Izzo, Nicolas

Izzo, Nicolas

Name: Nicolas Izzo
E-mail: Nicolas.E.Izzo.4@nd.edu
Language: Chinese
Location of Study: Beijing, China
Program of Study: Chinese Summer Language Program in Beijing
Sponsors: Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures

A brief personal bio:

I’m a freshman Physics Major from McLean, VA. I currently live in Fisher Hall. I’ve been studying Chinese since my junior year of high school. I’ve gone to China once before, as part of a tour group with other high school students, and it was the best experience of my life. I can’t wait to go back again, and possibly revisit some of my favorite locations in Beijing and Shanghai.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

I really want to have some sort of work in China or another Chinese-speaking country, and this SLA grant will give me the opportunity to get the skills I need to achieve that goal. As a student planning to declare a double major in Chinese, the SLA grant also gives me the opportunity to stand out in the classroom, and significantly enhance my skills in the language. The SLA grant gives me the chance to experience the culture and language of a country far and far different from my own, and interact with people with radically different life experiences and ideas.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

As of right now, of all four of the main language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking), my listening comprehension is the weakest, by far. I hope that by going to China and conversing exclusively in Mandarin for eight weeks, that I will be able to strengthen my listening comprehension, along with the other language skills, by a significant margin. I want to be able to talk to natives in a natural tone, and more importantly, understand what they say back to me. I also hope to learn more about the culture of China, which is, literally, half a world away from America.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. At the end of my summer study abroad, adequately comprehend Mandarin speech at a pace and complexity of a native speaker.
  2. At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to fluently create the unique sounds in spoken Mandarin Chinese, in such a way that is virtually the same as a native.
  3. At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to pick out and infer the meaning of unknown words in spoken Mandarin, without the use of a dictionary or verbally asking for a definition.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

When we get to Beijing University, my classmates and I will be expected to speak exclusively in Chinese, but that can cause a more shy person to become quieter, or not talk to as many new people. I plan to do the same kind of thing I did when I came to Notre Dame: find the Chinese students that I interact with during the day and talk to them regularly, so that I can get some genuine experience speaking in the language with people to whom I can relate. I also plan to do some urban exploring, as this will be the first time I will be able to freely walk around Chinese cities on my own. It’s gonna be awesome.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

欢迎光临我的博客! We just finished our first week of study at Peking University on Friday, and it’s rigorous, to say the least. We cover two chapters of material in four days, get tested the fifth, and then get the weekend to rest before doing it all over again the next week. It’s exciting.

Beida (pronounced “bay-daw”), as Peking University is known, has a beautiful campus. The northern part of campus has a huge park, filled with historical buildings, as the area has been used by the ruling dynasties of China for centuries. On the first weeked, our group was paired with native Chinese speakers who are also students at Beida, and we were all given a tour of the campus, including the historical northern section called Yuanmingyuan. Like Notre Dame’s Golden Dome, Beida also has a large building that stands out on the horizon, even from a distance: a towering pagoda, located right next to the lake in Yuanmingyuan. As we toured the area, we got the go directly to the lake and see the base of the pagoda.

Chinese cuisine has been a crazy adventure for my taste buds. Chinese foods often have names with characters I don’t recognize, so I effectively can’t read many of the labels. Because of this, trying new foods is very hit-or-miss. Trying new dishes can sometimes be a bad experience, but they can also often be extremely tasty. I found a delicious breakfast place in the middle of Beida’s campus, where I regularly go with one of my friends each morning before class. Among my favorite meals at the cafeteria that my classmates and I often go to for lunch are the extremely spicy Sichuan noodles, a kind of giant pork meatball call Shizitou or Lion’s Head, and unusual-looking balls of what tastes like turkey meat covered in rice. And just in case you’re extra desparate, or homesick, the cafeteria also has a “western-style fast food” window, where you can try China’s take on French fries. I tried them for fun today, and they’re also pretty good. They even come with ketchup.

The last time I came to Beijing, I was part of a tourist group, and as such we were not given much freedom to independently explore the city. This time, however, when I’m not busy studying new Mandarin vocabulary and grammar, I am completely free to explore new parts of Beijing. Yesterday I went with one of my friends to a shopping mall down the street from campus. Even though we got there late and the stores were all about to close, it was still very enjoyable. We also came across a roller-skating area, surrounding an area where Chinese couples went to dance together, and we also discovered a Haagen-Dazs nearby. The day before that, I went with a friend to the grave of Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary who came to China in the 16th century. His grave was hidden away on a beautiful, ivy-league-esque college campus, which itself was tucked away in a distant part of town. From the look of the city near the campus, you would never expect to run into it. In the next seven weeks I’m also planning to visit the Temple of Heaven in the southern part of the city, along with a street called Wangfujing that has lots of shops along it, and an old Catholic church near Wangfujing known as Dongtang or “the Eastern Hall” with beautiful architecture from centuries ago.

The first week here overall has been amazing. I hope the next seven weeks are just as packed with excitement as the first one!

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

好久不见! NDiB is about to start week 4 of 8 tomorrow. I CANNOT believe that I’m almost halfway to the end, it’s all gone by so fast.

I don’t think I mentioned our trip to the Great Wall in the last post. Our group travelled to Simatai, a segment of the Wall in a beautiful, mountainous region northeast of Beijing. The ride there itself could have counted as a tourist activity on its own: we travelled through a beautiful mountain range to get there, a journey that makes a trip on California’s Pacific Coast Highway (which is also very beautiful) seem like a pretty average roadtrip through the middle of nowhere. And once we got there, it only got better. We took a hike up a path to the segment of the Wall, and I will never forget looking up, almost straight up, at the path we were about to take at the beginning of the Wall. The climb was a punishing cardio exercise, and especially for me, as I’m not the most athletic guy. The view from the highest point I got to was beyond words, however. There was another added bonus: When we aren’t living in the foreigner-populated university district of Beijing, it’s much more common for Chinese people to approach you for photos. I took a bunch of photos with random Chinese tourists on the Great Wall, and besides making their day, it also makes you feel like a celebrity.

After leaving the Wall, we travelled to a small town near the wall called Gubeikou (Goo-BAY-koh), where we had a much-needed filling meal after our adventure. The town itself offered a direct experience of the everyday life of the common people of China. The town was also very small, and our bus broke its front door trying to navigate the small bridge out of the village. As we were figuring out what to do, a bunch of people from the town came out to see what was happening. We realized that they probably didn’t get to see giant vehicles like buses nearly as much as people that live in the city, and ours was maybe an unusual sight to them.

I’ve also had a couple other, smaller adventures within the city. My friend and I took a subway ride to the Olympic Park, where the 2008 Summer Olympics were held. Aside from taking more pictures with Chinese tourists, and learning the Chinese word for “Olympic”, 奥林匹克, we also got to see the world-famous Bird’s Nest and Water Cube. My friend explained that the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest are actually highly symbolic: The Nest represents the Phoenix, as birds live in nests, while the Cube represents the Dragon, as they live in…cubes? Probably not, but she did explain that in Chinese mythology, dragons are associated with water, rather than fire. 没想到! I do suppose that makes sense, since the Dragon and Phoenix are supposed to be foils, and Phoenixes are already associated with fire.

I also led some of my friends last Sunday to the Hongqiao Market, also known as the Pearl Market or a “knockoff” market, where we had the chance to bargain with the owners of small stalls in a huge, traditional-looking building. The reason it’s known as a “knockoff” market is because many of the things sold there are Chinese knockoffs of more popular products, especially Beats headphones, name-brand clothing, and stuff like purses and suitcases. That’s not to necessarily bash the quality, though: when I went to Hongqiao last year, I bought a knockoff Swissgear suitcase/duffel for $12.50, a knockoff Rosetta Stone set for Mandarin for $10, both of which were super cheap, and still work perfectly a year later. This time, I bought a large, golden scroll with the Chinese name for Notre Dame “圣母大学” on it for my dad, an ND alum himself, who celebrated his 50th birthday this week. I also got a shirt with the classic “I <3 Beijing” design on it. Afterwards, we explored the Temple of Heaven, which is right next to Hongqiao.

One cannot forget my main purpose for coming to China, though: improving my Mandarin. It’s only been a few weeks, but with the immersive environment that we have, I have noticed a significant improvement in my language abilities. I’m quickly picking up tons of new vocabulary, and my listening abilities, by far the weakest aspect of my Chinese, are gradually getting better. I’m also getting better at speaking quickly: One of our teachers is very fond of tongue twisters, in both languages, and likes to emphasize speaking quickly and accurately. If I can improve this much in just three weeks, I can’t wait to see what eight can do.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

NDiB recently took a break for our intense language classes to go south and explore two other major cities in China: Hangzhou and Shanghai. However, a typhoon was landing in the area right as we arrived, so it was raining almost the whole time. But even through the rain, we still visited our host company Topsun and the famous Louwailou restaurant in Hangzhou, and went around and toured some of the major tourist spots in Shanghai. Our first day there the weather was very good through part of the day, and we got a panoramic view of downtown Shanghai in the Shanghai Grand Theatre, before visiting the Beijing headquarters of IllyCaffe.

Later that night, we had a chance to meet some of the incoming freshmen to Notre Dame who come from cities like Shanghai and Nanjing. I personally met one freshman girl named Lan, who is going to be living in Pangborn, right next to me. She also connected me to the Chinese freshman who was placed in my native Fisher, and I am very excited to try to meet up with him while I’m here. I also met a Notre Dame alumnus who works at IllyCaffe, and while talking to him (in Mandarin!) I found out that both he, and my grandfather, who also went to Notre Dame at the same time, were very close to the same professor, one Dr. Dow. It was an exciting encounter, and truly a “small world” experience.

The day after, we traveled to the Yu Garden, and the Jade Buddha Temple, where we then ate a traditional, and specially-made Buddhist meal. The restaurant was run by the family of another Notre Dame alumnus, which made me realize just how far-reaching Notre Dame’s influence is around the world. The next day we then got to take the bullet train back to Beijing, going over 300 km/h (190 mph) at some points!

The next week, I visited a few more tourist destinations. I traveled by myself Friday night to Tsinghua University, the MIT to Beida’s Harvard. Tsinghua has a heavy focus on STEM subjects, and among the first big buildings I saw on campus were their Nanotechnology building and the headquarters of the Electrical Engineering department, but I also came across a beautiful, large music hall as well. Tsinghua also has a campus center very similar to Notre Dame’s: a main administrative building, with some large quads directly in front of it. There were not, however, any Golden Domes to be found. I also found one of Google’s buildings in China, in a technology park next to campus. The next day, I traveled back to the Temple of Heaven again, but this time entered the central section, where I could get much closer to the actual temple, and the open square surrounding it. I also picked up a cute panda backpack, which my sister back home will definitely enjoy, but only after I wear it all over Beijing myself. That night NDiB also visited the Laoshe teahouse, where we watched a number of different acts, including a scene of traditional Peking Opera and a magic performance, all while enjoying authentic Chinese tea.

My Chinese skills are also improving, little by little. This past weekend I was able to understand some little kids when they asked me some questions in Chinese, and I’m speaking a little quicker and more accurately with my teachers in the classroom. Hopefully in the next few weeks, this same pattern will continue.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

As class continues at Beida, so have my adventures touring around Beijing. We’ve only got two weeks left, but hopefully they will be just as fun as the past 6.

Last Friday, I felt particularly adventurous, and decided to visit th Kangzhan Memorial, also known as the Memorial of the war of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. While the Memorial remembers an event dating from WWII, there is a beautiful open square in front of the entrance, and the entire memorial and surrounding city is enclosed in a great, walled fortress. The is a large bronze rock in the middle of the square, and only when you walk to the other side of it do you discover, there is actually a lion head carved into the rock, symbolizing the will of the Chinese people. While coming back from the Memorial, I still had some time, and decided to visit Renmin University, the third large university in Beijing behind Beida and Tsinghua. There were a number of interesting things to look at there, my favorite being a large curved mural carved into stone in front of the campus museum. The mural was based on ta map of the world, with historical people from the west, like Columbus and Aristotle, on the left side, and the Terracotta Warriors and Confucius, among other eastern historical figures, depicted on the right. There is also a gigantic library on campus, possibly bigger than Beida’s.

The next day, NDiB traveled to 798, an art district in the northeast section of Beijing. There’s endless streets of art stores, including an exhibit dedicated to pictures of Chairman Mao, and a store selling metalworks, like original pocketwatches and other jewelry. I had a really good lunch there, even though it was a bit expensive, and visited the official North Korean art museum in China. I also was surprised to hear 1990’s American country music playing in the street, and as it turns out there was one stall selling originally mixed CDs, with Alan Jackson on one of them.

Then on Sunday, I traveled out to Xuanwumen, a historical location where missionary Matteo Ricci used to live. I was planning to visit the Nantang, or Southern Cathedral, which was built, mot recently, in 1904, with a foundation going back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. I got a little more than I expected, however; since I visited on Sunday, I happened to arrive about 15 minutes before a mass was to begin, so I stayed to receive the Eucharist, for the first time, in China. The mass was also held by Father Joseph Li Shan, the Archbishop of Beijing. And if that wasn’t cool enough, the area around the place was also very pretty, and they even had a statue of Mary that reminded me of ND’s own Grotto.

In other news, I’ve also been recruited to perform with my Chinese Yo-yo in an upcoming talent show. A Chinese yoyo is like a normal yoyo, but the string is connected to two sticks that are held in each hand, and the yoyo is free to sit on the string, jump up, etc. I’ve got one week to master an 8-9 trick routine, and I can feel the pressure already.

Lastly, I’ve also tried a number of new foods. There is a popular carbonated lemon drink in China called +C, made by Schweppes, and it’s pretty good, with a very fresh taste. I also tried a Magnum ice cream bar, although that’s not exactly authentically Chinese. Other foods include some dried banana chips and a particularly interesting bag of “chocolate-covered wheat”. I hope to keep trying lots of new foods in my last two weeks here.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

Today I successfully finished the Community Interaction tasks. This is what I found out:

1. The usage of 山寨and 忽悠
山寨, pronounced “shan-jai” and literally meaning “mountain fortress”, is a slang term used to describe the myriad of knockoff products sold in China. I read that a long time ago, fortresses, out in the mountains and away from the cities, would serve as the location of “black markets” and hideouts for the people who ran them, distant enough from the cities that they couldn’t be regulated. The two younger people I asked were both very familiar with the term, and both mentioned that it often refers specifically to electronic products, such as fake iPhones, TVs, etc., though it can also describe non-electronic products. On the contrary, the old people I talked to were rather unfamiliar with the term; the older man had heard the word but wasn’t too familiar with the definition, while the older woman had never heard the term before. This fits with the younger people mentioning that it often refers to newer products, and I can conclude that this term is relatively new in the Chinese language.

The second word, 忽悠, pronounced “hoo-yo” roughly translated as “to bamboozle”, is a somewhat more common slang term, and from what I can tell has had a well-known meaning for a longer period of time, as everyone I asked gave roughly the same response regarding its use. In Chinese, there are a number of ways to use 忽悠. Originally, and still today, 忽悠 means to deceive or trick somebody, with a strong negative connotation. To connect it to the other slang term, someone could 忽悠 you into buying a 山寨 iPhone. But recently the word has taken on a couple of new uses. One is a more friendly “trick”, for example, you could 忽悠 your friend into going somewhere with you. Put simply, it’s like throwing a surprise party; the person is bamboozled, but not necessarily angry or ticked off. The third relates to China’s newspapers, as even the most popular ones are filled with bogus articles. Imagine if the New York Times put yesterday’s The Onion article on its front page. A few years ago, one popular and serious newspaper reported that Chairman Mao had recently rose from the dead, and some people actually believed it; this is an example of the third usage of 忽悠.

2. Opinions on China’s One-Child Policy
While the One-Child Policy is technically a political issue, the fact that virtually everyone in urban China is an only child has also had cultural implications. For example, one chapter in our textbook talks about the current “empty nest” crisis, where there are vast populations of old people in Chinese cities with no one to take care of them, as their only child has moved out. Another issue is the appeareance of “little emperors”, the name given to only children who, because their parents and grandparents followed the One-Child Policy and focus heavily on their children, have become rather self-centered and spoiled.

The first two people I asked, both relatively young, were rather indifferent about the policy. They both were very thorough in communicaitng their opinions, and both saw major pros and cons to the policy and its continuation. They agreed that while China’s population is still huge and needs to continue to shrink, the social and cultural implications are also bringing up other problems as well. The third person I asked however, a retired former soldier that I met in the park today, was rather adamant about supporting the policy. He felt very strongly about China’s population problem, and used very strong language to support the policy, which perhaps better reflects the original viewpoint from around 1980, that brought about the policy in the first place.

3. The importance of Victory Day, September 3
Victory Day in China marks the anniversary of the official Japanese surrender in WWII. As both the Communists and Nationalists fought a long and terrible struggle against the Japanese during the war, the holiday is an important military day. However, the young woman that I asked about the holiday was unclear about the exact history of the war and why the holiday was on that particular day.

To learn more, I traveled the the 中国人民抗日战争纪念馆, or the Museum/Memorial of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression. The museum is inside an old fortress called Wanping, which is right next to the Lugou Bridge, where the Japanese officially started the Second Sino-Japanese War. While the museum heavily exaggerates the contribution to the war of the Communist Party (The CPC built the museum, of course), the museum was very thorough in its telling of the war’s story. I asked a guy who worked there, and he gave me a long response, in Chinese, some of which I didn’t completely understand, regarding China’s part in the war. He mentioned that, as China and Japan have been enemies for a while, the war is considered a major part of recent Chinese history and culture. On a side note, I went to the museum with an incoming freshman to Notre Dame from Beijing, who had similar responses to the girl I asked about the war. He also was aware that the museum has a strong pro-Communist bias, and that the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, also played a large part in fighting the Japanese.

4. Views on the US
In general, all three of the people I asked, of both genders and differing ages, had positive views of the US, which was surprising. One younger woman said said she was doubtful about the potential success of Obamacare, which was perhaps one of the most shocking things I heard while doing these tasks. The old retired sodlier, who also strongly supported the One-Child Policy, was particularly fond of Americans’ personalities. He used the word 热情, which means “enthusiastic”, and also said that he often thought Americans were very humorous.

I think his answers reflect an awareness of a very big difference between personalities of Chinese/Asian and American people, which I have noticed on my own while in Beijing. Americans really are enthusiastic; Chinese people have told me that Americans like to talk a lot, engage with natives, and often will go above and beyond to learn about someone’s background, i.e. where they’re from and what they’re like. Chinese (and other Asian) people on the other hand, as I’ve both noticed on my own and read about in class, are much more reserved, and generally keep to themselves. The Japanese students on the other side of the hall from me are a good example; one time a few weeks ago, we both left our dorms at the same time, but they didn’t talk to me or ask me where I’m from, even though we were standing directly next to each other. If that were to happen at Notre Dame, I can guarantee my American dormmates would immediately engage me in conversation, even if they were new freshmen who have no idea who I am. In the subway as well, which is often very crowded, people simply don’t talk to strangers, but prefer to keep to themselves and those people that they are with or know.

My last blog post will cover my final episode of tourism and my final thoughts in China. Only three days left until we return to America, and I can eat steak and speak English freely!

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

My last few weeks here have been pretty darn good, including a successful talent show performance and plenty of tourism.

I visited China’s military museum, which houses seemingly endless tanks, planes, etc., from WWII. I just happened to go over there at the same time as a bunch of students from a middle school somwhere far away, and it was a great example of the celebrity-like status that non-asian people can often receive when traveling in China. As I walked to the back of the line to enter the museum, lines of young Chinese middle schoolers stared me down as if were the President, or someone of that level of popularity. They would come up to me for pictures, talk to their friends about me, giggle about the Chinese that I spoke with them, and it’s certainly not an experience available in the relatively racially diverse United States. Oh, and right next to the mulitary museum (or Junbo in Chinese) is the China’s equivalent to the Pentagon, their national defense headquarters. I was told by security there not to take pictures of the entrance to the building, and I could just tell that this time wasn’t the time to mess around with them, so I took pictures from a farther distance instead.

I also finally traveled to Wangfujing, a big pedestrian shopping street located near the center of Beijing. I traveled back afterwards multiple times, and I think I truly got to experience about everything there is there, despite never actually getting a chance to try eating fried scorpions or other types of street food. Among the most well-known places on Wangfujing are the gigantic Wangfujing bookstore, where I bought a whole bunch of books, including an illustrated copy of The Art of War. The bookstore has 6 floors and is overall pretty impressive. I also visited the old Wangfujing Cathedral, which I mentioned in an earlier post. Lastly, I got to try Wuyutai green tea-flavored ice cream, considered the best of its kind in China. Each cone is only 6 kuai, or about a dollar, and Wuyutai, an old tea shop, makes the ice cream with real green tea leaf bits, which gives it an extremely authentic taste. I’m not a big fan of green tea myself, but I was still able to recognize that the taste is very authentic, and anyone who like normal green tea would also very much like the ice cream.

After visiting Wangfujing one time, I decided to take the short walk over to Tiananmen Square, with the iconic picture of Chairman Mao on a building with traditional Chinese architecture. Also located on Tiananmen are the National Museum and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, though unfortunately I didn’t get to go into either. That same day, I also explored some of the city center’s hutongs, which give another very authentic taste of Chinese and Beijing culture.

The next day, as I mentioned in the Community Immersion Tasks, I visited the Kangzhan Memorial again, this time to actually enter the museum and learn about the war to which the memorial was built. I also got a chance to walk over Lugouqiao, or the Marco Polo bridge, where the Japanese started their attack on China.

Today, after our final exam, we had one last meal together, said goodbye to our local teachers, with whom we’ve bonded so well over the past few weeks, and began the packing-up process. I went out to a number of supermarkets and purchased some weird Chinese flavors of common food brands, including some Cumin Lamb and Roasted Squid-flavored Lays Chips, but not without also purchasing some classic Chinese Dabaitu, or White Rabbit candy as well. This evening, as the sun set on me in Beijing for the last time, I took one more walk around Beida’s Yuanmingyuan park, and made sure to take one last look at Beida’s iconic Boya Pagoda and Weiming Lake.

As much as I enjoyed being here, I also cannot wait to go home. I am excited to show my parents everything I’ve gotten in China, and enjoy authentic American food once again. I get to wake up at 5 AM tomorrow to head to the airport, can’t wait!

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

Learning Chinese in China was a fascinating experience. There were points where I was impressing myself with how well I could understand native speakers talking at a natural pace, and in terms of learning the language, I have really come to appreciate how amazingly fast one can learn a language when fully immersed. On a side note, entering an immersive language environment has also made me realize just how insanely familar with a language its “native” speakers are; only once in my two months when asking about a new slang term did any Chinese speaker that I met not have a clue about a word I used, and I personally have also started to realize, since I got back, how quickly and fluently I can speak English, an equally complicated language.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

While I enjoyed my experience in China, there were often times when I felt like something was better in America. For example, in the U.S., you can readily buy beef or other fresh meat in very large quantities for relatively cheap, whereas in China, normal, everyday meals have little, if any, meat in them. China, however, has most other foods at much cheaper rates than America. Nowhere in the United States have I ever found a bowl of noodles for only fifty cents, but in China I could easily find a three-yuan($0.50) bowl of noodles in the university dining hall, or go down the road from our dorms and buy a whole watermelon for 5 yuan, less than one dollar. To anyone applying for SLA grants, be sure to stay active during your study. For example, if you have a small bit of free time one day, try walking down a new road near your dorm; even the most mundane trips can often lead you to unusual discoveries.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I am planning to continue learning in a semi-immersive environment by talking to my Chinese friends at Notre Dame more and more in Mandarin, while also continuing to take an official Chinese class for credit. I am also going to try reading some of the Chinese books I bought in China, and occasionally try reading relatively formal Chinese newspaper articles, as a few restaurants relatively close to my hometown have their own Chinese language paper. In the future, I hope to apply my Chinese skills in whatever job I get after college, and having lived in China this summer will definitely influence any decision that I make in the future about possibly residing in China, for work or otherwise.