Archive for June, 2008

I live in a world where if something’s broken, it’s because you haven’t fixed it yet.  Unfortunately the Chinese speaking world is not taking bug reports, fixes or optimizations for the Chinese language!  I have come to realize that when you commit to learning a language, you are choosing to accept it the way it is, with all its imperfections and quirks, because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about them…

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So I made it through my first couple of weeks of HBA. I don’t quite know how though — so far we have covered eight weeks of Harvard 3rd year Chinese syllabus material in two weeks, which includes hundreds and hundreds of new vocabulary words and thousands of words of Chinese text. It is amazing to me how much easier Chinese dialog is after only two weeks of being so fully immersed too.

HBA is a pretty amazing enterprise… 97 students this year and 150 teachers (50 core teachers and 100 tutors)! We have several classes each day, one covering new grammar and vocab, one practicing reading Chinese fast and out loud, a couple of classes where you’re drilled like soldiers on what you’re learned, and a one-on-one conversation session for 50 minutes. The teachers are mostly really nice but are more committed to this and have less room for slack than in any course I have ever taken — if you’re literally one minute late to class your cellphone will start ringing and they’ll ask you where you are.

HBA is using the campus of a pretty prestigious language university in the “university district” located in the NW corner of Beijing. The campus is not bad, and the dorms are small but pretty decent. There are *lots* of other students wandering around the campus at all times of the day, and they have come from all over the place: either Chinese studying English, or from somewhere else studying Chinese. For some reason, something is very comical to me about standing in line at the store behind a tall Nigerian guy, and hearing him speak Chinese with a Nigerian accent 🙂

The Chinese food here so far has been amazing, so much better than “Chinese” food anywhere outside of China. I was starting to feel rather invincible after so far having deftly avoided coming down with a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge, while many of my tongxuemen (classmates) have not been so lucky. I have tried to only drink bottled beverages, peeled everything that’s peelable, avoided salads, avoided some of the stranger foods available, etc. — but got wiped out for a day with some nasty bacterial GI tract infection a couple of days ago — the first time I have thrown up in years. I did have to marvel at how good the body is at identifying a problem, isolating it, and then either backing it out of the system or fast-tracking it through the system as quickly as possible so it can’t cause further problems…

Mmmmmmmmm… chicken feet…

We haven’t had much time to travel around Beijing because the study is so intense. Each Saturday though there is a group outing planned. Last weekend most HBA students went to the Great Wall at Simatai. I decided not to go because I went to Simatai on my first trip to China a couple of years ago, and I was gasping for mental breath after the first week of classes, so I thought it would be a good idea to get ahead of the class in order to have some hope of keeping up over the coming week. I think that worked, the second week was easier in some ways.

Yesterday (Saturday again) the HBA group outing was to go and see a Beijing Opera performance (called “Jing Ju” in Chinese), one of the oldest forms of performing arts in China. It includes (high-pitched screetchy) singing, dialog and poetry, dance, music and even martial arts. I have to say that watching it was more fun than studying about it, learning the Chinese word for “oil-based face paint” is no fun when you still feel crippled at the supermarket because you don’t know how to ask where the laundry soap is. That’s one of the problems with the Harvard program in some ways — because many people taking Harvard Chinese are taking it because they need to read ancient Confucian texts or understand the nuances of a 4th Century Chinese poem, even though by the end of the second year we can explain the difference between the Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist views of the afterlife, we don’t always know the most practical words for on-the-street usage of Chinese…

There’s a small but great LDS YSA group out here… to start with, “Kaiqin” (Kenneth B, one of the guys in the program) is in one of the YSA wards in Boston, he has been in all my Chinese classes so far. “Sister Sevy” is randomly in the ward in Beijing, I previously met her when she served as a missionary in Boston, and we somehow figured out that she had just come from my brother David’s BYU ward in Provo… weird small LDS world that we live in. I also ran into an LDS guy in the supermarket next to the campus who knows my sister Geri from NuSkin trainings in NZ and Provo. And I met another guy at Church with the last name Hutchison (only the second time that’s ever happened…). His family goes back to Pennsylvania but then he doesn’t know where before then.

The Church meets in a rented office building in Eastern Beijing, the Chapel space is permanently rented so looks like a Chapel inside, but the rest of the floor is just rented out on Sundays for classes. That means we get an awesome James Bond-like boardroom for Elders’ Quorum lessons, and leather chairs that I think would meet Mr. Bond’s standards. At the start of every Sacrament meeting they hand out and read a flyer about the policy that has been negotiated with the government that allows us to hold meetings, and specifically deals with (not) talking to Chinese nationals about the Gospel: Chinese nationals are not allowed to attend our meetings, we’re not allowed to distribute Church materials to Chinese nationals, or bring extra materials into the country, and Chinese members who were baptized overseas can hold their own supervised meeting but neither other Chinese nor non-Chinese are not allowed to attend that meeting. There are quite a few members from Taiwan and Hong Kong that attend, and about half the ward speaks Chinese either partly or fluently, especially because there are a lot of people who served missions in Taiwan. There’s also a Korean Sunday School class on Sundays, which I attended today and realized how much studying Chinese is messing up my Korean…

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Shanghai, Wuhan

Over the next two months I’ll be living here in Beijing, taking classes at the Harvard Beijing Academy (HBA),. We cover a week’s (Harvard) 3rd year syllabus every day! The nice thing is that the only thing we have to worry about here is learning Chinese… you get your own dorm room on the campus of the Beijing Language and Culture University, and just eat/drink/sleep Chinese. We have a “language pledge” where we’re not allowed to ever speak anything other than Chinese for any reason the whole two months we’re here, except when calling home, and if they catch you speaking anything else three times then you’re out…

The Shanghai waterfront

On the way to Shanghai we flew almost directly over the North Pole from Chicago direct to Shanghai! — quite amazing. It was a very long flight, at least 13 hours. My luggage didn’t turn up on the same plane as me. I have bad luck with this — my luggage has been delayed on about 1/3rd of all flights the flights I have taken in the last few years. I was told once it’s because I take cheap multi-carrier flights, and I should never check my luggage all the way through. It’s starting to be something I almost expect as standard, despite the fact that a friend of mine, who spends 95% of her time traveling, has never once had a single bag turn up on a different flight from her.

Shanghai, check out the enormous tower in the background…

Despite the usual crowding and crazy traffic situation, Shanghai was much cleaner and better-developed than I expected. Lots of tourists, especially Chinese (not just foreigners). I honestly didn’t get to see much of Shanghai due to time and having to sort out the luggage problem, but I saw the obligatory waterfront view with all the amazing buildings, and visited three of the main shopping areas: one long street with tons of huge bright signs and lots of people, a big traditional palace-like shopping area near a famous “ancient Chinese style” garden, and an area with huge electronic gadget markets. The gadget market was awesome, so many cheap gadgets at such cheap prices — unfortunately I left it to last and ran out of time… however I was amazed at how you can buy *anything* in China you can buy anywhere else — everyone has the latest Canon Powershot cameras, laptops, Nokia cellphones, etc. I saw the biggest Best Buy store I have ever seen there, prices were about 15% higher than the States but they had everything, including a monster 104″ plasma TV selling for USD$110,000… that’s a lot bigger diagonally than I am tall…

The electronic shopping district in Shanghai

I also went through Wuhan on my way to Beijing. Last time I was in China, I met a cool Chinese kid by the name of Eric and we biked way out into the beautiful countryside of Yangshuo in southern China. Eric happened to be flying into Shanghai the same day as me, and then on to Wuhan to visit his girlfriend. He mentioned at the Shanghai airport that he neglected to tell me he was going to Wuhan to get *married* to his girlfriend the next day so he could take her back to Australia with him where he’s studying English…

Wuhan is the biggest city you’ve probably never heard of. It’s amazing how easy it is to keep living each day of life completely unaware of the existence of cities of millions upon millions of people in various corners of the world.


Once I arrived in Wuhan, I spent the day visiting some sights with Eric, including the Yellow Crane Tower, which holds a place of deep importance for all Chinese. It’s a large traditional pagoda-style building, quite impressive given that it is (or at least used to be) built mostly out of wood.

The Yellow Crane Tower

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