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,



  1. Find useful information for your trip to Buenos Aires.

    Hostels in Buenos Aires

  2. Laura is *planning* on working... right now there's just plans. If they hire me, which it sounds like they will, I can see if they want more people. :D

  3. Ethan: A hearty congratulations to you for taking ownership over your remaining time! This is a big step, but I'm convinced that you're going to get much more out of the rest of your experience this way (this invariably starts with such fun topics as sorting visas and such).

    Oh, and I failed to find good Internet speeds even at the Beijing Hotel, which I was told would be pretty swanky. This is fine, of course, except I had imagined a smooth time with my iPad in East Asia. Nope!