The "Intensive" Chinese Experience

Realizing the necessity of language skills in foreign policy, rising senior Ashley Wood returned to Beijing for the summer to study Chinese at Peking University. Ashley studies political science with a minor in non-fiction creative writing, with involvement in journalism and election politics. Ashley has been funded by an Undergraduate Language Grant by the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Supplemental Undergraduate Grant from the Buffet Institute for Global Studies.

Week 8

After 8 weeks of class, I’m not really sure where my Chinese stands. It’s difficult to judge my progress because I chose to stick with an intermediate class a bit above my level for the program.

While I often feel embarrassed around my classmates, I realize almost all of them have objectively studied Chinese longer than I have. With language, vocabulary plays such a key role that this time difference is worth noting. However, even today during a skit a group performed in oral class to practice our new grammar, I noticed my fluency (in terms of how I sound when speaking and flow of my words) is alright within my class — “alright” being a positive term in this setting.

I aim to take the HSK 3 online in October, the Chinese test after one year of study. I do feel much better about my reading comprehension after this class. Because this class challenged my level, I was forced to remember and use vocabulary I hadn’t fully absorbed in previous classes to even meet the basic standards of the class. I definitely was not used to reading full pages of characters before this summer, and I no longer feel incredibly intimidated by characters.

I realized pausing to repeat a word in conversation or just diving right into text can help me push past the mental blockade that prevents so many language learners from using their new skills. I definitely felt that way in Spanish, but an immersive environment and higher level class prevents any shyness. When talking with native speakers or listening to the radio, I try to latch onto the words I don’t know and realize I do in fact understand the sentence once I pause, or I look up the word on Pleco. While at first I thought looking up so many new words wouldn’t really help if I don’t use the new word soon after, I realized this is more an exercise in recognizing vocabulary and inferring meaning while listening than an exercise in acquiring vocabulary.

Most days, my Chinese gets me down — I live with native speakers and even my friends here converse on a high level. However, I take pride in the moments where I can tell a taxi driver I understand him talking about driving a foreigner (lao wai) around and joke with him, the moments where I led my roommate from the U.S. around, or when I helped out friends just beginning Chinese on our Shanghai trip. It feels nice to hear people compliment my Chinese, but it’s hard to believe when they don’t speak Chinese at all. However, I do realize that I act like I live here, not like a study abroad student. I go new places, undaunted my potential language obstacles, and I make it through. This has to count for something.

In the next two weeks, I will dedicate my free time to reviewing key grammar and vocabulary from this summer to catch up when class went by too fast. Then, I hope to feel a bit more proud.

Chinese Development

I don’t even attempt to avoid the dirt path and subsequent puddles of the construction site as I enter campus. I think to myself that walking through an open construction site is a daily passage in China. I think this with more amusement than irritation, although I do cringe at open sparks flying and the noisy evenings when construction does not cease.

My thoughts on construction’s prevalence today are contextualized by my visit to Shanghai this past weekend. The city’s skyscapers are remarkable not only for they height and splendor, but also for how quickly they have risen to these heights.

The postcards in the Shanghai World Financial Center’s observation deck picture the skyline with an incomplete Shanghai Tower, a building I saw complete while visiting. I see how Beijing is changing every day in the midst of the nitty-gritty of change; in Shanghai, I saw what change, growth, and dynamism in a Chinese city look like when more fully realized.

My two and a half days in Shanghai comprised my only trip out of Beijing where I was the best Chinese speaker in the group. After failing in my grammar or vocabulary recall each day in Beijing, or generally feeling inferior and isolated around native or near-fluent Chinese speakers, feeling accomplished was a welcome change. I led our group around rather successfully, despite small adjustments to Shanghainese.

This week marks the second half of my eight week Chinese program. We switched teachers for both our oral and writing classes, and I really like these teachers. I learned a lot from the first month’s adjustments and feel I can study better. So far, I have understood much more of the grammar taught this week, and have felt more engaged in class. Things are looking up.

In challenges, we grow

I wake up late and plan to go for a run at the nearby campus track. I begin the motions of these plans, finding the right clothes, picking up my water bottle and stop myself.

Check the AQI, I remember. It’s at an unhealthy level.

I relapse into the confines of an air-conditioned bedroom, and wonder how an outdoors oriented individual can live in these limitations.

I’ve been in Beijing for three weeks now, studying Mandarin in an intensive program at Peking University. Bei Da, I say to anyone in Beijing – it’s an abbreviation for the Chinese name. The name holds a high prestige, a prestige that creates an embarrassing confusion for the many Beijing taxi drivers. They ask me where I’m studying in Beijing, creating some oohs and aahs. They subsequently realize the limitations of my Chinese.

The hours of Chinese each week (20) define the program’s intensive nature, but I counter that the intensity comes from the moments outside of class, the scrambling for a verb I once learned, the pauses to piece together the meaning of a street sign, the existential crises that hit me with alarming frequency.

But in challenges we grow.

I try not to complain about things like air quality, like the persistent meat in supposedly vegetarian dishes, the shoving Americans would consider rude on the subway. But I forgive myself for these thoughts, realizing these form my everyday experience. And Chinese is difficult enough, making this shaky foundation a difficult place to center myself for the intellectual challenge.