“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

The conclusion of this school week marked the conclusion of our midterm, and as a divider between the semesters’ worths of content, the program ventured to Xi’an together. Exploring a new city was a breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally the air quality was noticeably better the moment we stepped off the sleeper train. If you haven’t started to notice a trend in my blog posts where I eat my words, maybe you’ll notice it now. I ended my previous post commenting on the severity in the divide between ancient China and modern China, but Xi’an has mastered balancing the two. Xi’an situates itself on the confluence of the Feng and Hao rivers, but also on the confluence of the China of today, the modern economic power, and the ancient, spiritual China. The two are not mutually exclusive. Xi’an was known as China’s established capital well before Beijing ever was, and is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Eastern Asia. Under the name Chang’an, the city was the eastern most stop on the Silk Road trading network, begun in the 2nd Century BC.

Even so, as we biked atop the city’s ancient city wall, the pagodas and temples were no longer the only constructions taller than we were. Rather, we circled an 8.5 mile perimeter of bright billboards and steely skyscrapers that somehow did not seem to need the protection of a fourteen hundred year old fortification.

Even so, though we browsed and haggled for good among street vendors with blinking neon signs, we were a block away from a mosque founded in the year 742. And at night, when we walked through the lanes bordered by the rising palatial architecture, the swooping roofs were illuminated by both distinctly colored LED lights as well as paper lanterns.

Even so, as we watched a performance of the Song of Everlasting Regret detailing the romance and rebellion in the life of an emperor from the year 755 AD, the stage production was not limited to the masks of ancient dramas. Instead, the theater lit up an entire mountain side with incandescent lights to mimic the night sky with stars dotting the path beneath a cable car system from which fireworks were shot towards the audience to portray a battle occurring on the platforms and pyrotechnics arising from the pond that surrounded the original stage. Somehow I don’t think the poem’s Ninth Century author envisioned the same production I saw. But it was incredible. It may have been cheesy but besides the overwhelming awe, all I could even fathom to think was that this production was the greatest metaphor for the entire history of China, not forgetting the explosive changes of the last half century, and not daring to exclude the centuries of culture preceding them.

To wrap things up, here is my weekly China travel advice:
Don’t wear white in China.
You don’t know how to use chopsticks as well as you think you do.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”


Probably twenty times a day I think to myself, “Chinese class this fall is going to be so easy.”
Now that’s not necessarily saying that this summer program is any harder than Chinese at Notre Dame. The only difference is the speed of the class, which compresses an entire week-and-a-half’s worth of normal content into one day, which in turn means we have an exam equivalent to a midterm covering six week’s worth of material every Friday, but it’s not like the vocabulary or grammar started significantly harder but with the speed, the new content is grows harder more and more quickly so the content is compiled and compounded and grows exponentially as any language class is always a cumulative review. Actually, I take that back. It’s way harder.
Studying Chinese in China has its advantages though (duh), even if its at this breakneck pace. I constantly find myself thinking metacognitively about my language growth to narrate in each blog post, and besides the obvious benefits of studying in China, I’ve noticed some psychological shifts not apparent in South Bend. I am always thinking in Chinese. Unlike at Notre Dame, where I walk to class for a single hour per day to drill the week’s grammar and immediately revert to English at the conclusion, here, I rarely bridge the gap back into the English mindset. Admittedly, most of the hour-long class was spent just attempting to enter into the solely Chinese mind frame. But amidst the language’s country of origin and all its folderol, I’m always thinking of a way to get my thoughts into that mode of communication, trying to decipher the characters I see on the board, in my dorm or on the street signs, and even the conversations from the couples next to me on the subway, even hearing them subconsciously guarantee that I stick to that Chinese first thought process. I never have to switch out of it. This makes for some pretty interesting consequences though. I have to force myself to timidly attempt newer grammar structures, especially when I’ve gotten into a comfortable routine of using certain other approaches with similar meanings. While the comfort of the more recognizable one means my speaking is just fine, failing to understand every grammar structure renders me completely dumbfounded when it comes to listening comprehension. There’s a recurring joke amongst my classmates and I regarding our ability to speak well enough to get by but whenever a native Chinese speaker responds to our request our only reaction is to become a deer in headlights. For example, ordering a pizza on the phone. After planning what I would say and reciting the order in my head for a few minutes before calling I was reasonably confident in ordering one large barbecue chicken, one medium half cheese, half veggie, but I could not even begin to fathom what the receptionist asked, presumably for clarification. Prices, on the other hand, I can understand perfectly fine. I’ll accept the small victory that is recognizing any Chinese class’s first chapter content.

But the best of these consequences includes training my brain into finally taking that shortcut of developing thoughts in Chinese first, completely circumventing the English and translation process. It’s amazing how even in my stunted vocabulary there are words I refer to only by their Chinese translation, often times even forgetting the English for it while on the phone with my friends and family.

It’s weird.
I like it.

Now for the part where I satisfy my lifelong dream to write for National Geographic. This last weekend was void of any program planned events. This entirely free weekend yielded radically different results from the first. There’s an additional level of bravery required in initiating conversation with other people on your own, to ask for directions, buy a ticket, order a meal or whatever you may encounter.

In addition, traveling alone is an radically different experience. I’ve noticed people are much more likely to approach me on my own than when I’m in a group with the program. Aside from an instance at the Xi’an Museum where a tour group of twelve year olds asked to take their picture with me, I have never been approached while with my professors. But as soon as I took the opportunity to walk around the Summer Palace alone, eight different groups of Chinese people asked to take a picture with the 外国人, foreigner, three different couples solicited me in order to practice their English, and eleven different babies or little kids ran up and shouted “美国!” (America!) at knee-height. Yes, I counted. It’s such a distinctive experience having strangers approach you in the mall to tell you all about their business plan dedicated to applying Chinese values to the competition of Western industrial job markets and asking your opinion than simply sight seeing with the same group of people I’d eat with at South Dining Hall. But hey, that’s what I signed up for.



“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are headed.”

One month down.
One semester worth of material down
One month until I’m back in a country with normal mayonnaise.

Now that I squared away my complaint about food last week, time to move on to a new complaint:
I am way ruder than I mean to be.

Although it’s completely acceptable to trample any stranger to board the subways in China, somehow I am still not acclimated to doing so. I couldn’t tell how many times store clerks or waiters have laughed at my attempts to soften the bluntness of requests. In particular, responding with “对不起“ meaning “Sorry?” as a substitute for “excuse me?” has garnered some particularly weird faces. Talking with my professors has been mildly better in this regard, given they understand exactly the range of what I know how to express and the areas of conversation that I discuss with them I can say more delicately. Imagine that: the people paid to make sense of my crawling-paced words are the only ones that understand me.

On a more serious, positive note, the program’s Ye Laoshi commented on the improvement of my tones on the bus to Xi’an for a weekend excursion. As the part of the language that I find by far the most frustrating, I was over the moon to hear this compliment. For the unacquainted, in the Chinese language the same pronunciation can have several different meanings depending on the pitch and rising intonations with no real parallel in the English language. To make light of this crucial part of speaking Chinese, I’ll often texts friend at home things like “Ni ai ma ma ma de ma fan ma ma?” a likely grammatically incorrect sentence where the word ma can mean horse, mother, scolding, troublesome, or indicate the sentence is a question. Or to put it in perspective, almost the exact opposite of the urban legend saying the eskimos have thousands of words for “snow.” Each one Chinese word seems to have thousands of meanings. The professors make sure to iron out the problems in our tones during the daily one-on-one sessions, after the first of which the frustration of correcting my tones drove my to run a 10K immediately after to unwind. I hate running. Even after you’ve memorized the most challenging vocabulary and successfully tackled the most seemingly inverted grammar structures, if you neglect your tones your sentence is wrong and completely incomprehensible. Today I confidently answered a question in class with a remark on the implications of a global dependency on oil on the economies of the Middle East, as well as mentioning the rising tensions between China and Japan over the trivial Senkaku Islands, but in the level-voiced quick confidence left my response void of meaning.


“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

(As I recently learned, asking if a friend recently ate serves as a substitute for saying hello, an appropriate segue way into…)

In a sort of coincidence (that I’m going to chose to interpret as divine intervention for the sake of a dramatic blog), the very topic I fussed over as the most glaring shortcoming in my ability to express my daily needs, all required for ordering food, was the central focus covered in the past week. While this laid the foundation for understanding a dish’s components, I am nowhere near being able to boast that I could translate any item from any menu in any restaurant, especially given the sheer enormity of variety in Chinese cuisine. In fact, our daily lesson included an adage on the eclectic melange in every kitchen: “带翅膀的除了飞机什么都能吃,四条腿的除了桌椅什么都可以吃,” — besides those of an airplane, you can eat any wing; besides the four under a table or chair, you can eat any leg. Hardly the musings of Confucius, but equally as pithy and equally as observant. Now three and a half weeks into the program, I cannot think of any saying more adequate.

Except maybe a joke told by our program’s Professor Zhu. In response to a few remarks regarding the 很奇怪 meats with which we were not acquainted as we gathered around the ubiquitous Lazy-Susan style dining table, Zhu Laoshi told us about a Chinese man that once went on a safari in the African savannah. While exploring the man was bitten by the world’s most venomous snake. Instead of keeling over dead, the man stood and watched as the snake keeled over from ingesting the digested foods in his own system, potent enough to kill even the beast. Though said in warning of the imminent food poisoning we may expect, which I thankfully have yet to experience, I think the humor holds a definitive truth to it.


Apart from the dining room, I am pleasantly surprised the degree to which I learn from exploring the jungle that is Beijing. I am endlessly thankful the subway systems and most street signs also include the pinyin pronunciation of the characters it displays, so I can practice the reading and speaking aspects of the language wherever I go. I have found that many formal names are compounded words of simpler building blocks, which with repeated exposure I have begun to recognize and piece together. For example: Tian’anmen Square’s name comes from 天 安 门  tiān (sky, heaven) ān (peace) mén (gate, door) meaning the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Elsewhere, Wudaokou, the name of a nearby neighborhood means the Opening of Five Pathways. With components like these, I’ve been able to decipher the names of other places around Beijing, typically including place words like bridge, alley, gate, pathway, etc.


The Summer Palace was especially interesting to apply this pattern. Retaining many of its original heavenly and or naturally derived names and the context of the feature allows me to circumvent the English translation and anticipate the meaning of the unknown vocabulary. Accordingly, I’ve learned words I would otherwise not think to look up for usage, like “arch” from 十七孔桥, the Seventeen Arch Bridge, pictured below. Besides the strictly academic benefits of visiting the Summer Palace on a lazy, hazy Sunday afternoon, the proximity to campus and the traditional buildings surrounding the scenery of the Kunming Lake made the site easily one of my favorites in Beijing.


The more I explore, the more I fully realize the total dichotomy of this country. On Saturday afternoon, the program visited 798, Beijing’s modern arts district, situated at the foot of steel high-rises in repurposed brick factory buildings from the nascency of the communist industrial booms in the 1950s. But on Sunday afternoon, I climbed the stone paths to survey the Sea of Wisdom Temple and Hall of Buddhist Incense from nearly half a century ago. All within the same country. All within the same half of the same city. But lest I forget a half of this modernized ancient country, a pagoda will ornament the mountain ranges beyond the sky-scraping Central Business District or the steely skyline will assert itself through the view of a modest temple.


“All things are difficult before they are easy.”

Good news: I’ve survived another week! Barely.

But more seriously, week two proved to be a new challenge in itself. While I wouldn’t necessarily admit I experienced a wave of culture shock, the simplest tasks still seem overwhelmingly difficult to manage using only my limited vocabulary. In particular, ordering meals at restaurants, the dining halls and at street vendors’ booths has been a nearly insurmountable task, especially because there is no Chinese version of: “just sound it out!” So far I’ve been able to actualize my gustatory preferences by pointing to already prepared meals or pictures on menus followed by either the Chinese for “that!” or “the same as theirs,” but never without the accompanying humiliation. But every setback just serves as inspiration for a new language goal to blog about wanting to achieve. For now, the surprise factor has been a source of excitement and a bit of a game, trying new dishes first and then translating the name afterwards. I like to believe this way is fundamentally better and is conducive to being adventurous in adding new tastes my pallet I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.


The strangest feeling arose when this past weekend while a few of us visited the Beijing Zoo where we watched a toddler, who could probably count the months he has been alive on his fingers and toes, rattle off names of animals and topics more advanced than I could understand. Similar experiences occurred at the Forbidden City, in the Houhai neighborhood and elsewhere. Usually followed by a picture or a comment about a foreigner from a local.


As if to alleviate the extremely narrow range of ideas I can express in Chinese, our textbook was designed to introduce us to the topics that would be most useful to one living in China, as we are temporarily. Strangely enough, I am glad to see the increasingly complex topics in our vocabulary because discussing the double-sided effects of the mandated One Child Policy in Chinese makes me feel more worthy of studying in China’s most esteemed university, while learning to introduce myself makes me feel like a three year old. Speaking of the One Child Policy, I feel that if you would like to have an opinion on the matter, you should be forced to visit China before commenting. Maybe I am only experiencing the strains of living in the world’s third largest city, but witnessing traffic patterns and the sheer volumes of people at nearly every location made me reevaluate my automatically negative opinion of the policy for a much more balanced perspective.

“He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a great man.”

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!