Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Goodbye, China

As I start writing this from the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the African adventure that has been many months in the planning is finally starting to unfold. But I realize that I haven’t updated my blog in almost two months, so I want to look back before I look forward.

The final chapter of my China experience was a whirlwind. First I was preparing a tour for Michael (my old brother) and Cat (his girlfriend); then I was giving them the tour, often to places I had never been; and then I was juggling homework (I had to finish that TV show), preparations for leaving China/going to Africa (I spent four hours just setting up an international wire transfer at the Bank of China), and spending time with my increasingly-unhappy-about-parting girlfriend (more on that later; I have a half-written post that I’ll work on again when I’m in the mood).

Now I finally have time to take a breather and look back.

I spent over a year in China – June 3, 2010 through June 6, 2011. I passed through Shanghai (twice), stayed in Shenzhen, made a place in my heart for Jinan (Shandong province), traveled to the grassland and desert of Inner Mongolia (summer and winter), saw the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’An, entered the Thousand Buddha Caves in Dunhuang, climbed the highest dune in the Singing Sands, got food poisoning in Kashgar, ghosted through Urumqi (also twice), got chased by an angry toll collector in Turpan...

That said, the great majority of my time was spent in Beijing. I made friends (some of whom I might see in the U.S. this August), ate delicious food (how will I live without it?), saw the sights (Great Wall x3, and the third time was the best), met women (one of whom was fantastic in many ways; but The One still eludes me), accumulated some work contacts and experience (I hope to never be part of the Beijing English-tutoring industry again), and generally enjoyed a lifestyle very unlike the one I had at Yale.

And yet, most of my time was spent studying, and almost all of it was spent improving my Chinese – so (surprise!) that’s what I really want to talk about.

As Kelly from the Light Fellowship once said, “‘Proficiency’ is a moving target.” My goals, strengths, problem areas, etc have definitely all morphed throughout this year, so to get grounded I want to look back at the objectives I set for myself during the second week of HBA last summer.

From this very blog:

“When people ask, I tell them that I hope to come back "proficient" - I hope to be able to hold regular conversations without getting a blank look on my face every 30 seconds, and I hope to be able to read books and articles, albeit probably pretty slowly. Writing is something I care less about; I believe that's a skill that comes with a lot of reading. Which brings me to my real benchmark for success: When I leave China, will I be an independent learner of Chinese?

When reading, I want to be at a point where word banks and lists of grammar/sentence patterns are efficiently replaced by context clues and/or some flipping through a (Chinese) dictionary. When conversing, I want to be able to pick out the words and phrases I don't know and ask people what they mean (as opposed to giving them a "huh?"), and I want my spoken Chinese to be good enough that I can correct a handful of misused words and grammar every few days. I don't know that these goals are attainable, but I also know that I'll be pretty crushed if I don't get there.”

So am I an independent learner of Chinese?

From a reading and writing perspective: Pretty much. When I get back to Yale, I plan to read newspaper articles and continue with my translation of that history textbook that I started in January. I might have to ask some questions now and then, but by far most of the new material will be vocabulary that I can simply look up. I don’t know how “efficient” that is – I think I may have been envisioning reading books the way I did when I was in elementary or middle school, often picking up words from context without having to look them up in a dictionary – but it’s acceptable, and Yale will be a good place to improve my reading/writing further.

From a listening/speaking perspective: yes and no. I understand much more than I used to, and I can hold my own in a conversation depending on my interlocutor, but even as I finished off the last few episodes of 蜗居 I found that I still needed help with the meanings/shades of meaning/implications of a handful of words or expressions each time – and for that I need a teacher, or at least a native speaker with whom to consult. As for listening comprehension in the real world, in many cases I can now pick out words that I missed, just as I envisioned; but in many others, whether it’s because of speed, an accent, or a higher concentration of words I have yet to master, I have to say “come again?” and wait to be given the redux version. I’ve been having reasonable luck with the Chinese in the airport and on the plane – I was particularly proud of understanding one businessman when he told me that his company makes water pumps, a word I learned while watching Chinese news reports about the Fukishima reactor – but I’ve had to ask them to repeat themselves quite a few times already, too.

How should I summarize this?

I guess I should say: I’m satisfied with my gains, but I think I need another year. I would love for that year to be spent as a student directly enrolled in a Chinese university (i.e., not as part of an “international exchange program” or “language and culture scholarship”), but given certain realities (scholarship issues; 1 year max on leaves of absence from Yale) that seems unlikely to happen.

I’m also very interested to see how well my Chinese will hold up in a work environment; I’ll be finding out pretty darn soon.

A farewell to China shouldn’t just be a farewell to the Chinese language. Here are some things I’ll miss, and things I won’t miss, from day-to-day life. In no particular order:

1. The food. People name this as their #1 regret pretty often, and get laughter or disrespect or sometimes even feelings of offense in return... but I really will miss Chinese cuisine. I’ll miss the price – I ate three square meals for $4.50 every day – but most of all I’ll miss the countless delicious dishes. I won’t expound too much in this category, but I will say that 1) the selection of Chinese vegetables is so much more varied than your classic choices in the U.S.; 2) lamb is, after pork, a meat of the everyman; and 3) the Chinese mastery of spices and sauces is utterly unparalleled. [It took me three tries to spell that word right.] HOWEVER (and, to be fair, there must be a ‘however’), I’m absolutely pumped for Italian food, simple dishes (boiled vegetables!), decent-tasting sweet things, dairy (especially CHEESE), and a juicy Prime 16 burger when I get home.
2. I’ll miss the dining culture. (Yes: food again.) When Chinese people get together for dinner, it’s always loud, meals are ordered together and eaten together, family members or close friends will place tasty morsels on each other’s plates/bowls, and someone will often stand up and take the check for the entire table. There’s a certain amount of pressure involved in every one of these aspects of the dining culture, but I also think they make for an incredibly communal experience.
3. My status as a foreigner. By the end of my stay, I felt like I was fitting in fairly well with my environment – that, partly because people got used to me and partly because I adopted the speech and attitude of one who belongs, I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb everywhere I went. (A little secret: You know your Chinese has progressed beyond a certain level once people stop complimenting you on it and start conversing with you.) But foreign nationality – more specifically, white skin – gives you some extra padding. The fact that you stand out keeps you relatively safe from certain vicissitudes (e.g., government employees abusing their power), and the fact that you are clearly from far away invites feelings of hospitality. What I won’t miss is white skin equating to an invitation to a) be ripped off, b) become Random Guy X’s New Foreign Friend (TM), and/or c) be cast into a mold of preconceptions and stereotypes.
4. I’ll miss the ratio of my wages : prices on the street. Enough said.
5. I’ll miss, and not miss, the stereotypical Chinese girl. The fashion that borders on, and sometimes is, ridiculous... the (sometimes literally) unbearable cuteness... it can get obnoxious but it’s usually just great.    I will NOT miss the alternately faux-sensitive (feminine) and faux-macho (obnoxious) behavior of the stereotypical Chinese man.
6. I have a love-hate relationship with the Big City. Beijing, like any big city, is definitely a land of opportunity – a place where a friend of a friend can introduce you to your next employer, or you can come out of the subway station and run into an activity being run by a guy who is from your next destination. It is a place where everything is (relatively) convenient: of roughly 15 million people in the city center, any two of them can probably meet up within an hour. There are stores and services for everything you need, and plenty that you don’t. But it’s a horribly polluted city – my sinuses felt it every time the pollution got extra bad – and transportation (especially surface transportation) is horribly overcrowded. If I could choose a medium/long-term workplace anywhere in China, I’d definitely settle on a smaller city, preferably somewhere with a better climate.
7. I will not miss... THE INTERNET. In the weeks before I left, I would go through long periods of inability to connect to any foreign servers whatsoever, and the majority of my time online was spent with a download rate of 20 kbps (5-10 if I was using my VPN). Goodbye, Great Firewall; I welcome the slow connections of Africa with open arms.

And that’s all from me, for now. More coming soon on my last weeks in Beijing and my first weeks in Africa.

Good-night, now from Dar es Salaam,

1 comment:

  1. Ethan: Yours has been one of the gutsiest, most admirable journeys I have seen a student take. Your critical reflection skills and understanding of the value in learning on your own will serve you immeasurably well.