你好 from Beijing!
As I expected, life in the “Northern Capital” has been completely the opposite of what I have expected. Tucked in the northwestern corner of the rectangular-planned city, the neighborhood’s steely high-rises seem to suggest I’m in smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan, rather than in the rocky ledges of rice terraces and paper lanterns I expected. The population of 21.7 million Beijingers (almost exactly two million more than that of New York, for reference) speak in a rapid-fire accent notorious for inserting “Rs” into words to transform their pronunciation completely on occasion— for example, warping the tame “wan,” for to play, into “wanr,” whose pronunciation is just as challenging to tackle as the spelling suggests. Within the first full week I’ve tried to manage the jungle along with my classmates, I have noticed that cab drivers have presented me the greatest obstacle for understanding with their barrage of “wanr-s” and “huanr-s.” Accordingly, I have adopted the language goal of being able to communicate with a cab driver without turning red in the face before politely smiling and resorting to writing a character down on my phone. Luckily we are situated in a dormitory complex devoted to international students, so the shopkeepers nearby and maintenance crew are typically very slow-speaking and understanding of my fumbling vocabulary.
Elsewhere, I’ve met the warning that previous students of this program offered me that “you’re going to feel like a baby because you don’t know enough to express yourself.” This easily flustered me the first three binding days of the language pledge, but yesterday one Beijinger approached me to, presumedly, ask me directions to somewhere on campus and this was a success for two reasons. First, some stranger thought I, a very clearly out-of-place foreigner, seemed to know what I was doing and where I was going. Second, I could confidently and fluently answer this man to tell him that “对不起我的中文不好。我不可以帮你.” “Sorry, my Chinese is not very good, I can’t help you.” It’s the small victories.
This Saturday, the program went on our first venture beyond the dining hall and the College of Chinese as a Second Language to the Great Wall. Chairman Mao Zedong famously said, “He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a great man.” In the fashion of great men (and women) we bussed to the site at Mutianyu for a day hiking up the sides of mountains in a part of the wall built in the mid-6th Century. While I expected a touristy site that was very overhyped and slightly underwhelming, my expectations were surpassed by the spectacular scenery and the centuries of history associated with the area.
The following day during one of the first periods of downtime, I joined a few classmates in paying a visit to the Pearl Market, famous for its knockoff goods and incessant haggling. This was the first time I have actually felt proud of my Chinese speaking ability, as vendors would recoil in seeing a touristy American visitor able to express that their prices were rip-offs in a manner able to counter their persistent shouting and calculator-thumping. Immediately upon discovering I could rattle off my numbers and basic phrases like “too expensive,” “forget it,” or “I don’t want this fake good and you are trying to rip me off,” the vendors would halve and even quarter their prices on the spot. Similarly, I have started to think first in Chinese for many of these interjections and short sentences. Apart from the immensely important tones, my biggest difficulty in synthesizing sentences on my own is remembering that locations and times go before the verbs, while I usually think to include these details as an afterthought slapped on the end of a sentence. In good time, with good practice.
Until next week!