21st in Beijing and Tests for Days

So, I know it has been a few weeks since I’ve written for this blog. That’s due to a combination of being busy and also being a little lazy. The last two weeks in Beijing have been rather quiet. On September 16th, I celebrated my 21st birthday. The day itself was very low-key, because I had my Mandarin classes in the morning as well as a CAPA course in the afternoon. During that course, however, my professor surprised me with a bottle of Chinese alcohol. I assume that it is a traditional Chinese rice wine, but due to the 38% alcohol content, I’m not so sure. I haven’t opened it yet, because I’m saving it for a special occasion.

The rest of the week continued as normal with classes consuming most of my time. As a group, the girls, Colin, and I visited the Summer Palace. It had such breathtaking sights. It was a very serene experience there. The whole next week was very uneventful.

This week (September 28-October 4) is proving to be hectic. On Tuesday, I have a massive exam in my class that covers sixteen chapters of characters! Overall, my knowledge of about 220 characters will be tested on this exam. Most of the exam is comprised of writing, fill-ins, and reorganizing the order of words in sentences. I spent this whole past weekend studying with a girl from my class, Mollie, and I feel decently prepared. We will be studying later today and into the night. I realized that I know most of the characters, with only about forty that I find difficult to write from memory. I have spent a few hours practicing them and feel rather confident now. I hope that all this preparation pays off in the final grade for the exam.

Starting on October 1st, the National Holiday begins inChina. It commemorates the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and as such, it closes all forms of school for seven days. Although I don’t have any trips planned like many other students, I will be using the time to work ahead in my classes and to do some mystery adventuring around Beijing in order to become more familiar with the city, especially the non-tourist areas.

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Chinese Gardens and 白酒

This Tuesday, we spent our afternoon and evening in a very different way than usual. We were informed to meet our professor for our “Globalization of China” course at the gate of the university, because we were to see a traditional Chinese garden for class. Upon arriving at an apartment complex, the professor told us that we were about to meet one of the most famous garden designers in the country. We went up the elevator onto the floor that the designer owns. He owns the entire floor of the building. When we walked in, we saw a low-standing table, long enough to seat at least 10 people. We were told by our professor that we were going to be making our own Chinese garden under the tutelage of the master designer. Then, we entered what seemed to be a study or personal library to meet the designer. He was of average height, and sported a small beard. He did not speak English, and the professor interpreted for him. We were informed that we were going to take part in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at that very minute. The designer lit incense and prepared the tea. The tea was perfect. It has a very mild taste and as the professor said, was only used on very special occasions. We then were shown an ancient Chinese instrument, which appeared to be a flat-lying guitar. The designer played several songs with it and then invited each of us to play it a little. We did, and then he showed us his ancient sword collection. The designer is also an accomplished master of kung fu. He proceeded to explain that he was also trained in calligraphy. He then wrote our names in ancient calligraphy and wrote me a special birthday wish in the same manner. We then went to construct our Chinese gardens at the long table in the first room of the apartment. We started by adding soil to the pot we were given. Then, we were instructed to add a large rock, which symbolizes a mountain. We took small plants next and molded their soil against the rocks. The designer then gave us instructions to add moss to the side of the mountain where we had placed the plant life in order to fill in the unused space. After doing so, we added light brown pebbles and crystals to the soil to replicate a river. We were then handed a small water bottle and told to spritz the garden with two full bottles upon creation. Once we had finished our gardens, the designer told us to get into a car, because we were all going out to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in his hometown’s food. The dinner was enormous and included a variety of vegetables, fish, soups, seahorse, and beef. The designer also surprised us with two bottles of red wine and a bottle of bai jiu, or white rice wine. The bai jiu was very strong and reminded me of rum. After the meal, he thanked us for being great pupils for the last few hours and told us we were welcome back anytime we wished.

Episode 4

Monday, September1 – Sunday, September 7

As a warning, now that Mandarin classes have started, there is no longer that much free time in my schedule. Each week, I will have about fifteen hours of instruction in the language. The language is taught in three different sections: grammar/writing, speaking, and listening. Each day, two of the sections are taught in 1.5 hour increments. Each section is taught by a different professor, so there is always variety in the day. The grammar/writing section is the most intense and frequent, as it is held daily for the hour and a half. My week will break down as follows: 7.5 hours per week of grammar/writing, 4.5 hours of speaking, and 3 hours of listening. All of my classes fall between 8:30 and noon each except Wednesdays, when my classes run 10:20-11:50 and 1:30-3.

I’m really enjoying the classes so far. I’m being challenged already in terms of quantity of material; we complete one chapter per day in the grammar/writing and have a dictation quiz the next day to ensure we know the material. My nights have been spent practicing my characters and memorizing tonal pronunciation of the words. The language is considered the most difficult in the world to learn, and the challenge has me very excited. Despite the hours of Mandarin, I also must still attend the English-taught courses that CAPA has scheduled. The CAPA events/excursions are now limited mainly to the weekends, as the organization realizes that there is no way to easily schedule them into the week.

The course work has really helped with my adjustment here. Any homesickness I had over the last two weeks has quickly disappeared due to not having much free time. This semester will probably be one of the more challenging of my college career, but I am very much ready to accept that challenge and rise to the occasion.

Episode 3

Episode 3

Monday (8/25)

Today, we all arose rather late in the morning. This was mainly due to the lack of having any predetermined plans for most of the day. Around 3:30 in the afternoon, we met with Colin in order to take a diagnostic exam, which is used to determine general knowledge of the country of China. Overall, the test dealt with more economic issues, the field in which Colin is an expert. Two of the girls and I took the evening being open to travel over to the Pearl market, a famous marketplace that usually sells knockoffs of American items. Although I did not purchase anything, I know I will likely do so before I leave the country.

Tuesday (8/26)

When we awoke today, we all knew exactly what our mission was: to get registered at the university for our Mandarin classes. Around 10am, we met Colin in the lobby and headed over to the other end of the complex to find the registration area. One down there, we had to show our admission notices and passports, have pictures taken, and continue with a confirmation process. Then, we received our information for the giant test-in, which determines the level of Mandarin you know. We all then dispersed until 2pm. At that time, we had our first English-taught course. Colin introduced us to the professor and then left. The professor told us that his degree is in Medieval European history, but we should rest assured that he is qualified to discuss the history of his nation. He told us to ignore the syllabus that we were provided by CAPA (my program) and that his idea for the course would be the way we progressed. He stated that the final exam will be a brief paper on a topic of our choosing, and that, along with attendance, would comprise our grade for the course. He went on to begin our first lesson about the ancient dynasties of China until he decided that the class should be ended. We left from the room rather happy with the professor and his ideology.

Wednesday (8/27)

Today was spent mainly relaxing and just exploring more of the local area. We did not have any scheduled events until the evening, and we took the opportunity to go about our own business and familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood. I walked around and discovered a supermarket with very fresh produce and a wider selection of general merchandise. I also discovered the deliciousness that is street dumplings. These dumplings are usually cooked by someone who sells them on the sidewalk to those who pass by. They will probably become a staple to my diet out here. We had class that evening for 6:30 at BCLU (Beijing Language and Culture University), which is a distance away from our campus. We left around 5pm in order to get on the bus to take us there. We got off at WuDaoKou, a famous shopping district that is very close to BCLU. We met Colin in front of one of the shops, and he escorted us to the university so we would know how to get there and where to go to meet the professor. We went to a cafe inside the campus where the professor had planned to see us. We all sat down and had a delicious vanilla tea and began to review the syllabus for the class. The professor and Colin will be dual-teaching the class, but it won’t meet every week, because some of the CAPA events will cut into Wednesday evenings. After reviewing the syllabus for about 2 hours, we concluded class and began to head back to our campus. We then went out to grab a light dinner from the local street vendors, who were enthused to see foreigners buying from them.

Thursday (8/28)

This morning began with a sense of tension in the air. Today was the big examination for all the students to determine the appropriate level of Mandarin into which they will be placed. The whole morning, most students were found face deep in books, reviewing for the exam. I went over most of what I had learned before I had come to the country, so I was less concerned. I probably should have been more concerned. The exam was created to truly striate the levels of students. The test jumped from basic grammar structures to the most complex very quickly, and I was left in the dust. In regards to reading comprehension and writing characters, I am generally weaker, because the Chinese classes I have taken focus more on speaking the language in contrast to reading/writing. During the oral portion, however, I was able to hold a semi-proficient conversation with the instructor in Mandarin. Then, she had me identify and pronounce characters on a paper. I was able to complete about half of them with no problem. I explained to her that I have received more oral training than writing, and she assured me that it was okay, because the test will place students into classes based off there categories: speaking, writing, and reading. Overall, I feel that I should be placed in an intermediate level for the speaking and writing, and probably a lower level for the reading.

Friday (8/29) through Sunday (8/31)

This weekend was rather uneventful, as there weren’t any planned events for us. We spent the weekend doing some minimal exploring and taking in the nightlife of the city. On Sunday, however, we went to see the Temple of Heaven. It’s such a fascinating sight. The complex was finished in 1420, and it contains an altar for tribute, and two separate buildings used for religious ceremonies of days long gone. The complex is now surrounded by a massive park where the public can enter and spend the day, free of charge. The park was filled with people enjoying a lovely Sunday morning. Our Mandarin classes start Monday, and that makes us all pretty excited.