My evaluation of my time studying abroad in Beijing thus far
It happened. This week, for the first time since I’ve been here, there were actually a few days when I didn’t feel like I was on that ecstatic high caused by the drug known as “loving everything about China”. I had to tango with Customs and Fedex a few weeks back, but that doesn’t really count. Granted, this is the exact time when you’re supposed to start feeling the affects of culture shock, but I’m going to say that wasn’t it.
Nothing about China or Beijing actually bothered me: not the trash problem, the horn honking, the awful air quality, the constant stench of festering dirty toilet paper tugging at my gag reflex every time I walk near the bathroom. No, in all seriousness, I really did accept all of that the first week I was here. But a few things did happen, and I came to a few realizations that really made me think about exactly what I’m doing and what I actually want to accomplish here.
We CET students have our big mid-term exam on Friday, which means technically almost half of the semester is over. As of 11:30 on Friday morning, we are officially on our week long fall break or qiu jia 秋假. It’s a cliché yet scary thought. It seems like we literally just got here, and just as quick, the time will come when all the people I have become friends with here, all of the American people anyway, will be heading home. I think it was the realization of how quick time is passing that caused me to evaluate my current status, and this is what I came up with:
I’m not entirely happy with my progress in Chinese. There’s no question it’s improved by leaps and bounds, I mean, that’s what happens when you’re not allowed to speak English for a semester. My grades and my ability to actually communicate on a real level with the people in Beijing is evidence of this. But I know I can do better. I still find myself searching for vocab words and grammar structures that I already learned but managed to forget just as quickly. It’s what I should expect when I attempt to learn 40 or 50 new characters and 5 or 10 new grammar structures every morning in the hour and a half before class, i.e. my cram session.
This by no means a bad thing, but the other week I had to take a cab all the way across the city, a 45 minute ride, and I discovered not only how awesomely big Beijing is, but also how little of it I’ve actually seen. It’s no one’s fault – I’ve been busy almost every weekend going on trips and doing CET sponsored activities, and due to the nature of the program I’m in, I haven’t had much time to get out during the week either.
And lastly, my lack of time management has definitely added a little stress to my life. At this point, I pretty much have a system for everything from doing homework and keeping my schoolwork organized, to doing my laundry and keeping track of when I need more toilet paper and bottled water. Yet somehow I still find myself going to bed between midnight and 1:00 am every morning and waking up that same morning at 6:00 to shower and study new vocab, all while wondering, 我的时间去哪儿? (grammatically speaking, that is definitely incorrect Chinese, but if you translate it character for character, the English comes out as “My time went where?”) CET is hard, but not that hard…it’s just time for me to get my act together.
So considering all of that, I made the executive decision to stay in Beijing over the course of our break instead of traveling around China. It was definitely a hard one. If you know me, you know my favorite part of studying abroad is traveling, but in the long run, this is easily the best idea. I’m going to explore a bit and actually see the city I live in, and finally have a chance to catch up on my life.
In the long term, I’ve also decided to stay in Beijing and continue studying Chinese indefinitely (as in I’m definitely staying here next semester with zero plan as to what I’ll be doing afterwards), so when I truly am caught up on life, I’ll have all the time in the world to trek around this country.
As far as improving my Chinese, I think I’ll be amazed at how much I can accomplish in a week during which I have no other work to do. As part of my plan I’m going to force myself to spend one hour everyday at either a park, restaurant, or if I get desperate, the subway station, just chatting with people in Chinese.
For our language practicum on Wednesday of last week, our teachers dropped us off in this park nearby (they did stay in the park in case we were legitimately clueless) and basically told us we had one hour to find old people willing to chat about the difference between:
- life as an elderly person in the U.S. vs. China
- family planning a.k.a One-Child Policy
- and unemployment and social security-esque insurance
Extremely comfortable topics (insert sarcastic tone) when you’re talking with someone who was probably alive during both the Communist and Cultural Revolutions, may or may not have mixed feelings about U.S. culture/ customs and government policy, and might not want to be seen with a white foreigner who only speaks Chinese at the level of his/ her infant granddaughter…all so we could then go and prepare an oral report for that afternoon’s class.
The park just happened to be the place where every morning, every loa nian ren 老年人 (slightly more euphemistic term for old people) in China decides to dance and mingle on these giant concrete areas that I’m assuming were intentionally constructed for that purpose. It wasn’t that big of a park, but there were hundreds of people there, both men and women. I knew I really needed to find the right person if I didn’t want to be stuck talking for an hour with someone I couldn’t understand and who didn’t actually have anything to say, and so I searched.
I ended up spotting this woman, about 65 to 70 I’d say, reading a book by herself on a bench and figured she would be great. On the whole, I find women’s speech much easier to understand, they’re less intimidated by a 22 year-old study abroad student than most men are, and she was reading a book which obviously meant she wasn’t going anywhere fast. To cut this already ridiculously long story a bit shorter, we spoke for 45 minutes, there were no problems with either the conversation or my oral report, and the whole thing boosted my own self confidence – which is why I’ll be attempting to do that for an hour a day every day over break.
And of course, a quick closing.
I realize this post was a bit on the not so optimistic side, and I did that for three reasons. 1) I’m trying to better reflect actual life here. 2) This week gave me the unique opportunity to reveal that life here or anywhere abroad isn’t always perfect. And 3) To explain that my life actually has some substance here (as opposed to being bored back home), and therefore any obstacles or problems that do arise are microscopic dots when compared to my overall experience.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!