Post- China Reflections

After spending approximately 2 months in China, my global perspective transformed dramatically. Being able to navigate different cultural landscapes and understand a drastically different culture is my biggest takeaway from this program.

My biggest difficulty in China was understanding the notorious “er er” intonation from Beijing locals. Most people who don’t take Chinese don’t know that there are many different accents and dialects, not unlike English. For example, “where” in Mandarin can be pronounced ” na li” or “na er.” Based on the intonation and context, you are supposed to understand the other person. In Beijing, people use the “er” sound for many words. In a classroom setting, unless your teacher is from the Beijing area, they won’t use this pronunciation, so it can be  very hard for foreigners to get used to it. After 2 months in China, I have finally overcome this difficulty, and can casually speak to Beijing locals. I have definitely met my goals during this program.

As a result of this experience, I have gained insight as to how Chinese people spend their daily lives, what they eat, but most importantly, how they think. In the future, I want to work closely with Chinese companies, so I need to know important cultural nuances. For example, gifting a Chinese person a clock is a huge cultural taboo. Knowing little things like that will definitely give me an advantage in a competitive business atmosphere. My advice for someone who was considering applying for an SLA Grant or preparing to start their own summer language study is to try as hard as possible to learn things that could help for your future job, not just fun trivia knowledge; it could prove invaluable in the future.

I guess the ultimate question is, where do I go from here? Well, I believe that as long as I keep studying Mandarin, using WeChat to communicate with my new Chinese friends, and continue practicing with my classmates, I will maintain my oral fluency. In the future, I plan on going to law school, and then eventually, pursuing a career in corporate law. Where does Chinese fit in this, you might ask? I would like to help build bridges between American companies and Chinese companies through law and business. This is why I am double majoring in Finance and Chinese right now. My experience this summer allowed me to learn cultural nuances that will undoubtedly help me in my future endeavors.


Beijing Baozi

Two blocks away from Zhongguanxinyuan, the student dorm building, there is a marvelous, very popular “baozi” restaurant called “Steamed Bun Restaurant.” Yes, I know the name isn’t very original, but that doesn’t seem to bother most customers. Every day, the restaurant is packed with locals and foreigners. This is because, in Beijing, this restaurant seems to have it all: clean eating environment, cheap prices, plenty of options.

Baozis are steamed buns filled with meat, vegetables or both. My favorite is pork and assorted vegetables. In China, most food is just distinguishable by meat or vegetable, so you really don’t know what you’re eating unless you ask. The fact that this restaurant has an English menu, advanced register technology that allows you to pay with your phone (specifically using WeChat or Alipay), sinks to wash your hands, and a large eating area makes this baozi restaurant second to none.

Because the restaurant was extremely busy, it was hard to maintain the waiter’s attention for more than several minutes, so asking him how to make the famous baozi was not an easy task. You need: classic Chinese bamboo steamer, large stock pot (to put the steamer inside) or a wok, flour, sourdough starter, and warm water. This is how you make the dough. After kneading the dough for several minutes, you make little balls and fill the inside with whatever you want. Their steamed pork and bamboo is the most popular option. Afterwards, you place the raw buns in the steamer and after around 20 minutes, you have some baozi! They serve the buns in the steamer.

I asked the waiter the historical significance of the food, but he didn’t really seem to know. He just said that it was a staple of Beijing, especially for breakfast.

Not being satisfied by the waiter’s lack of historical knowledge, I went online to research why baozi was so culturally and nationally important. The history of baozi dates back to 220-280 AD. One of the most notorious military strategists of time time, Zhuge Liang (181-234), was on an expedition to far South China when his army caught a plague. He invented baozi out of pork and beef shaped as a human head to offer as a sacrifice. Also, he used the food as nutrition to cure the soldiers’ plague.

I can definitely see why baozi is so integral to Chinese culture. It plays a huge role in everyday life and brings people not only from all over China, but all over the world together.


Why Does China Hate Me?!

I have studied Chinese since my sophomore year in high school. That’s approximately 4 years of strenuous character writing, pronunciation drilling, and seemingly endless grammar patterns. The every day vocabulary quizzes and chapter tests were always stressful. If I had a penny for every time my roommate has said “oh my gosh, Cat, how much Chinese homework do you have? I left two hours ago and you were still writing Chinese characters!” I would be richer than Bill Gates. However, when I received the opportunity to come to Beijing and study at the prestigious Peking University, I was thrilled. The reason I study Mandarin is so that one day I can be as fluent as native speakers and can potentially find work in Shanghai or Beijing.

You can imagine my disappointment when as soon as I arrive in Beijing, I have to be rushed to the hospital because I found out I am allergic to MSG. For those not familiar with MSG, it’s as common as salt is in American food. Yeah. Imagine being allergic to salt. It’s not fun. My entire face was covered with red dots. I was so embarrassed I wore the my navy blue Yankees hat 24/7 until the doctor’s medication finally worked and the dots were gone.

After that, I said to myself, “okay, Cat. You got illness out of the way. At least it wasn’t something serious.” Psyched myself out; just you wait. Because everything in China has MSG in (probably even the air has MSG in it), I could barely eat anything. My mom and doctor were extremely worried, so they asked me to go back to the hospital and get a blood test to make sure I didn’t develop anemia. So back to the hospital I went. Apparently, I wasn’t getting enough nutrition, so I had to open up a Chinese bank account and download an app called “饿了吗?” which translates to “are you hungry?”. On the app, I could order Western style food on my phone and have it delivered to my dorm building.

Okay, so now I have been to the hospital twice. Just you wait; we’re not done yet. Three weeks before the end of the program, I start feeling my throat itch and my head hurt. I thought nothing of it, but 15 minutes into my first class, I could not stop coughing. I was in so much pain, that I was rushed to the hospital for the third time. I waited there for 3 hours before the doctor (who already knew me on a first name basis at this point) gave me some DayQuill and told me to get some rest. Turns out it wasn’t just a cold– it was bronchitis. I went to the doctor 3 times that week, until they finally prescribed me 5 different types of medication. That week was definitely not fun.

So after all of that, I just have one question: why does China hate me?! All I want is to practice my Chinese and enjoy Chinese culture!

Of course, while all of these experiences were real, I am just joking. I know China doesn’t actually hate me. Since I have been here, I have received nothing but love and compassion, especially from all of my new teachers. While I was sick, they would all take turns texting me and making sure I was alright and asking me if I needed anything. I can’t wait to come back to China soon; hopefully I won’t have to go to the hospital!

Minorities in China

Living in Florida for all of my life, I am used to being surrounded by different cultures, especially Latin culture. It’s something I love most about living in America; however, when I came to China, I noticed the seemingly homogeneous landscape. This led me to question how it must feel being a minority in China.

On my way to my favorite “baozi” restaurant, I passed a Hispanic woman. I stopped her and asked her several questions on what it must feel like being a minority in China. She told me she had been living in Beijing for six months because of her job. Originally from Colombia, she desperately missed hispanic food, particularly arepas, a very popular dough-like food. She said while Chinese landscape seems the same everywhere, it isn’t. Each city has its own characteristics and typical foods. For example, people from Sichuan like spicy food.

After the usual introductory small talk, she started to open up about how it felt to be a minority in China. She felt very lonely a majority of the time, because she still hasn’t found anyone from her hometown to identify with. Most of the foreigners in Beijing are American or Australian, according to her. After her first couple weeks in Beijing, she got sick of Chinese food, so she started cooking some traditional Colombian foods in her kitchen, but the ingredients in China are very different compared to Colombia. While they might both be “beef”, what the cows eat, how often they are allowed to exercise, their environment, etc are all different. This impacts the taste.

While there are a lot of disadvantages, there are also a lot of benefits. She gets a lot of attention. For example, last weekend, she was walking to Element Fresh, a very popular American-style restaurant, in Sanlitun when she was stopped by two businesswomen looking for a model to take pictures wearing their company’s sunglasses. She made $200! Perks of being a 外国人!

In summary, she says being a Colombian woman in Beijing is incredibly lonely, but rewarding.

The Black Market

When people think of the black market, they usually think of back alley drug deals led by tall, muscular tattooed men; however, in China, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Huge shopping centers filled with individual venders, mostly middle-aged women under 5’5, occupy Beijing.

One of China’s biggest issues is counterfeited products, also known as “fake goods.” Name brand products are a very popular commodity all over the world, but China is one of the only places where you can get the latest trendy Louis Vuitton backpack for 1/20th of the price. Who’s buying these products? Foreigners from all over the world. How’s the quality? Indistinguishable from the real thing. Where can you buy them? Everywhere, but two very famous places are Hong Qiao Market and Silk Market in Beijing. You might be thinking, “hmm good quality…cheap price…readily available…what’s the catch?” Well, if you aren’t careful you can be easily fooled.

Last weekend, my friend, Sarah, and I, two third year Chinese students, ventured off to Hong Qiao Market. With around 400 RMB (roughly $60) in our pockets, we began to look around. At first glance, you see a hallway filled with nice looking, “mom-type” Chinese women; however, once you get close enough, they become ferocious. I was physically pulled (yes, they grabbed my arms) into their small stores while they screamed, “GIRL, HEY GIRL YOU WANT TO BUY BAG? HEY GIRL YOU WANT NEW GUCCI? HEY GIRL GIRL GIRL LOOK AT ME YOU WANT ADIDAS?!” First I was petrified, but after ten minutes, I was screaming right back at them in Mandarin. When they figured out I spoke their language, they were much less aggressive, and showed me back entrances to their better quality goods. After choosing several bags, I would bargain with them for 20 minutes at least, cutting down their initial price from around 500 RMB to 50 RMB. After several hours, those 400 RMB were well gone, but instead, I had 2 Gucci handbags, 4 Adidas sneakers, 1 Louis Vuitton phone case, 2 basketball jerseys, and 1 soccer jersey. Not bad right? Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I looked over at a 50 year old Russian woman speaking English with the Chinese shop owner. The Chinese woman sold her 1 bad quality Gucci purse for 4000 RMB. THAT’S $600! After that, Sarah and I quickly left the market filled with new “luxury” items.

While we managed to get good deals, we left the market completely exhausted. American malls are less work, but so much less fun!

Slang in Chinese

It seems that in English slang is used more than proper words. If I had to pay a dollar for every slang word I used, I think I would be broke by noon. I wanted to see if slang was equally important in Mandarin, so I asked two PKU students and two older Beijing natives about their opinions on slang.

After speaking with each of them for around twenty minutes, they all had pretty much the same attitude towards slang–apathy. Basically the consensus was that it was useful, but not necessary to a conversation. This is a key difference between Mandarin and English; you don’t have to know slang to get around in Beijing.

When I asked them which word they used the most, to my surprise, they all said the same word, “滚.” This word has many meanings, but the most local is an extremely offensive way of saying “leave me alone.” Even the older Beijing natives used this word. Thinking back on it, maybe they were all just telling me to leave them alone…Some other slang words we talked about were “翘辫子” and “去世” which means somebody has passed away.

Men and women of all ages both use slang, but not as much in the work place or during interviews. A lot of slang that was mentioned, particularly by the students, were deemed offensive. They wouldn’t dare jeopardize their jobs by using this type of language, so they prefer to stick to normal Mandarin with hints of common, non-offensive local words.

When I asked them whether they would use slang around their parents, they were a bit hesitant. Most Chinese parents are very conservative and equate slang with disrespect. They believe that parents and elders should be spoken to formally, not on the same level as a friend.

Before, I never really realized the implications of speaking slang with other people and how that coincides with level of respect. Of course, you speak differently depending on the person, but it has always been subconsciously. All in all, this experience was very enlightening.

Chinese Views on American Influence

Before coming to China, my brother, who had lived in Shanghai, China for five years, told me about Chinese people’s’ reluctance to discuss controversial topics, especially with foreigners. I hadn’t really thought much of it, but since my arrival to Beijing, it seems to be the only thing I think about.

Every single class, our teachers always seem to implement our views on controversial tropics, especially President Trump. With all the uproar in the news nowadays, I don’t blame them, but after a while, you start to wonder what their views are. Respecting cultural sensitivity towards my teachers, I never asked them, but instead, decided to ask Chinese people on the street of different ages and genders what their opinions were on today’s controversial topics.

First, on the train ride back from Xian, I asked a twenty-five year old college graduate wearing an oddly Waldo-esque t-shirt several questions. Starting off slow, I asked him whether he watched or read the news often. After fervently nodding yes, I was excited to hear what he thought about America, Russia, China’s economic boom and shift towards Western-style living over the years. To my dismay, whenever a question about government or economics came up, he repeated he wasn’t knowledgeable on the subject and would rather move on to another topic. It seemed as though every topic was too liberal! After much disappointment, I asked him whether he liked America and Western influence in China. He said he loved America, especially movies. He said his favorite movie was Harry Potter, which ironically, is made up of British actors.

Later, I asked a young woman working on the train what her opinions were of America and our president. Just like the young man, she refused to answer the questions and instead kept repeating she loved America. After my third question, she politely excused herself and moved to the opposite side of the train. In shock, all I could wonder was am I so frightening? I am a 5’4, nineteen year old American girl wearing a Notre Dame T-shirt and Nike sneakers. Why are they so scared to tell me their opinions?

Finally, I asked an old woman about her opinions of America. She was very against Western culture, and kept repeating that the reason for increasing childhood obesity in China was due to American food. Feel my anger rising, I tried to maintain my calm and explain to her that fast food is only a small portion of American culinary. Refusing to believe me, she walked away murmuring to herself in unintelligible Mandarin.

After these encounters, I still don’t really know what Chinese people think of Western culture. Most people are too polite to say their real opinions. Hopefully, their opinions are good, but seeing photos of Beijing before and after Western influence, I could understand why they wouldn’t be.