Monday, 29 April 2013

Tea leaves

Being in China, hot water or tea has replaced my main diet of ice cold water for a refreshing drink.

There is tea to improve your complexion, your eye-sight, and everyday aches and groans.  Mulling over the topic, I have come to the conclusion that my time in China can be justly compared to these common usages of tea leaves since it’s only after much concentrated, and intense, heat that the results unfold and are able to be enjoyed.
For example memorizing characters over and over again can be quite dulling. Suddenly an exam will appear on the horizon and the pace will pick up speed, so much so, that it feels for a time that there is just a jumble of words in your head. Afterwards though, you’ll look back on what you’ve studied and it seems so simple and to fit together like a puzzle piece. Many of the new words I learn now are just old characters fit together to take on a new meaning. I no longer have to look up the dreaded stroke pattern, and sometimes I will write what I imagine the word to be and it will be correct.
For improving my listening and reading I’ve started watching TV shows with subtitles. Do you know how difficult it is to follow a foreign film? It’s much like if you were in a movie theatre and every two minutes or so the man sitting in front of you stands up to get popcorn and covers the screen, you hear the words being said, but the understanding is lost on you because you can’t connect what you hear with the visual. What should be a 30 minute show turns into an hour and a half. By the end of the episode I’m just hoping the main characters die off so then there will be less of a plot to follow.
Lastly when it comes to speaking, breaking the barrier of silence is hardest of all. As I wrote in a letter to my friend there is a stark contrast between the language you learn in class, and what they speak on the streets. Most pedestrians will not say with proper pronunciation “ watch out that car is going to hit you” they will either say it very rapidly, and unintelligibly, or physically move you out of the way which in retrospect is better than no warning at all. 
So you see studying Chinese can be very intensive at times, a lot is expected of you and there are moments when the pressure becomes especially acute. It’s in these instances that I remind myself the benefit will come after, and the only thing you can do is bear the heat until the pressure is off and all that remains is an enticing aroma to be sipped in comfort.

“There is a contrast though with the outside environment, on the subways and in the streets, it can be startling how stark the difference is. The language is the same but it is spoken with such quickness, and easy carelessness that it’s hard for a beginner to pick up.”

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Where to begin?

Where to begin, I’ve accomplished a lot these past few weeks! School wise I’ve buckled down, so to speak, and have really focused my attention on understanding the chapters and being able to use new characters interchangeably. To help with my speaking and listening (口语和听力, kǒuyǔ hé tīnglì) I hired a tutor, and it’s the best decision I’ve made yet , that is in regards to language learning, I like to think I’ve made at least one or two decisions just as important throughout my life.
His name is Liu, and he’s a father of two, and in the middle of his Master’s dissertation. On the side he takes foreign learners and I’m especially glad I found him. We meet once or twice a week for two hours and do homework and talk. At first I had no idea what I could say to keep up a conversation but he prompts me a lot, and likes talking himself, so together we make a good pair. I like to think we have very meaningful discussions. The other day we talked about why it’s rare to see girls on their own, the pros and cons of travelling in a tour group, and the chances of getting free rice with your meal. I talked very animatedly on the last subject since it only happened a few days ago and I was still gloating over it. Liu is very helpful when it comes to proper grammar usage and is a stickler for tones when speaking. He will have me re-read texts over and over again until I’m pretty sure all the sounds I’m making merge into one endless drone. Afterwards we will talk about living on campus and the age range of who it is acceptable for me to date. He is very preoccupied with that fact, and is pretty much my confidant in all manners relating to the opposite gender. It is extremely helpful since
  • He can’t tell anybody that I know
  •  I can only use limited words so my otherwise in-depth analysis becomes narrowed down to 朋友, 好朋友, 马马虎虎 friend, a good friend, so-so

In other news, I have joined a dance class on Saturday’s that consists of me imitating the disposition of a bull. It’s actually a lot of fun, but I, yet again, misread what I was signing up for since I thought it was to be on Friday’s and definitely not three hours long.
What I’m a part of it seems is a dance that comes from the Dai tribe in China’s Yunnan province. This endears me to it since that is where I went during my first trip to China. Yunnan Province is located in southwest China and is beautiful and warm. It has about four main large ethnic minorities, and the Dai tribe is famous for their musical and dancing talent. .  They say that dancers holding a bulls head first appeared on a fresco in a stone cave within Yunnan. A long time ago the bull was revered by the people for its strength and fierceness. To slay one, and have its head, was a sign of power and fortune. Many heads with the horns rising out in a giant arch would be used to decorate their houses and put on wooden posts. The dance we are learning has us use our arms and hands in imitation of the horns. We move to the rhythm of a heavy drumbeat that methodically keeps our pace. If the drum doubles up, or slows down, then we know to transition into a new move, and over and over again we keep pace with the drum.
After awhile it becomes ingrained to your mind and the moves come naturally. The sound builds until it becomes overwhelming and you lose sense of time. When you close your eyes all you see is flashing images and silhouettes. Ingrained forever are the snapshots of the village women’s colourful garments and the ominous shape of the bullhorns rising up from the dust.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A Bicycle Ride

This weekend I’ve felt like I’ve been flying.
A friend lent me their bicycle for the past few days and it’s been as if my feet haven’t touched ground. The convenience of getting around, combined with the beautiful weather have lifted my spirits. I was able to see much more of Wudaoku (part of Haidian District in NW Beijing) than I’ve been able to before. We’ve been lucky in having a low pollution index the last few days so being outside is actually a pleasure and not just a coughing fest.
 I’m also surprised at how much independence having a bicycle gives me. I’m able to take shortcuts that the subway can’t, and the street names and layout are becoming much clearer in my mind. The fears of being run over by crazy city traffic are as of yet unfounded, and the relaxed restrictions on where or where not one can ride are pretty nice.
One place I went on the weekend was the Morning Market by Peking University. It’s a giant outside market thronged with people. Though I’ve seen similar ones in Laos, Vietnam here it seemed to be a bit more orderly and to have more variety. There were rows, and rows, as far as the eye can see of fruits, vegetables, meat, household products and clothing. Everyone was chattering away and yelling to each other. The people I accompanied were two teachers at the aforementioned University. Both are Americans teaching English so I made myself useful by being the price translator. At fresh food markets they sell most of their products by 一斤 ( Yī jīn )  a pound. . Being used to buying just enough for one, I had to adjust in my thinking. I also noticed that if you didn’t quite by a pound they would add to it until it did. I thought this was a bit strange but maybe it’s universal, I wouldn’t know, usually I just buy two apples and I’m good.
I learned a lot in observing how to pick out vegetables and fruits. Coming from a big family I tend to always think the bigger the better, but in some cases I guess that’s not true (in very rare cases). As well I figure as much as people are advocates of homegrown “local” food I wonder if the majority of them would put up with the quality level. Some of the fruit still had dirt clinging to them and many were bruised and sullied, they pale in comparison to the genetically modified, yet aesthetically pleasing, produce on the grocery shelf.
Regardless, I am trying my hand at being a planter. I received some seeds the other day and feel it’s about high time I make use of them. The one difficulty is I forgot what they were called. The seeds are very tiny and I have perhaps 50 of them in a small zip block bag. I’m hoping they won’t take up a lot of space, because frankly my window sill isn’t that big. I’m excited at the prospect of growing something and will be very sneaky in digging up dirt around campus. I will also tend to it, with the tender love and care of a Mother, waiting with baited breath as it grows into something edible.