering down side streets, because it’s my favorite thing to do in cities and also because I had no particular plan of my own. I also expanded my DVD collection by about 100%, the first half having been bought in Hohhot – capitals of thinly-populated provinces, it seems, are great for that. Back at the hostel that night, I ran into Robert, the Taiwanese guy I had met in Kashgar, and the next day we went to see the city’s museum, which is supposed to be fairly famous. I’m not much of a museum guy myself, but I can appreciate that it had good description of the Silk Road and the early settlers of Xinjiang; some fantastically old and well-preserved corpses from the Astana graves; and some few-thousand-year-old artifacts from the most famous and important finds of Chinese archaeology.
 Alley behind the hostel in Urumqi.


As I still had a few days to kill, on the advice and with the expertise of a German guy I met at the hostel I took unfair advantage of the ‘effective within 3 days’ clause on my train ticket to spend a day in Turpan, while also recouping a small portion of the financial loss I had suffered because of my foolishness in Kashgar.

Turpan is well-known for a few reasons. For one, it’s a big producer of grapes and wine; unfortunately, we had just missed the grape festival and we didn’t end up getting any decent wine. Turpan also happens to be situated in a valley that, come summertime, records the hottest average temperatures in all of China, the south included. Because Turpan is so hot and dry, it is also famous as the home of some of the oldest and best-preserved archaeological sites in the country, including the ruins of a town (Jiaohe) dating from the BCs.

Fortunately, we happened to arrive just on the heels of Turpan’s annual rainfall (literally: they get only a handful of millimeters a year), so temperatures were reasonable; the German, the one British student who hadn’t gone home yet, and I were all able to rent bikes and head down to the ruined city together. Without a tour guide Jiaohe isn’t much more than a bunch of rocks and ruins, but we managed to find a guide who spoke a little English, and went on a merry little Chinglish tour of the town, the German and I translating for the Brit as well as we could.

On our way out, I got into my first shouting match in Chinese. A middle-aged man with an official-looking armband ran after us and grabbed the back of my bike as the three of us started to ride away, angrily informing us that he meant to collect our parking fee (3¥ the equivalent of $.45 USD) – which, incidentally, we had clearly agreed on our way in would not be collected because we were on bikes and didn't need him to watch them. On principle and with a supportive nod from some of the guys lounging on the side of the road, I was pretty stubborn about the whole thing; the German guy also got pretty angry and made as if to call the police, though I think we all knew it was an empty threat as Jiaohe is a small town and none of us wanted to tangle with local police over collection of local fees. The issue was resolved in the old man’s favor when his devious wife snatched my bike lock out of my basket and held it ransom, at which point I had no choice but to pay up the 3¥ and leave in disgrace.

Then it was off to markets, where I ate one of the most delicious foods in all of Xinjiang and indeed the world: Kentucky-fried lamb™. Xinjiang lamb on its own is already delicious, because a lot of it comes fresh from in-province lamb herders. But to make it even better, try this: take a massive piece lamb, cook, fry, bread lightly, and cut to size on request. It’s like lightly fried supermarket chicken meets Outback Stakehouse, and it’s quite literally mouthwatering.

Finally, after a brief session of cheating the railroad company and getting cheated by the railroad company, I was waiting for the train back to Beijing.

Weariness Sets In

Two weeks had passed, and by the time I left Turpan, I was tired of traveling. In fact, I began to feel tired as early as Kashgar. Maybe it was the constant motion: I remember calculating that I spent something like 1/3 of my time away from Beijing either on a train or on a bus. Maybe it was the baggage: minus my computer and some Chinese materials from HBA, everything that I’d bought for the year was on my back or in my hands. Maybe it was loneliness: I was really lucky to run into the British kids, but it’s not the same as hitting the road with a good friend. Or maybe I’m just not cut out for it. My hope, though, is that I was just going a bit too fast and hadn’t stayed on the road quite long enough to get “in the zone.” At any rate (sorry, mother), I don’t intend to give up the practice.

The Road Home: The Two-Day Train to Beijing

Ever since I got it into my head that I wanted to go to Xinjiang over break – and this was probably back in April – I had been excited to take the Urumqi-Beijing train, especially after reading this article. I found my experience less picturesque than the article (you know how they are, those journalists), and admittedly it would have been nice to have a seated ticket, but in the end I was not disappointed. On the Beijing-Urumqi line, the potential for camaraderie that I described above increases with time spent together, and by the end of 40-some hours, in your head you actually start calling some of your fellow passengers “friends.” It felt different for me from the raw closeness that naturally arises on a road trip – on the train, the language barrier and the number of people diluted the ‘fellow travelers’ effect – but that said, by the time we arrived in Beijing I could barely remember a time when we were all strangers.

I was lucky. I ran into a group of college students who were more than willing to play musical chairs and let those of us with standing tickets take turns resting our legs. A few members of our cast of characters: the Uyghur university students, some of them going to take a year of “preparatory courses” to improve their Mandarin before attending regular university; the invincible quality control inspector, whose stamina was evident in his ability to both stand and talk for long periods of time and who like most middle-aged Chinese men had a lot of generalizations to make about our two countries; the 2nd-year student at a university in Harbin (哈尔滨, a city up in Manchuria), who had a fantastically sarcastic sense of humor and with whom I ended up going on a great midnight walk around Tiananmen and Qianmen in central Beijing while she waited for the next day’s train to continue her journey north.

The End

And then, it was over. I spent a night in the same hostel I had stayed at in June. The next day, I moved into the 4-star hotel rooms that double as one of MinDa’s foreign student dorms, and began the fall semester at ACC.

I apologize for any lack of depth, which I will add in later posts based on some of the notes I jotted down during the journey. At almost 7,000 words, this has already become longer than any paper I’ve ever written for any class (answering strings of questions for AP Government doesn’t count), and as I really don’t intend to make a book of it, I’m going to wrap it up right here. Congratulations to those who read through to the end; I hope you found it worth it, and even interesting. And last but not least, another plug for the Photobucket album, which has many more photos and translations for your viewing pleasure.

Wishing you a happy new year,

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ACC: End-of-Term Program Report

Before I begin to evaluate my fall-term experience, I want to emphasis that many aspects of it are not only subjective, but also unclear in my own mind. My level of satisfaction with my own Chinese ability, as everyone who knows me well can affirm, fluctuates wildly day by day; my memory of my Chinese proficiency at any given time in the past is correspondingly hazy, and is influenced heavily by the environment and interlocutors of my living situation at the time. Thus, making comparisons over time (i.e., gauging “improvement”) is extremely difficult. Separating the program’s part in this improvement from my that of other, contemporaneous experiences was never easy but for various reasons has been especially tricky this time around, and adds yet another layer of complexity to the problem of providing an accurate analysis of ACC itself.

Caveats dispensed with, you know I’ll do my best. I’ve broken down my analysis of 4th year at ACC (Associated Colleges in China) into four areas: curriculum and teaching materials; instruction methods; teachers, staff, and administration; and student life. I will also try to make some comparisons with HBA along the way, as I have the unique perspective of having taken 4th-year Chinese at both programs.

Curriculum and teaching materials:

Both (non-summer) academic terms at ACC are split into four “classes”; these classes have official and somewhat nebulous names, but in reality they are the following:

1.     Modern Chinese. This is ACC’s “core class,” and its purpose is vocabulary building. Readings are mostly from articles prepared by ACC/Hamilton (ACC’s parent college) itself, and are (as expected) chock full of vocabulary. Although I had seen some of it before (a small portion in Yale’s 3rd-year class and more while at HBA), I was still pushing 60 new words per night, which after long periods of intensive Chinese education I have come to consider the maximum number of which I can retain an acceptable percentage in the long-term. One of the textbook’s strengths is that it does build vocabulary, and its new words and expressions are on average more often seen and heard in everyday life than much of what we learned at HBA. On the other hand, one would occasionally hear teachers grumble that some of these words are no longer frequently used; others, so specialized that we may never see them again. This is one of all students’ biggest qualms with every Chinese program in existence: We don’t know how to say “roof” or “your shoe is untied,” but we do know how to say “inanimate” and “irreconcilable differences.”

Problems specific to ACC: First, the text itself is nothing more than a set of articles and lists of new vocabulary: there is no emphasis on grammar whatsoever, and in the instances in which more complicated grammatical structures do present themselves the student must either go to office hours or (more likely) wait until the next day’s class to understand. Also, there is also a complete failure to distinguish between formal and informal diction. The textbook’s English translations of new vocabulary are extremely accurate (unlike at HBA, where I would often enter every word into a reliable online dictionary just to make sure), and also very thorough (at HBA I would often have to look up words that were new to me but had not been included on the list); however, adding one sample sentence per word and sentence pattern, a feature I really admire about the Yale 3rd-year text, would work wonders.

2.     Classical Chinese: 古代汉语 is a fairly simple supplementary class, taught once a week on average, which focuses on very short stories in classical Chinese, most of which are result in 成语. {Chengyu are 4-character phrases that usually contain a very specific meaning and often have historical or literary roots; e.g., “shaving a pestle to make a needle” means “indomitable persistence,” and comes from a story we read in this class about how the unrelenting pestle-shaving of a very determined old woman inspired a one-time scholar to go back to his studies.} Very little preparation was required, except before tests; the class was essentially fun, and somewhat informative in that we learned a few and more importantly picked up a basic feel for classical Chinese and an understanding of the roots of some current Chinese words.

The whole exercise was at times a bit of a fiasco, though: there was, for no good reason other than that we needed to be tested, an unreasonable emphasis on translation from classical to modern Chinese. This was ridiculous both 1) because an understanding of the idea in the classical text did not (for us) equal an ability to accurately represent that idea in modern Chinese, and 2) because classical Chinese is very idea-based (it’s a fantastically concise language) and thus often open for interpretation, which was evident in the varying explanations of individual words or phrases given by teachers, textbook, and tests.

3.     Media: One half of the media course was a textbook of real newspaper and magazine articles. Most had no dates on them (I think they were compiled mid-’90s), some of the vocabulary within got extremely specialized, and the amount of new words in each article would often reach 90 or 100; in short, the class suffered from an even more serious content problem than Modern Chinese. On the other hand, the articles were real, and that’s not to be underestimated: they took contemporary issues as their topic, and they were not written by teachers or directed at students of Chinese.

Media class had a second half to it: Chinese film. If ACC’s image in my eyes could be rescued, this would definitely be its saving grace. Put simply, we set aside two weeks during the term to watch two different Chinese films. We were given the movie (probably copied illegally), a full script (also questionable), and a list of vocabulary, and asked to start by watching the film once through. Then, Sunday through Wednesday night, we would prepare one quarter (20-40 minutes) each evening. Film class was a fantastic exercise in listening and a great way to teach colloquial expressions, and I will be taking it as a model for a large portion of my independent study when I return to Beijing.

4.     Independent Project/Report: It’s tough to say why no one’s (that I saw) turned out particularly well, but I’m inclined to think that the major reason was that adding a requirement for independent research to an already heavy workload was simply too much; even those who started off with a strong interest in their topic found that in the end they simply had no time to create an impressive final product. Other possible reasons: Students found that they did not have access to the enough information (or at least nothing compared to the accessibility and readability of public databases in the U.S.), could not reach or communicate effectively with sources… or were simply lazy and only cared about getting a passable grade and moving on. In terms of benefits to the student, it’s unclear to me what the thrust of this class/project was – the best I can think up is the very broad goal of “skill-building,” or “practice,” as tasks comprised translation (one article, English-to-Chinese), reading comprehension (6 articles or pieces thereof in Chinese, and responses), dialogue (interview), and writing (aforementioned reading responses, and 3 drafts of the report), and speechcraft (two oral reports on the progress and conclusions of our research).

I personally started out with high hopes and a master plan: I would use the pretext of researching children’s television to watch a lot of easy TV programs and improve my listening. As it turned out, I had less time on my hands and enjoyed watching the popular kids’ programs much less than I had expected. I also found the project’s requirements and my own interests pushing me into a research-and-analysis paradigm. Combined with serious time constraints and the fact that I got along quite well with my teacher, what resulted was a semi-intellectual, very non-academic, 4,000-character report synthesizing some observations (my own and others’) on the characteristics of Chinese television.

Instruction Methods:

The quality of instruction at ACC was, in a word, disappointing. I had just come from HBA, where the teachers were on the whole inexperienced but extremely effective and where I could very much feel the learning that was going on each day. Come September, I was disheartened to find that a program as comparatively old and established as ACC, with its comparatively large and experienced body of teaching staff, could make me feel like going to class was such a massive waste of time.

The first problem with ACC’s teaching is a classic one, shared by every single program that promotes itself as “rigorous” (including HBA): there is not enough class time in a day for every student to use all of the vocabulary prepared the night before. But a bigger problem is that most courses (movie class aside) lack focus and purpose. In HBA 4th year, we had, by way of example, a segment specifically aimed at improving our debating skills; a series of texts filled with descriptive words and metaphors; and all throughout, class was clearly focused on repetition and application of grammar and sentence patterns. In ACC, on the other hand, it’s all a constant smattering of new words, each receiving about as much emphasis as the next and none focused on improving our Chinese thematically or grammatically.

ACC large/drill classes (大班课 & 小班课, 1 hr ea) also lacked the important element of creativity, which is vital to mastering (and showing an instructor that one has mastered) a new word or phrase. I question the educational value of constantly repeating sentences given to us by a teacher, or answering very pointed question with the sentence that we hope is precisely what the teacher wants to hear. And I feel that said educational value diminishes even further when these sentences are spoken together with classmates and with the teacher: ACC students quickly perfect the art of speaking in short bursts of one to four characters, appearing to speak “together” and “with the teacher” but really usually a few tenths of a second behind. I appreciate a challenge, but if the teacher is always speaking too fast while not realizing that students are mimicking instead of keeping up with her (in the muttering of five voices, especially when they include one’s own, it is of course hard to tell who is really on top of things and who is just pretending), then the student’s brain is simply not processing full sentences in Chinese. This is of course a huge problem – consider the importance of grammar, or the necessity of putting vocabulary in context.

Another reasons why students were often behind, and confused, was that teachers would make mistakes so often that I just wanted to stand up and scream. To give an example that works in English, imagine that in practicing the phrase “to make ___ one’s first priority,” a teacher first says, “I would make attending college my first priority, everything else comes after that,” and then asks us to repeat the sentence. While repeating it with us, without realizing she says “university” instead of “college.” Naturally, it’s all the same to her; whereas we students, already struggling to keep up with her speed, are completely derailed. I consider this a defect in teacher training, as this is a fault prevalent in ACC but nearly nonexistent at HBA.

As for discussion class (1 hr), a lot depended on the topic and classmates, but I rarely felt that I made gains there. Admittedly this was in large part because I was “re-taking” fourth year, and so unsurprisingly I found myself to be one of the best speakers (or perhaps the best?) in my year; thus it was hard to pick up anything from the others but a few bad habits and some vocabulary I had forgotten or never learned. That said, discussion class by its very nature was in my opinion not particularly helpful to most other fourth-years either: topics included everything from “how children should be disciplined” to a few instances of “I would compare [character] to [free choice of inanimate object] because [reason],” and as a rule had nothing whatsoever to do with anything we were learning in any of our texts. Worse, we often had to do homework in preparation for the class, which always felt like a huge waste of time. (I could not help feeling that writing a defense of my comparison between the main character of the movie “Stay Cool” and a cargo train was not exactly the best use of my late-night study time.)

One-on-one class (1 hr) was, in a word, a good idea. Here there was also a clear lack of training and standardization (I spent one class in what can only be described as an interrogation about my views on happiness and love), but the enterprising student could usually steer it toward what he or she wanted to talk about, and most ACC students enjoyed one-on-one sessions. Personally, I oftentimes wished for the opposite – I wanted the teacher to lead me in more directed practice of new vocabulary – but I also tended to not have the energy or motivation to steer the conversation there myself, so in the end I should take most of the responsibility for any disappointments encountered in one-on-one.

Homework: In complete contrast to the very directed, review-oriented homework at HBA, ACC’s homework had a very cobbled-together feel to it. Not only was some of it clearly quite literally done in a rush the night before (more than a few times, our discussion class homework lacked clarity or contained errors; once or twice it flat-out didn’t make sense), but very few assignments actually required us to apply vocabulary learned in the past few weeks. Essays were rare – 4 in a 12-week term, compared to HBA’s 6-ish in 8 weeks – and I only remember one in which it seemed appropriate to use recently learned vocab.

Testing: ACC’s tests were stricter than HBA’s, because (a bit ironically) the former were largely vocab-based and an excellent (not “good”) grade required one to do some vocab review on one’s own. However, the actual difficulty of the tests – as measured in the speed of the listening portion, the difficulty of the reading comprehension, and the complexity required of written responses – was not up to the challenging standard I had been faced with over the summer. The review materials for each week’s test were excellent in that there was always one portion focused on vocabulary, one on new short phrases and 成语, and one on word choice (e.g., the difference between “to take” and “to accept” responsibility) – though the latter category was rarely true “review,” and should instead have been categorized, “important things we should have taught you in class.”

Teachers, Staff, and Administration

Teachers: I have little to say. As everywhere, ACC 4th year had a range of teaching talent, passion, and experience; however, as I learned at HBA, deficiencies in any of these areas can be supplemented by good training. ACC clearly lacked that training, especially in preparing teachers to lead the (slightly) larger lecture and drill classes: the only one whose class I ever truly looked forward to was the head teacher, Li Hongyan, a woman in her forties who had clearly been at the job for a long time and was adept at everything from adjusting the speed of the class to answering detailed questions about connotations.

Staff: Always helpful, though I have my suspicions about their methods. (A friend’s visa extension was secured through dubious methods made possible by a comparatively large sum of money; also, some of the teachers suspect ACC is operating under the radar, because employees have never had payroll taxes deducted by the government. It’s China, friends.)

Administration: My feelings about the director, Zhang Yin, are very conflicted. I had read very, very good reviews of her in nearly every past review of ACC, so I had very high hopes going into the semester – and indeed, she seemed to meet those expectations when, only a few weeks into the semester, she scheduled a short meeting with every single student to discuss their adjustment and any concerns they might have. However, I found that when I did voice my concerns about things like curriculum and policy, I felt distinctly brushed aside. (For example, I told her I thought that the policy of ‘no notes during lecture class’ was counterproductive; she told me she would “open a door” and allow me to take notes but didn’t seem concerned about the larger question of whether or not the policy was a good one.)

During the semester, I became fairly close with one of my teachers, so I heard a lot of things that I doubt any of the other students ever realized, and it became very clear to me as the semester went on that the director’s focus on “putting students first” often came at the expense of the teachers themselves. Whenever a student complained (and they would, with or without cause), it was automatically assumed that the teacher was at fault; the duties of teachers also tended to go above and beyond what they had expected when they signed on; and they, too, felt the ineffectiveness of much of what they and the program were doing. ACC 4th year had 2 head teachers and 9 ordinary teachers; of the latter 9, six had resigned before the semester was out. (A second-year teacher also quit near the end.) Some of this must be chalked up to a lack of connection with the students, a weak sense of responsibility, the high expectations of youth (most teachers were young women in their mid-twenties), and the self-feeding nature of the anger among a group of dissatisfied employees who only dare voice their complaints to each other and not their boss… but the intense dissatisfaction among both students and teachers in fourth year should not be taken lightly.

Student Life

ACC’s location is fantastic, and my experience outside of class was incredibly beneficial both to my Chinese proficiency and to my understanding of the local culture. In fact, this is probably a major reason for my dissatisfaction with the program itself: Everything else I was doing was so valuable to me that attending class felt like a crime. At first, I threw myself into extracurricular activities (ping-pong, Chinese chess, Go), started exercising again, and began the very helpful practice of watching Chinese TV. ACC gave me a “Chinese family” and a language partner, and every day I ate in a cafeteria surrounded by Chinese students of several different ethnicities. My roommate was in my opinion the best I could have possibly been paired with: always upbeat, more than willing to humor my cravings for games of Frisbee and Go, and serious about sticking to the language pledge. (I must admit to a downside of this: He was a 3rd year student, and his Chinese wasn’t the best. I know I was a huge help to him throughout the semester, and I’m glad I was able to play that part, but at the same time it wasn’t a terribly good for my own language skills.)

Then, about the fourth or fifth week, I began attending training sessions in preparation for Beijing’s ‘higher education foreign exchange student Chinese debate competition’; as we made it to the last round, what this meant in practice was something like an average of five hours of every day, 6 days a week, completely focused on debate. My classes slipped a little; other extracurriculars disappeared from my life; and we made it to second place out of 15 participating schools. I learned a lot, some of it foundational but much of it very specialized, and it was a trying but ultimately rewarding experience during which I also made the acquaintance of a whole gaggle of Chinese graduate students.

For those who have more time in their lives, ACC (at Minzu University/Central University of Ethnicities) is located just a few minutes’ walk from two subway stops, a string of great little restaurants and markets, and the largest library in China. The dorms are fantastic – the quality of a four-star hotel, though the hot water is provided on Chinese university terms (i.e., only for showers, at morning and night) – and in fact I would even place them above HBA’s famed Conference Center, provided you get along with your ACC roommate. There were a few students who had been at ACC over the summer (when the program was still based at the Capital University of Economics and Business, with its comparatively squalid dorms) and said that the isolation and ease of living at Minzu actually contributed to the distance that students felt between each other and between themselves and their teachers, which I can believe but can also forgive in light of the ease of studying in a comfortable environment where living conditions aren’t a concern.

What I Gained

Let’s break it down like we always do:
1.     Reading: A palpable improvement, following on the heels of an expanded vocabulary. This was ACC’s biggest success. Unfortunately, my speed did not improve in the least, as we were never pushed to read faster (especially on tests) and the amount of material we read was actually rather small all told.
2.     Writing: Besides an incremental improvement in my overall grammar and the addition of new vocabulary, my writing changed very very little from September to December. This is because, as I mentioned earlier, ACC’s writing assignments were few and unfocused.
3.     Listening: I could and can definitely feel my improvement – I have taken the first few steps away from the “only able to understand teachers” situation. There are two elements to listening: from a vocabulary point of view, I have ACC to thank, whereas the (very much ongoing) adaptation of my ear to the sounds of the language and the use of words in conversation has almost all occurred outside of class, particularly at debate, watching television, and especially spending time with the aforementioned teacher.
4.     Speaking: I have days when I feel I must be close to fluency, and days when I can barely express myself. In general, though, I can say that I have improved in my ability to express a wide range of emotions and opinions, though the vast majority of this is due to the non-ACC factors mentioned above.

I’ve typed out all of my thoughts, and they’re probably a jumbled mess – but at least there is a superstructure organizing them, which I hope the reader will find acceptable. If you can think of any aspect of ACC that interests you and I have neglected to touch on, please feel free to comment/reply/e-mail me; I will get back to you and/or edit my report accordingly.

But in sum, let me leave you with this wish: that my impending semester of independent study be five times as rewarding as ACC ever was. If it can be done, I will be sure to see it through.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Current Affairs

The large and the small, but not in that order.

I think that a special feature of hostels in China must be that they have slow Wi-Fi; either that, or they have some special feature enabled to impede proxies/virtual private networks, which we foreigners use to get around the Great Firewall [TM] and access restricted web sites… such as, for example, Blogspot. At any rate, of the two hostels I’ve been to in which I’ve used my laptop, both times the VPN was rendered useless because connection speed was so slow – just now, mine was running at roughly 1 kbps, which I imagine is just about fast enough to load a text file and a thumbnail image before your breakfast gets cold.

The Super Sleuths among you will have noted that I am at a hostel. This hostel is located in Shenzhen, a city of 4,000,000 on China’s southern coast, right across the channel from Hong Kong. ACC (the Chinese program) ended on Friday; I stayed in Beijing for a few days and arrived in Shenzhen last night. Five days from now, I plan to fly from here over to Taipei.

A word to the wise: Don’t eat Western hostel food in China. It is usually disappointing and always overpriced. I just ordered toast with jam and butter for 7RMB. I’m not sure what I was imagining – I think a large, golden-brown hunk of bread with a few spoonfuls of delicious preserves on the side and copious amounts of butter melted over the top – but what I got reminded me that I had sliced bread in my backpack and there was there was a toaster in the self-help kitchen that I could surely use to better avail than the hostel staff had when preparing my would-be breakfast.

It’s pretty chilly here, despite the fact that we’re in the south and there are palm trees lining the streets. The sun is warm and there are birds chirping outside, but I’m wearing the same coat I had on when I left Beijing. Based on longstanding government policy, the city itself has no system to provide heating – nor does any city south of the 长江 (Yangtze River), which has traditionally separated northern and southern China. {Fun geography fact: On Google Maps, unless you zoom in very closely or switch to Satellite View, you can barely find Yangtze or even the Yellow River. On the maps of Google’s Chinese competitor Baidu, on the other hand, the first three features of the Chinese map that appear when viewed from afar are the Yellow, the Yangtze, and Beijing. I wonder why it is that Google never considered the significance of the two rivers.} The temperature here will be rocketing up back toward 70F in the next few days; on the other hand I can only pity from afar the folks in southern Anhui and thereabouts who, 600 miles north of where I am right now and just coming out of a recent snowfall, have no central heating either.

I feel a little bit like I’m already in Taiwan: my roommate is from Taipei, as by my reckoning are at least half of the guests here – probably more, judging by the number of Chinese-looking young people. (One exception: the Jane Goodall- like character smoking a pipe outside the patio door.) Anyway, it’s getting me more and more excited to go back to my old digs in Taipei.

But as it turns out, I’m not going to be staying in Taiwan for long; in the past week, my plans for the next half of the year have completely changed. In brief, I have decided that I will not be attending the ICLP Chinese language program from January to June as I had originally planned, and will instead spend those five months studying Chinese independently in the mainland. Because of this, I am forfeiting the second half of the Light Fellowship, and will be funding myself instead.

This was a big decision for me, and I didn’t make it lightly. As you probably know, I have been incredibly dissatisfied with ACC from the start. I will analyze ACC in more detail when I write my program report later this week, but in brief: while some of the blame for that can be laid directly at the feet of ACC itself, in other respects the causes of my dissatisfaction exist in some form or another in all available Chinese language programs. These defects include but are not limited to:
  1. Core curriculum focused on vocabulary-building, which is inevitably peppered with words and expressions that the reader will never, ever see or hear again in real life
  2. Extended interaction with other foreigners, whose Chinese is probably not terribly good
  3. Artificial language setting, to the extent that “classroom Chinese” and “street Chinese” seem to be two separate tongues
  4. Homework and evaluations to ensure that you cannot pick and choose the amount of material that you know you can assimilate and the content which is important to you personally

These issues exist everywhere and are, for various reasons not discussed here, unavoidable – at best, they can be mitigated to a limited extent. When it comes down to it, though, for me it is a question of time: I have 8 months left in China before I will be returning to Yale to finish my last two years of study, and I’m still what seems an impassable gulf away from attaining my goals in the Chinese language. I want to seize these eight months and squeeze them for all they’re worth, and I’m dead certain that at ICLP, spending 4 hours in class and however many hours on homework every day would just be an impediment to my doing so.

Why do I think that independent study would be better?

I’ve spent over two years and the equivalent of 8-10 semesters of Chinese education building a base in the language, but I can’t focus all of my attention on that base forever. It’s already pretty solid, in fact; I just need to climb up on top of it and use it as a springboard to reach the next level. That base is, in fact, solid enough to allow me to focus on what my Chinese needs most right now, which is natural learning. By that I mean: I can have conversations with people and not get completely lost. I can read articles and books and not be completely overwhelmed. Most grammar points I no longer need explained, so now it tends to be a question of vocabulary, colloquialisms, listening comprehension, adoption and adaption of what I know into my own speech and writing – essentially, components that come with familiarity and use. I can think of nothing more beneficial to my listening comprehension than watching modern Chinese TV and movies; nothing more beneficial to my speaking than talking with Chinese people; nothing more beneficial to my reading than reading more, particularly the sort of content (and thus vocabulary) that interests me personally. Writing is the main area in which it would be nice to see a teacher’s corrections… but on the other hand, as I recall the greatest benefit to my writing in English has always been the copious amounts of reading I did as a kid; we don’t even study grammar in school any more and I think I turned out alright.

All of that said, rest easy: I’m not so arrogant that I expect to have no questions. I will be planning my days, and that plan will include a certain amount of tutoring.

Speaking of which, I’ve been spinning out a few tentative plans in my head, all of them very simple. A typical Mon-Fri schedule should look something like this:
  • Read short form, e.g. newspaper or blog. 90 minutes. 20 min read-through, 70 min analysis and vocabulary building.
  • Watch TV episode or part of a movie. 90 minutes. 20 min watch-through, 70 min analysis and vocabulary building using subtitles.
  • Read long form, e.g., novel. 1 hour. 30 min read-through, 30 min analysis and vocabulary building.
  • Listen to BBC China Focus podcast. 30 minutes for two run-throughs.
  • Tutoring. 90 min. 1 hour questions (grammar, diction, and frequency of appearance of the past day’s vocabulary), 30 min directed dialogue practice using new vocabulary or expressions. If questions require less than an hour, extra time to be used in pronunciation practice.
  • Writing. 1 hour. Weave a story or article out of the most useful vocabulary/expressions from the past day.
  • Review. 1 hour. High-speed run-through of HBA and ACC materials from the summer and fall.
  • Stay grounded. 1 hour. Read some Chinese and world news.
  • Personal project: 2 hours, 3 times a week. This will begin with a translation of a Chinese high school history textbook, which I expect will take about a month, and then probably continue in the form of some sort of research or another.

And then of course there is the rest: eating, sleeping, cooking (?!), spending time with friends. If I find that I don’t have enough time for the basics, or that I’m trying to absorb too much material at once, or that one facet or another of my plan just isn’t working, then I’ll simply lighten or adjust my daily workload; one of the many fantastic things about independent study is that both method and schedule can be revised any time.

As for the weekend:
  • Work. 4-6 hours, depending on rates for Chinese tutors and on my own salary.
  • Read. Long-form. In English. I’ve lately had an unnatural craving for some Steinbeck and some Shakespeare, and there are also plenty of books – many of them about China – that certainly won’t be crossing themselves off my list.
  • Review. Something we rarely had time for at HBA or ACC: spending a reasonable amount of quality time with the past week’s material.
  • Have fun. I’m going to try to keep away from fellow foreigners: hanging out with one’s countrymen is, as it turns out, one of the only things that can’t be justified in the name of language learning when one finds oneself abroad. That said, my principle reason for returning to Beijing (as opposed to heading off to a warmer, cheaper, less polluted city anywhere else in the mainland) is that I have a lot of friends here, most of them either locals or university students. I fully plan to keep myself sane, and keep in practice communicating with real Chinese people, with regular KTV (karaoke) ventures and group meals. Also, there’s so much of Beijing that I still haven’t seen (including sites that most tourists visit in the first week here), so this will be a good opportunity to take advantage of what the city has to offer.

One thing that might throw a bit of a temporary wrench in the works is the Chinese New Year, which from everything I hear is going to be 3 weeks of life semi-shutting down as everyone goes back to their 老家 (“old home”) to be with family and relatives. I think it would be best for me to do the same – and in fact I’ve been invited by a few people already – but it’s a bit complicated in terms of who’s invited me and how well we know each other (in particular, the fact that I know their families not at all), so those three weeks starting at the end of January are still very much up in the air. At any rate, wherever I do end up going (or staying), I can take most of what I need with me without a problem.

Another question is much more practical: money. This doesn’t seem to be a problem, as I have something of a nest egg and plan to make up for its deficiencies by engaging in the very lucrative business of being a foreigner in Beijing (Laura is making recordings for the equivalent of 200RMB/$30 per hour… earnings which could cover a month’s rent for my apartment or a month’s worth of basic edibles in 7 hours’ time.

The last concern is the greatest cause for concern: the guv’ment. In the words of Malcolm Reynolds and most libertarians, “Governments exist to get in a man’s way.” I’m going to have to fly to Hong Kong from Taiwan and there submit an application for a 6-month, multiple-entry visa to the mainland. The problem is that whether or not I will be granted that visa is completely dependent on the mood of whoever’s handling my request, as they can (and, I hear, often do) request proof of a good reason to be spending so much time in-country, e.g., a sick relative. (And I will be up-front about this: none of my sick Chinese relatives are living in Beijing.) That said, from what I understand, the worst-case scenario is that I am given a 90-day non-renewable tourist visa… in which case I would just have to head off to Hong Kong halfway into my 6-month adventure and get a new visa. According to the office staff at ACC, who has experience with this sort of thing, renting an apartment should not be a problem no matter what kind of visa I’m on; and according to a friend, apartments are often signed on 3-month leases, so that aspect should be manageable as well. What worries me most is that I can’t find any of the official regulations in English online, and nobody I know in China seems to have any idea where the Chinese versions would be found. I’m sure they exist, but I don’t even know if they’re public or if so non-contradictory (like some of the English information on Chinese visa durations), and a lot seems to depend on the individual police/PSB offices. China is just… like this; we’ll have to see how things go. If all else fails I hear great things about the visa agents in Hong Kong, though going through them won’t be cheap.

I should note here that the Light Fellowship has been fantastically supportive in the face of my request to cut short what I had originally planned as a full year of Chinese study at Light-approved Chinese programs. Kelly (the director) was the first person with whom I talked this idea through; the Committee accepted my request within two days; and Ann (the secretary) had written me up a new budget and told me exactly what I needed to do to proceed. So although it will be unavoidably heartbreaking to return the second half of the fellowship, Light has made it as painless as possible and I really appreciate that.

I don’t think I can express strongly enough how excited I am for these next six months. For one thing, I’ll be self-directed; for another, I have very high hopes for improving my Chinese. Besides that, this will also be the first spring in 15 years in which I won’t been attending school, and definitely the first time I’ll be dealing with food and money and rent on my own. I think I might even feel a bit like an adult. It’s still a bit like training wheels, I guess, considering my money situation and the fact that my life will still be study-oriented and planned with only the short term in mind, but it will be a step nonetheless.

On to more immediate plans: I fly to Taiwan on Wednesday and will stay there for three weeks. Jun Xiang (my language exchange partner and friend from last year) will meet me and has invited me to his family’s Christmas party on Thursday, at which I’ll be the surprise guest. I’m really, really excited to see their reaction to the improvement my Chinese has made in the past year and change. The rest of the time I will consider as my winter break: if it’s not too chilly, I might do some of that traveling I never got around to last year (Taroko Gorge, Sun-Moon Lake, etc), hit the beach near the southern city of Kaohsiung, etc. But as I don’t have the feeling of epic financial backing that comes with Light I also hope to be writing and reading in (gasp!) English for a while.

While I wait for Wednesday, I’ll be catching up on some blogging and some e-mails. On that note, I’ll end with an apology to the handful of you with whom I’ve completely dropped out of touch, to avoid that apology polluting the opening of the e-mail you’ll be receiving from me soon. It goes like this: I want you to know that, very often, I find the writing of long e-mails intimidating, so much so that I just can’t bring myself to sit down and do it unless I’m faced with vast stretches of free time. I meant to send you an e-mail, and I knew it would be long, because there was a lot that I wanted to say – so, perversely, months passed and nothing was said at all. Please forgive me, and if you feel even more magnanimous, let me know that you haven’t forgotten me. I’ll be in touch soon.

Your beacon of holiday spirit in the Far East,