Ben in China

Ben is a junior from Dallas majoring in history, with minors in Chinese and business, who is spending Spring 2008 in Beijing at the Capital University of Economics and Business.

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Week 2: Crash course in Chinese

I have my first week of class under my belt, and it feels pretty good. It moves incredibly quick, but we are going to come out of here having learned so much.

This first week was especially intense because I went through a remedial course for third-years. That only means that for the first week we went through a crash course of survival Mandarin that we would use in everyday life. In one week, I’ve probably completed a half a semester’s worth of work in a second-year Chinese class at most American universities. Let’s see how much of it I remember!

Next week we move on to content that is on par for a third-year Mandarin student. From the looks of it, the content won’t be as lengthy but certainly much more dense.

Real-world practice
Also, we already have gone through our first Friday, which is a feat in itself. On Fridays we have our weekly test over all of the content we have learned, and then we have to complete a language practicum. This means the teachers give us a set of questions, and we have to go out onto the streets of Beijing and start talking to people.

This week we had to go to a restaurant and ask a waitress or service attendant about their living conditions, family life and what was so special about their restaurant. I wasn’t that nervous, but more shocked at how friendly everyone was and how eager and curious they were to talk with us. My friend who took us across Beijing on the bus system (see first entry), who is also basically fluent in Chinese, said that it’s incredibly easy to make friends here. After that I definitely believe him.

After the language practicum, four to five students meet up with one teacher from ACC and go to lunch. It’s a great way to get to know the teachers as well as learn more about everyday Chinese life. Today we went to a Korean restaurant and had what’s called “Ban fan.” It’s basically a scorching hot bowl filled with rice, meat, vegetables and raw egg. You mix it all together and it cooks itself. It’s one of the most popular among ACC students, and kids tend to go there a lot.

Out and about
Friday was also fun because a bunch of us went over to the Silk Alley Market, which is Beijing’s biggest knockoff market and a good place to buy almost anything you can think of. There are six floors that have everything from black Tahitian Pearls that go for 150,000 yuan down to antique badges from the Soviet Union for 5 yuan. It’s a great place to practice Chinese since the vendors are not only well-versed in their native Mandarin but also English, Spanish and sometimes Russian or French.

We used the subway to get there and back for about 55 cents. Like everything else in Central Beijing, the subway cars were new, and they were in the process of installing automated ticket machines like those in any major U.S. city’s subway system. Right now, they have a team of people that take tickets. Imagine being that person during Beijing’s rush hour …

My host family
What was also a great part of this week was meeting our host families. Two students are paired with one Chinese family, and mine is pretty cool. They are a part of China’s burgeoning middle class, and they both hold interesting jobs. The wife is an instructor at an industrial university, and the husband is a financial adviser for a clearinghouse that manages Visa and Mastercard transactions in Mainland China.

They also have an 18-year-old son who is attending a local Beijing university. Living conditions for Chinese students in university dorms are extremely cramped, so it is no surprise that he chose to live at home versus on campus. They both have really nice cars, a newer Volkswagen and a brand-new Buick, and their apartment is really modern: it looks newly renovated and adorned with all the new high-end electronics.

We went to their house on a Sunday afternoon and made dumplings, a traditional Chinese dish. It was a huge and very good meal. And, as in the grand Chinese tradition, they were eager to keep filling our plates when we did not have any food on them, and drinks were always flowing.

I was surprised how easy conversation flowed. My listening skills have already improved immensely, and moments of awkward silence were kept to a minimum. I would say that I could comprehend about 75 percent of our talks. I hope that by August that will be 100 percent. We will be going back to their house on Chinese New Year for another big dinner. I also hope that Beijing will have a huge fireworks display. They did for the calendar new year, so we shall see.

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