Day 26 (21st of March, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
A full day of class today. In period one I was made to stand up in front of the class and recite a poem.
A transliterated version of this poem to help with pronunciation is as follows:
si shi si
shi shi shi
shi si shi shi si
si shi shi si shi
si shi si zhi shi shi zi shi si de
It reminds me of a classic Chinese story called ‘Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den’. As the title indicates, it tells the story of a poet who ventures out of his home in the mountains only to hunt lions.
shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi
Today’s classes revealed to me the true effect that such a reliance on tones to differentiate words has on a language and the culture which grows from it. Because tone of speaking actually influences meaning, undertones such as sarcasm and questioning have to be conveyed in other ways. While in English we would speak in a high pitch to be sarcastic, or raise our tone to indicate a question, the Chinese have words for both of these things. They have a word which essentially means ‘this is sarcastic’, and a word which simply acts as a verbal question mark.
That’s why you’ll watch a Chinese news report and think they’re getting angry with you, when really that’s just the tone of the words they’re using.
I genuinely have grown to love the aural sound of this language while being over here. I think some speakers, particularly the ones with less regional accents, have a remarkable musical quality to their words.
There’s no doubt that this tonal language also comes with its problems. For one, you can’t infer the pronunciation of a word from its Chinese character. Chinese people must learn every character from scratch. They can’t build off existing knowledge like we can with an alphabet.
In the book I finished recently, Mr. China by Tim Clissold (thanks for that one Rob), he references not only the above difficulties, but also how he believes that this is what has caused the embedded culture of plagiarism and rote learning in Chinese education. I wholeheartedly agree. Everything over here is learned by writing it out hundreds of times until it finally sticks. There’s no other way.
Even as an 18 year old, I come across words in English which I’m unfamiliar with every day. This is fine, since I can fall back on an alphabet to deduce its pronunciation and hence remember how to write it in the future. If I were Chinese, though, I would have to write the characters for the word out a few dozen times over a number of days otherwise I would never be able to write it again (regardless of whether I know how to say it).
Mr. China, I noticed, was referenced by Donald Trump as being one of his top books on China. Considering he just hinted a 40% trade tariff against Chinese imports, I’m questioning whether he actually read it in the first place.
Between lectures, I rushed to the Immigration Centre to pick up my new visa which will allow me into Hong Kong. Thank God that ordeal is over with.
In the haste, I realised that weeks of breathing had finally caught up to me. Growing up I was never told that breathing was so bad for you. Now that everyone talks about the lung difficulties you can get from breathing Chinese air, I’ve been trying to breathe less of it. There’s no doubt that it’s hard to abstain from it for too long, though.
I celebrated with a Taiwanese street-food dinner.
Day 27 (22nd of March, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
The weather was bleak this morning. As usual, the cool weather has given me a permanent cold. As a result of this, I’ve become well known in my class for always having a packet of tissues. In the first class today, a Korean girl sitting next to me asked if she could borrow a tissue. Since I didn’t want the used tissue back, I was generous enough to let her keep it. In the afternoon class, she arrived with a card thanking me for my generosity and a packet of chips. I was confused and surprised, but it was a pleasant addition to my afternoon.
It was particularly nice to receive that note and snack since it occurred amongst a culture where thanking people isn’t the norm. One of the first things a beginner Chinese speaker gets told in China is to stop saying “xie xie” so much. In Australia, we’ll say “thanks” to supermarket checkout staff, bus drivers and restaurant waiters. In China, if you were to say “thanks” in any of those situations, it would be considered very odd. Even more remarkably, it wouldn’t be seen as overly polite. Instead, it would only be interpreted as poor Chinese skills.
I think this reveals a significant insight into the Chinese mentality of work being a duty. In Australia, there’s a fine line between thanking someone out of courtesy and thanking someone because it’s necessary to validate what they’re doing. In some situations, it can be considered rude to not thank someone for doing something which was their job in the first place. The difference in China is that they don’t value these few words as a sort of social payment. Instead, the drive to work in China has to be sourced from within. I think this is partly what creates their strong work ethic.
Does that make sense? I hope so.
Obviously this ‘unthanking culture’ comes with its negatives, but that’s one positive I can draw out of it.
The weather improved as the day went on. The evening brought with it a beautiful, (albeit sulphur-encrusted) sunset.
Today I bought a 3 month gym membership on impulse to live up to my (Chinese) New Year’s resolution of keeping fit. The gym is quite a spectacle. It literally is a dungeon. Posters of half-nude women surround the weights machines on the metal grill walls, and tattooed Chinese gangsters roam the floors with their shirts off. As the skinny white guy doing his lightweight bench press in the corner, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
I played basketball with my Korean friends afterwards. We met a Chinese team who’ve agreed to meet us twice a week at this time, so we’ll see how long that friendship lasts. As usual, I walked away from the game with black hands from all the dust on the court. After the game, the Koreans shouted me some green tea ice-cream which I greatly enjoyed.
Day 28 (23rd of March, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
Today was a very tough day due to a bout of homesickness coming back to bite. I didn’t anticipate missing home at all before coming on this trip – it really is unique experience for me. A lot of it is to do with not having an Aussie next to me who I can laugh with about the funny things which I come across. It’s the first time I’ve been to China where I’ve had to accept minute differences rather than laugh at them and retreat back to my Australian ways with a friend.
My Korean friend, Wally, brought me a gift today. It’s a drying rack for my socks and underpants. It’s a miraculous invention, and I can’t believe I hadn’t bought one sooner. I would highly recommend that you all invest in one.
My activity for the evening was originally attending a Kung Fu Panda 3 screening hosted by the international school. I walked out after the first scene, however, as I realised that I was watching Kung Fu Panda 3.
One thing I notice about Chinese universities is how commercialised they are. In every class building, there are stalls set up by telecom companies selling students SIM cards and phones. I came across this sign which more accurately translates as “recharge here, kid”. Instead, this was the result:
I ended up spending the night dreaming up possible destinations for travel in August and December/January. I’m thinking of trying a short Topdeck or Contiki tour to save the hassle of organisation and to meet some other people. Unfortunately they don’t offer any tours to Korea (South Korea, that is), which is the country I most want to visit at the moment. They have some good ones which go along the Croatian coast which I’m weighing up. Another destination I hadn’t considered was Peru – that would tick off the last continent I haven’t been to (except Antarctica, of course). I also thought that a tour to Israel and Jordan looked particularly interesting, especially considering it’s a safe part of the Middle East and it’s a region which I can’t foresee anyone close to me ever consenting to going on. Nothing gets me more excited than to think of the limitless ways in which I can spend my childhood savings.
Day 29 (24th of March, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
One moment stood out above the rest today. I was strolling back to my dorm from a cafeteria on the other side of campus when two Chinese girls approached me. I had just come from reading an English book. Switching between the languages is a difficult task, so I didn’t catch what the first girl said to me when she tapped me on the shoulder. I saw that her friend was holding a camera and pointing it at me, and so I simply replied “sure”, and smiled at the camera. It was only after an awkward twenty seconds that I realised that this was not a photo, but a video. I had been asked a question in an interview for a student’s project.
I promptly asked her to cut out the first twenty seconds of footage, but was met with a lucklustre response.
“Could you repeat the question you originally asked me?” I asked.
Her response was incredibly fast and confusing. The only words which I picked up were “university students”, “boyfriend”, “girlfriend” and “marriage”. Like so much of Chinese listening, I put the pieces together and assumed that I was being asked whether university couples should get married.
“No, of course not.” I replied. “They’re far too immature. Compared to other couples they don’t have the necessary experience and judgement to decide to get married.”
The student looked shocked. “What? What makes them any more immature?” she asked.
“Well they haven’t experienced normal life yet.”
Satisfied but clearly disgruntled, the student thanked me and said that she had all the footage she needed. I wandered away, confused.
It hit me. She had used the word “同性”, meaning “same sex”. I had just been asked about my opinion regarding marriage equality, and I had replied by saying that gay people were uniquely immature and unable to make an informed decision on marriage. I had inadvertently become the university’s resident homophobe.
I am comforted by the fact that this opinion is probably far more common over here than in Australia.
Day 30 (25th of March, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
Unlike every other year, I woke up this Good Friday not to the Catholic wishes of the PM on the news and my family, but rather to this sacrilegious gem of a WeChat message on my phone:
Come get crucified with us tonight.
Where? The Hill Bar
When? Good Friday
Needless to say, I declined the offer and chose to retain my dignity. Instead, I agreed to join the Koreans for a Korean BBQ and some KTV (karaoke).
The food was incredible. I’ll definitely be taking the family back here. I’ve never had Korean BBQ before. It seems to be one of the only major cuisines which I can’t recall trying. It’s like hot pot, but with a small BBQ. I’ve really been enjoying ricecake recently, and they had plenty of it here.
As always, the Koreans took plenty of photos. I find the selfie culture here fairly exhausting. In Australia it has a bit of a stigma attached to it, but over here it’s completely shameless.
This photo is with my Moroccan friend Aksim and Korean friend Jane. In the background is Il Kwon, my roommate.
KTV was a good experience. Their song bank had some Western choices, so I was able to pump out a few tunes by The Cure, Sinatra and (the one and only) D-O-doubleG. Quite an array of genres, but I rose to the challenge. I even managed to sing La Marseillaise with the Moroccan, who of course speaks French. As you can see in the picture below, I’m starting to adopt the peace sign in my photos too. When in Rome.
I’m yet to find my signature karaoke track. I do know one thing for sure, and that is that I don’t share my father’s talent for performing World Party’s ‘Ship of Fools’ at the peak of the night. With the drinking involved in any event where you’re privileged enough to be witness to such a scene, the lyrics “save me, save me from tomorrow” are actually quite relevant.
The highlight of the night was without a doubt seeing a room full of Koreans, some of whom actually live in the Gangnam District of Seoul, perform Gangnam Style. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone other than PSY himself execute those lyrics with perfection.
Following the night out, I noticed the following picture posted on Wechat. It was posted by the girl on the right.
Chinese girls post stuff like this all the time. It’s nothing to do with privacy, they’re just so sensitive about their appearance that they’d rather not risk any judgement at all. It’s really sad, because I could see her editing the picture all during dinner only for her to completely blur out her face when it came time to post it.
Day 31 (26th of March, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
Teaching today was good fun. Many of my classes were focused on teaching the terms “Easter egg” and “Easter bunny”. While explaining the Easter tradition to one of the classes, I realised that I had spectacularly spoiled the children’s fantasy of a chocolate-bearing Easter bunny visiting their home. Luckily I don’t think anyone here celebrates the holiday.
I was also witness to some of the most brutal corporal punishment I’ve seen on this trip. Given, the kid was being a brat, but the teacher’s assistant used rope to slap her wrists and screamed at her to behave. I’m always put in an incredibly awkward position to continue teaching while this happens right in front of me.
This particular teacher’s assistant is the type who insists on not speaking anything but English in the classroom. I disagree with this strategy. Having experienced “Italian-only” language classes in primary school, I was aware of how abysmal and pointless the classes were for students who only had the faintest idea of the language. Even I was almost scolded when I tried to explain the rules of a game in Chinese to my students.
For dinner tonight I decided to try out Chinese fast food. It wasn’t very good. Like so many things here, it was a poor imitation of its American counterpart. The Chinese always do things better on their own terms. While sitting at my table, I overheard two young girls in the opposite booth say “look, a big-nosed foreigner”. I thought this was pretty funny, so I interrupted them and said “is my nose really that big?” The girl who had said it seized up, and her friend wouldn’t stop laughing. I think the first girl was scared because I might have interpreted it as racist, but I laughed too so that she knew that I was just playing around with them.
It’s times like those that I feel really satisfied with my progress in the language.
Day 32 (27th of March, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
In my break today I sought out a restaurant in the cultural centre of Xuzhou’s CBD. This area is made of up a grid of streets sporting jewellery markets, ancient-style shopfronts and hidden eateries which fill with labourers at precisely 12pm every day.
I found myself a nice library-themed restaurant for lunch and had an excellent dish of 牛肉捞面 (Beef Lo Mein). I fitted in well with my book. Soup-stained novels are becoming a trademark of mine.
I also tutored privately in the evening. I really like the three students I teach. One of them is incredibly self-conscious with her pronunciation of each word. She always throws her head into her hands at the slightest mispronunciation. It’s very satisfying to have her say a sentence and be confident with it. We covered the topics of weather and the time. I’m finding it difficult to teach tenses and conjugation in English, since I’ve grown up knowing how to speak my own language without knowing the complex rules behind it. I’m going to do a bit more research into it before next session so that I know what I’m talking about.
I communicate with the parents over WeChat and send them the class content for their kid’s revision. In case you’re interested, this was one part of today’s lesson:
After my Sichuan peppercorn-laden dinner, I retreated to my room to bury myself in study. University work has abruptly crept up on me. I’m still getting used to the different style of teaching. Suddenly I’m faced with a load similar to that in high school. As I become more in tune with this country’s education methods and the university lifestyle, I know that the workload will start settling down. I just need to build more of a routine.
I’m going to bed on a high tonight after successfully writing out about 50 new characters which I had learned last week. I can’t believe most of them stuck. Being immersed in the language does wonders in consolidating information.
Until next time,