With many students away from home for the holiday season, teachers, students, friends and foreigners from all over came together for a CLI community “Thanksgiving Dinner”. As turkey is hard to find in China, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner as many Americans know it was obviously out of the question. With the turkey, went the stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, gravy and all. Instead, we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet at Tian Fu Lou, one of Guilin’s several Buddhist restaurants. This was an option most everyone was happy with, seeing as many of the foreigners in Guilin are vegetarians as well as the undeniable authentic quality of the dishes being hard to dislike.
The CLI community transformed the tame restaurant atmosphere into a festive gathering with all the chit-chat, banter and belly-laughs that you would expect from a holiday celebration back home. Students, faculty and friends ate their fill and then some. With full stomachs, satisfied looks could be seen on the faces of many as they scrapped the last few bites off their plates. As the evening’s festivities began to wind down, new friends mingled among one another, practiced newly learned English and Chinese language skills, and shared a few last laughs.
After a warming speech from Bradford Fried, everyone was a bit more versed on the history of Thanksgiving and its significance to Americans. There were even some parallels drawn between America’s Thanksgiving and China’s Mid-Autumn Festival. Both of these holidays serve as a time to get together with family, appreciate the things in life that we often take for granted, and show your gratefulness to friends and loved ones. Although it is sometimes difficult for Chinese families to reunite on the Mid-autumn festival day, it is certainly a day for remembering and giving thanks in absence of those you love.
Several students, expats and Chinese people alike stood up to give their Thanksgiving ‘thanks’. One of CLI’s study abroad students, Victoria Klink, from halfway around the world, gave special thanks to her family and friends for supporting her and giving her the opportunity to come to China and study for a semester, a life-changing experience she will remember forever! Although CLI tries to bring students and faculty together on a daily basis to create life-long experiences, it is extra important to foster a sense of community during those special times of the year.
All the best holiday wishes from the CLI staff in Guilin as well as back in America!
This week’s CLI Perspectives post is brought to you by Avi Patchava, a CLI summer immersion student. Avi came to China on a whim and left six weeks later with well more than just a few Chinese words under his belt. See what Avi was busy doing during his six weeks in Guilin, and how sport mixed with class led him down the path toward conversational Chinese.
Banter & Basketball: My story to conversational Chinese
By Avi Patchava, CLI immersion student
Having endured graduate school over the last year, I had six weeks left on the clock before I was due a return to my job in London. I chose to catapult myself into a Chinese city and see what came out the other end. After a burst of internet activity where I dipped in and out of six other Chinese school websites, CLI stood out head and shoulders above the rest, largely on three criteria: one-to-one instruction; affordability; and the beautiful – and still 99.99% Chinese – city of Guilin.
A week of rapid and responsive organisation by Nancy in Virginia and I was on my way. My experience, in short, went far beyond expectations.
London – although the embodiment of the cosmopolitan – is a city that overindulges English up to the language altar in spite of the unparalleled linguistic richness among its inhabitants. However, at least once a week, I can now enjoy being the source of surprise to a nearby friend, colleague or family member. I meet a new Chinese colleague, or tourist seeking local insight, and I can address them in their own tongue. There’s something special when you see the effect: they are instantly disarmed and you open a floodgate of enthusiasm and heartfelt rapport. Even when your grammar and pronunciation may be far from unblemished!
I reflect on why and how CLI worked for me and how I found the confidence to speak what seems a remote foreign language with paleolinguistic roots far removed from the Indo-European family tree of familiar languages. It’s two things really. First, the ability to walk out into the city of Guilin (with its mesmerising pencil sharp hills) and needing to deploy the sole language medium available. In my case this was a tentative stroll onto the atmospheric bustling ball courts of the adjacent Guangxi Normal University. Second, it is the truly absorbing, boarding-school-like environment that punctuates the halls and staircases of the Chinese Language institute.
Let me say a little more on each…
The school is surrounded by a world of opportunity to play sport. After years of my active side having faced the Blitzkrieg bombardment of London’s stifling weather and relentless work hours, it was refreshing to immerse in all the activity a summer in Guilin and CLI can offer. I felt like a child walking onto a park playground resplendent with toys and rides. On Sunday, Ben and Tristan would organise an energetic 5-a-side football game. On Thursdays, we gathered numbers – including CLI teaching stalwart DaYong – for Basketball. Tuesdays were competitive (Leona-inspired) Badminton. And then there was the table tennis to fill the breaks between lessons where the best bits were certainly when you picked up enough vocab to be able to trash talk your teacher opponents (sorry Nini and Ruza!). Perhaps my standout sporting achievement was not particularly sporty: it was successfully negotiating a four-on-four pick-up with a few local students loitering on a neighbouring court. We soon found that once you survive a couple hours of Chinese basketball with Guangxi students they expect nothing short of full and fluent conversation in the post-game drinks break.
CLI is much more than the two or three individual teachers you have. Soon after you start, every CLI teacher treats you like their own student giving you every opportunity to practice Chinese between lessons and long after your day’s lessons are done. The conversations brim with zesty banter (at times, even slightly scandalising). In what is a close-knit living and study environment, there is great scope for comedy throughout the day and you discover the full depth of the Chinese sense of humour. The biggest incentive for your brain to force new neurological connections is certainly the need to bark a quick Chinese retort.
A huge and special mention for my Chinese flatmates: Richard and Jeremy. Bus rides into CLI with Richard as my companion guaranteed I would be armed with a minimum of 5 new words long before an 8:30am lesson. Vivian and Tingting, Chinese students who were CLI summer interns, were always about for spunky, and yet scholarly, exploration of Chinese vocabulary and modern culture.
I wholly recommend CLI as an immersive Chinese experience. Very happy to tell you more and even have a chat in person if you’re in London. Apparently, English textbooks in China elicit a giggle among students when they explain how the British initiate conversations on the topic of the weather. (So perhaps we avoid that one…)
Have you ever wondered where your clothes were made? Well, I guess you already know they were probably made in China. While many people today associate things “Made in China” with words such as, poorly made, low quality, and cheap, there is another side of Chinese clothing that might surprise you; one that rarely gets talked about in your local guide books or even on internet forums.
One of the opportunities that many CLI students like to take advantage of, is going to visit one of Guilin’s many tailors. Over the years, the CLI team has formed a unique relationship with a specific tailor in town, who is frequently referred to as “The Obama Tailor”. Due in part to the proudly displayed photo in his shop of a past CLI student who is posing with the president himself, whilst wearing the suit he had made right here in Guilin! Being in China and getting your clothes made, not only ensures a top quality perfect fit, but some of the most attractive prices you can imagine. Maybe you won’t have a “Brook’s Brothers” label on the inside collar, but when no one can see the difference, your money was well spent.
Students occasionally head out to one of Guilin’s several fabric markets where they can shop around, bargain, and pick out wholesale priced fabrics they desire for the clothes they want made, all while practicing their Chinese! If you want, you can also rummage through the tons of fabric at the tailor’s shop itself. Students have had practically everything made, from casual button up shirts to full-blown tuxedos. Girls often take home authentic looking traditional Chinese dresses for a more exotic look at their next formal event. Students can talk with the tailor to decide everything down to the zippers, buttons and stitching on their clothes. Some other items students have had made in the past include: bow-ties, ties, casual pants, shorts, designer style pea coats, suits, professional skirts, blouses, blazers, vests, and the list goes on.
Going to the tailor not only provides an opportunity for students to get out, practice their Mandarin and get some quality clothing for merely pennies, but it also adds a sense of connectedness with the Guilin community. Being accepted and recognized by the local people will richen your abroad experience by getting you slightly off the beaten path of touristy sightseeing and into the thick of “Real China”. Getting to know typical locals in their daily lives will also give you a rather unique perspective on Chinese culture, one that is likely to stick with you long after to leave to go back to your home country.
Guilin and CLI welcome you!
When I was in high school, I studied more than enough years of Spanish to be at a level of slight fluency. At the time, I was swamped with all my other classes, I had a social life to keep up with, and was playing sports several times a week after school. The problem was my Spanish wasn’t very good at all. Now I know what you are thinking, “Of course it wasn’t very good! You were very busy, didn’t have the time to devote to learning a language, the conditions just weren’t right.” Well, maybe that’s all true, but, in my opinion, there was also something else missing from the equation, something else crucial to the learning process; and that my friends, is passion. You need to have the desire to learn a language above all.
I realized this after taking a good look at some of my other high school classmates. They were equally as busy as I, if not more busy, and they managed to have a much higher proficiency after we left for college. Maybe one could argue that I just am not that great at learning languages. But I think the real problem was, I simply didn’t want to, I didn’t care about learning Spanish. In hind sight, this is a pity. I was too young and naive to realize the benefits of learning another language, and I certainly had no idea how many doors of opportunity traveling abroad could bring to my life.
When in college, I didn’t study a language for three years, then at the dawn of my fourth year, I realized the mistake I had made. Not only had I never studied abroad like I had dreamed about, but I was about as proficient in another language as I was seven years prior. So, I decided it was time for a drastic change. I signed up for my first Chinese language course, Chinese 101.
Chinese was about the least important course I was enrolled in that semester, considering I was wrapping up my business degree, but something happened that semester that I did not intend. I was enjoying learning Chinese more than I had enjoyed learning almost any other subject in my four years in college. I found myself finishing all my other work ahead of time so I could practice writing characters and prepare for our weekly pinyin recognition quizzes. I was fully aware that 90% of the people in my Chinese class were enrolled for the almost guaranteed end of semester A mark they would receive. I was also not too upset to know that a bad grade was out of the question, but I was certainly in the minority among the students who were actually interested in the class.
As Chinese secretly became my new obsession, I was starting to plan a backpacking trip to Asia after I graduated. In my final semester, I enrolled in the next level of Chinese at my university, and then unexpectedly, I found a summer study abroad program offered to all majors looking to get a Chinese Business studies minor. I signed up immediately and began studying my Chinese books even more vigorously.
I knew I was going to be ready for China when I got there. I had already had months of practice and was even praised by my teachers for having pretty good pronunciation. When I first set foot outside the airport in Wuhan, China, I quickly realized I had merely scratched the surface of this beast that is the Chinese language. Communication on even the most basic level still seemed far out of reach. As disheartening of a realization as this might have been, I was determined to keep learning, and I was in the right country to be doing it. There was no time to be wasted.
Being in China was not only a massive change in cultural scenery, but finding a large portion of the foreigners I met who shared a passion for the Chinese language, was also a nice change. With learning any language you are going to encounter hurdles along the way, some small, some tall, and some seemingly impossible to surmount. There will even be times where you feel your language abilities are even regressing. It is extremely easy to become discouraged, but during these slumps it is crucial to stay focused and motivated as much as possible.
One of the problems I find with the way our world works today and the way people learn language is, the way we expect “results”. We have come to expect the results of everything we do almost immediately. Whether you are a runner who wants to know exactly how much time you shaved off your latest mile attempt or if you are working in the business world looking to see the effects of a certain marketing campaign for your newest product, we all expect to see results right away. It’s easy to know if things in our current world are working or not. With learning language, it is a much different process. One cannot study for two weeks intensively and then expect to look back on the whole of their fluency and see progress. You might have to look back after a few months to see how far you have come.
After being in China for over one year now, I can confidently look back at where I was when I first came to this country and smile. There is no way I could have gotten to where I am today if I was not surrounded by the language every day, working, living and breathing the Chinese language and culture.
Some wise words from one of my favorite Chinese teachers was a simple analogy. Learning a language is like climbing a mountain. It starts off smooth, flat, and simple. Then it progressively becomes more strenuous. Once you get above the timberline you can finally start to see the progress you have made, but the worst has yet to come. What keeps you going is the natural beauty that is towering over you, beckoning to be climbed. As you march on, the air becomes harder to breathe, the people on the trail become few, and your path ahead is virtually straight up. Turning back is something that crosses your mind frequently, but you continue to press on. Once you finally reach the top, looking down at where you once were puts your whole expedition into perspective. You realize how far you have come and your feeling of achievement is unmatched.
Learning Chinese is the same. It starts off fun and easy. You are enjoying the beginning phases of the learning process and it’s actually quite exciting. At the midway point, you can actually look back and see you have made some decent progress and laid the foundations for the advanced material. The second half is where the hard work comes, and fluency seems almost unreachable. But it is with persistence and determination will you finally get to your desired destination. There is no such thing as a short cut to learning a language, but it can be done by anyone who has passion and is willing to put the time and effort toward something they actually care about.
The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important festivals in China. Occurring every year at the midway point of the eighth month on the lunar calendar, this holiday traditionally served as a day for families to prepare for the coming winter months, harvest the last of their summer crops and spend time with family.
This holiday falls on the day of a full moon which makes the rooftops a great place to spend your evening. Storytelling, an essential part of Chinese culture as well as any Chinese holiday, gives rise to many great tales of old surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival. An abbreviated version of the Mid-Autumn Festival fable goes as follows.
Long long ago, the world was plagued by nine suns. A too hot and too dry earth was not suitable for the people. There existed a brave warrior who was extremely skilled with a bow and arrow. He was summoned by a king and was given a magical bow. With this bow he was able to shoot eight of the nines suns out of the sky, saving the world and all it’s people. As a reward, the king gave the brave warrior a special elixir that, after drinking, would send him up to the heavens for all of eternity. A beautiful ending indeed, but this brave warrior’s heart belonged to one of the fairest women in all the land. He chose to stay on earth with his lover, however still graciously accepting the elixir as a token of gratitude. It was not until, in a stroke of pure evil did the warriors arch nemesis attempt to steal the elixir and drink it for himself.
As the warrior was not at home, his lover was left to protect it from this wretched evil. Seeing no other choice, his lover drank the potion herself and began to float away up to the heavens. The brave warrior smote down his enemy swiftly, but was too late to grab hold of his lover as she slowly levitated to the moon. She has been on the moon ever since and will be there until the end of time. It is with this sadness that Chinese people look at the moon on the Mid-Autumn Festival remembering all their loved ones that they are separated from throughout the year.
Today, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is comparable to America’s Thanksgiving. This is a time for family to get together, eat lots of good food and be thankful for the wonderful things in life that so easily get taken for granted throughout the year. This past week, CLI hosted a Mid-Autumn Festival party on the rooftop of the school, overlooking the beautiful scenery of Guilin. CLI’s students and teachers, as well as Chinese students from the local university, all quite far from their homes on this special occasion, were able to share a wonderful, fun packed evening full of games, food and some good old fashion fun.
The evening started out with an informative presentation given by one of CLI’s interns, Richard. He taught everyone about the history of the holiday as well as the traditions that go along with it. After some trivia games to see how well everyone paid attention, the staff and students were well acquainted and ready to start the celebration.
The most famous food during the Mid-Autumn Festival is the moon cake. The moon cake is a round shaped cake roughly the size of a hockey puck. They differ in size, flavor and style depending on what part of China you are in. There are almost too many flavors of moon cakes to try during the short lived festival. Ranging from salty and savory meat filled moon cakes, to sweet nut and fruit filled moon cakes, you are bound to find a flavor that suits your pallet.
After having their fill of fresh fruit, moon cakes, Chinese tea and other tasty treats, a grand game of charades ensued. Hurdling language barriers and cultural differences, everyone was able to enjoy the game, learn some Chinese phrases as well as teach their new friends some English, and know a bit more about each other’s acting skills and personalities. Some students saw traditional Chinese lanterns being lit off in the distance, soaring slowly upward, disappearing into the night sky. Students learned that the lanterns are used to write down your wishes and prayers, then send them to the heavens to be answered. Although, no lanterns were lit by CLI students, it added a dazzling twist to the mountainous backdrop under the moonlit sky.
Just one of many holidays in China, the Mid-Autumn Festival is one not to miss. Chinese culture is uniquely different to what you might expect to find back home, but contrary to popular belief, many of the laughs, feelings and emotions that are shared during these special times of the year, are comfortingly similar to what you might find back home.
This week, CLI Perspectives brings you a post by Abby Hays. Abby is a recent graduate from Virginia Tech and is now in Guilin studying at CLI, working and teaching. Read on to see what amazing life changing experiences Abby has encountered since starting her new life in China.
When adventure comes a knockin’
By Abby Hays, CLI employee and student
If you had asked me one year ago where I would be now, China would have been the furthest place from my mind. Though I have always been interested in international travel, I have always been more of a “vacationer”. I love to visit new places, but I also love to come home after a few days. So when my friend Angie told me about the opportunity to learn Chinese, teach English, and work for the Chinese Language Institute (CLI), I wasn’t quite sure if it was the right fit for me. Moving is a big commitment; moving across the globe is an even bigger one. But as graduation quickly approached, I decided I had nothing to lose and I chose to spend the next year of my life in China.
Upon arriving, I began working for CLI’s marketing office. Along with Angie, I help to gather information on potential study tour activities and teaching modules with a focus on sustainability. Much of my work has been in preparation for the winter iSPOT program CLI is hosting. We have been working diligently to plan a two-week long study tour for college juniors and seniors who wish to transition into young sustainability professionals. I find that being a recent college graduate gives me an advantage in planning because I am a young professional myself. Additionally, I do some general marketing, including forum posts and social media outreach.
In addition to working at CLI, I’ve also been taking Chinese classes for 6-10 hours a week. Let me tell you- Chinese is not easy! However, being able to communicate in Chinese around town has been one of the most rewarding parts of being in China. One of my most successful moments so far has been being able to negotiate a lower price in Chinese. Even if I didn’t get a huge discount, the fact that I was able to knock-off a few bucks using only a few weeks worth of Chinese was priceless! After that experience, I have become more confident in my speaking skills and feel completely comfortable exploring the city on my own.
One-on-one lessons have been great for me! Having spent five years trying to learn Spanish in a large classroom setting, I have really come to appreciate the advantages of one-on-one learning. You can move at your own pace and tailor the classes to what you want and need. I love my teachers so much! Even though class can be daunting, the teachers are so positive and passionate that I always leave class happy!
While beginning Chinese and starting a new job was difficult, nothing could quite prepare me for teaching. Having very little teaching experience and having no idea how to approach teaching an entire language, I was nervous to say the least. I wasn’t ready at all for the first day of teaching, but you learn as you go. My first week of classes was quite the interesting one. I had various students ask to take pictures of me, one teacher, who just after introducing myself, asked me what milk I drank as a child, and one girl (who I assume got her adjectives confused) came up to the front of the class and told me I looked “sexy.” However, with each class, I became more and more confident and I began to know what to expect.
I was pleasantly surprised to see just how excited the students were to have a teacher from America! My school allows me the freedom to plan my own lessons and teach in ways I think is best. Though sometimes I wish I had a more detailed curriculum to follow, I find that the students serve as my guides to teaching. I am able to tell what things they want to learn and what things they have difficulty with.
All in all, my experience in China thus far has been an adventure! I have tried new things, met new people, and began a completely different phase of my life that I would have never anticipated. From learning how to master the wok, trying “cupping”, driving a scooter on the busy Guilin streets, and hiking the beautiful Longsheng rice terraces, I have certainly stepped out of my comfort zone. From time to time I get homesick and sometimes frustrated with cultural differences; but in the end, I know that the benefits I am gaining from this experience are worth the occasional bouts of homesickness. The friends that I have met at CLI have become my family and support system in Guilin. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this year has in store for me.
One of the best ways to really start pumping up the proficiency of your Chinese language skills is to start practicing and using the sayings that Chinese people use. Idioms are popularly used in practically all languages and provide a certain degree of fluency and naturalness to your spoken language that text books have a hard time teaching. Have you ever wondered why in English people say “the whole nine yards” or “under my skin”? I’m sure you could think of dozens of expressions that English speakers use on a daily basis. Chinese has just as many relevant expressions to learn that have become imbedded within the language and culture over its long history.
The Confucius Institute at Wayne State University has been helping students learning Chinese to gain insight into Chinese culture and improve students’ language skills through their series of short web videos, Learn a Chinese Phrase. Their videos can be found on YouTube, Facebook and YouKu. Their videos are a fun and easy way to teach students new phrases and ways to best remember them. Portraying a Chinese exchange student and usually a Chinese language student, they discuss the expression together and even give the viewer a chance to say it themselves. Chinese idioms can be found all over the web, but it is sometimes hard to put them into relevant context, especially if you are not in China. These videos are short, fun and easy to watch. If you find yourself looking for something interesting to spice up your Chinese language learning, then you should definitely give these videos a watch!
This week, CLI Perspectives brings you a post from Benjamin Horn. Ben, a student from the University of Pennsylvania, tells an epic tail of his adventures to Hong Kong amidst the rainy season in China. Read more to see what nail-biting situations he gets himself into.
When everything goes wrong
By Benjamin Horn, CLI Immersion student
The frogs were chirping delightfully to the not-quite-visible stars as I set out on my journey, shouldering only my Swiss backpack and a sense of nervous anticipation, an almost manic excitement. On the bus ride to the train station, I clutched my small pink train tickets tightly in my hands. My teacher at the Chinese Language Institute, had helped me purchase them about a week ago, when I realized it would become necessary to go to the jewel of southern China, the great island metropolis of Hong Kong. My visa, a multiple-entry tourist visa, was only good for 90 days each stay and I was (frustratingly enough) in China continuously for 92 days.
I planned to hop across the border to Hong Kong and back, thus giving me another 90 days in the country, well over what I needed before my flight back to America. It would be a whirlwind trip: I would train there on Friday evening, cross the border, and have about a day in Hong Kong, before returning on Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t stay for much longer as money was tight. As soon as I explained this to my teacher, he helped me go online and purchase the train tickets, as they sell out very fast in a country with a very mobile population of 1.35 billion people.
For the ride to Shenzhen, where I would jump across the border, I had a hard seat ticket and I estimated it would be an uncomfortable 13 hour ride. For the way back I managed to secure a much more comfortable, albeit a little more expensive, hard-sleeper – certainly worth the price of admission. It was at these tickets which I stared as, my features lit by the garish neon light of the hundred signs of Guilin, I contemplated the next 13 hours. I knew it would be uncomfortable, but then I would be there and would be able to meet up with my friends. Getting off the bus, I walked into the station and onto my train with trepidation and after finding my seat, settled down to sleep away the next few hours.
Occasionally, it happens that every plan you make goes wrong and, for better or for worse, you end up having an adventure. This is, I’m afraid, what happened to me. For around six o’clock in the morning, four hours before our supposed arrival in Shenzhen, our train stopped. And it remained stopped for the next seven hours. It turned out that Typhoon Utor, which I had thoughtlessly disregarded as having an effect on any of my travel arrangements, was bringing heavy rain to the mainland, flooding the tracks at key locations, creating bottlenecks and huge delays for all trains. I had slept most of the first 8 or so hours away, and remained aloof from the Chinese people sitting around me, except for a slightly embarrassing request for some toilet paper (not provided in Chinese public facilities).
I was a little afraid of testing out my Chinese outside of the classroom, even though I had been speaking in Chinese with my teachers for the last couple of months. Nevertheless our delays, which ended up causing us to arrive in Shenzhen 13 hours late, created a sense of camaraderie that eventually overcame the barrier of language.
I began to talk with the people around me, who, as we approached Shenzhen, began to advise me about my trip to Hong Kong. Apparently, if we arrived in Shenzhen past midnight, I would not be able to cross the border onto the island. However, I had booked no hotel in Shenzhen. I was worried, to say the least, as we crawled our way through the typhoon and cooed at the devastation we could see manifest around us: rivers that overflowed their boundaries, red with mud; whirlpools spinning piles of debris; waterfalls in the place of stairs. The guy sitting next to me, a worker at the Shenzhen International Airport, continued to reassure me that we would be able to figure something out. I stared out at the landscape and took another breath of the stale, artificial air.
We did in fact arrive in Shenzhen past midnight, thus confounding my plans to go to Hong Kong that evening. It was now Saturday night, or Sunday morning, depending on your perspective. When I and Xiong, my airport worker friend, stepped off the train, I roared with glee. The train had begun to feel like a prison, and I drank deep the muggy air of Shenzhen.
We exited the station and looking around, I thought that I was spoilt for choice. Hotel signs loomed every which way on gigantic skyscrapers and I was confident it was only a matter of time before I found a reasonably priced room. I was hopelessly wrong. Xiong and I walked around for about an hour, but couldn’t find any room for me – every hotel was booked solid. I felt bad about keeping Xiong waiting for me, so eventually I turned to him and told him that I could handle the rest myself – in a worst case, I thought, I would go to a bar and settle down until dawn.
Yet Xiong had other plans. He called his friend and, in a display of genuine kindness, offered me a bed at his home. I was surprised and pleased, and quickly accepted. We took a taxi out of the city to the suburbs, if they can be called that – huge skyscraper apartment complexes touching the sky – and met up with one of Xiong’s friends who drove us to the airport.
Behind the airport hotels was an anonymous looking tower block that actually served as the dormitory for the airport workers. Xiong’s room was not luxurious: three to a room, the beds bunked above desks on which sat a few personal possessions. One of Xiong’s roommates was gone for the night so he gave me his bed while he slept on his roommates. He even let me take a shower, using his shampoo and soap. Dizzied by Xiong’s kindness and my own exhaustion, I easily fell asleep on his bamboo mat bed.
We got up around 7:30 AM, as Xiong needed to go to work and I needed time to cross the border and to return for my train in the afternoon. We headed to the airport worker’s dorm’s cafeteria for breakfast, where we were joined by several of Xiong’s friends. They were all shocked to see me, a foreigner, in their cafeteria of all places, and even more shocked to learn that I could speak with them in Chinese. I even cracked a few jokes.
Xiong regaled in the attention he got for having a foreigner friend and I was only too happy to praise Xiong to the heavens. We headed to the airport after breakfast and I was helped in booking a bus to Hong Kong city center. Xiong and his friends headed off without much to-do, but before he left I tried to give Xiong some money for his trouble. He wouldn’t hear of it. So I told him to give me his address, and I would send him a gift from England. He was thrilled at that, and we exchanged contact information. As he left, he told me to come back to Shenzhen after I graduated. I smiled and waved goodbye.
As the bus to Hong Kong weaved through the streets of Shenzhen to the border in the morning sunlight, I marveled at the scale of everything. Guilin, the city in Guangxi where I study Chinese at the brilliant Chinese Language Institute, was big by American standards, but a town by Chinese standards.
China’s cities are built on a different scale: they are titanic. Mammoth skyscrapers spring up everywhere, soaring highways rise and fall, lights, trees and cutting edge architecture blend to create the impression of intelligent design. Shenzhen is a city that sprung up “overnight,” its economy jump-started by Deng Xiaoping’s gift of Special Economic Zone status. Although in terms of historical and cultural sites the city is perhaps lacking, in terms of entertainment it is surely not. Jaw gaping, I watched the city pass by until we reached the border. After passing through the security checkpoint without too much hassle, I got on the bus to Hong Kong island.
Hong Kong is a curious place – a unique blend of British and Chinese that I doubt is found anywhere else in the world. I only had two hours on the island, just enough time to eat lunch at a delicious Indian restaurant and explore one of the cities stylish malls, but I enjoyed everything I saw. As a British person myself, I felt particularly aware of the British elements I could see – from the more obvious things such as driving on the left hand side of the road to the more subtle, like the style of the public transportation (the MTR is endearingly reminiscent of London’s Tube). I would like to go back. After buying a book for my train ride back, I headed out, riding the MTR all the way back to the border.
I must admit to a certain smugness as I sat munching on a bar of chocolate in Shenzhen train station. I had managed to get to Hong Kong and back, thus renewing my visa, in one day and I felt prepared for the journey ahead. I thought even if the train was delayed, Xiong had texted me earlier saying I would be wise to buy a bus ticket as delays were inevitable, I could sleep comfortably, read my books, and enjoy a leisurely journey looking at the rainy countryside. My reverie, however, was shattered as all of the sudden all the electronic boards in the train station went blank and people with microphones came out and started yelling in brazen Chinese.
I…couldn’t believe it. Surely not? But indeed, all trains had been canceled due to the inclement weather. I wandered outside the train station in confusion for a couple of minutes, but then thoughts of another night in Shenzhen with no hotel (and this time, no Xiong) pushed me towards the nearby bus station. Luckily, I was accosted by a travel agent – usually I would wave these people away, as the transportation services they offer vary widely in quality, but this time I had little choice. I purchased a ticket without so much as haggling, and then returned my train ticket. I got onto a sleeper bus for the first time and crawled onto my tiny bunk. Curiously, there were many foreigners on my bus, and I found a nice couple, students from England, to talk to in the early hours of the evening. Falling asleep was difficult, but sheer exhaustion usually does the trick. When I awoke, we were back in Guilin.
I got off the bus and roared. Everything had gone wrong, but in the course of things going wrong I had had an adventure, and, to be honest, it was really quite a fun adventure as well.
This week we wrap up The University of North Florida’s contributions to CLI Perspectives. Alex Wright, Morgan Irvin & Ryan Leirvik share their thoughts on Chinese culture. They highlight some of the major differences, for better or worse, between Chinese and Western culture. Take a look below to get more insight into their study abroad experience and their new found points of view!
Daoist thought at play
By Alex Wright, CLI Study Tour student
I feel as if I could write endlessly about all three of the traditions we have studied, but I will instead limit my scope to Daoism. According to our surveys, it is one of the least popular traditions. Yet I think that it is quietly and invisibly still very much a driving force of Chinese culture today. I saw it most at play when I observed the crowds of people and the constant ebb of traffic. From an outsider perspective, it really looks like pure chaos. But the entire month I was there, I only ever saw one car wreck, and it was a fender-bender on a side road. This is not to say that the traffic system is perfection realized. I only mean to point out that somehow, all of it worked. And all this without strict reference to any laws—unless there is a law that allows for cars to drive down sidewalks.
This is where I see Daoist thought at play. If you need to cross the street, you do so slowly and with complete awareness of the given situation. Referring to rules and concepts does not help in the least. When a car comes towards you as you cross, you feel out the situation as it is unfolding. Is the car going too fast? Is it beginning to yield? Thinking about it too hard tends to lead to overestimation or paralysis.
The point of the matter is that the traffic flows at a pre-conceptual aesthetic level in which you and the traffic, pedestrian or vehicular, are unfolding organically with reference only to each other. You and the traffic self-so with complete deference towards each other. Daoism is generally about deference towards the other in such a way that the other is allowed to grow organically as it is in the given situation. This deference is achieved through the wu-forms: non-coercive action, no-thought, and non-attachment. It is this very same preconceptual aesthetic deferential behavior to the given situation that I experienced at play in China. I act without reference to any set traffic knowledge, and I act in such a way that I am not forcing myself against the cars but rather acting with respect to them. This sort of traffic might not be the most efficient, but it certainly is one of the most unique things I’ve ever experienced.
Lifelong lessons learned in China
By Morgan Irvin, CLI Study Tour student
A good traveler tries to immerse themselves into the culture that they are visiting. Really immersing yourself takes more than one month. It probably takes most of a person’s life time, but we tried crash course immersion with this trip. Of course, it’s important that we try to learn the native language, try the foods, and visit all the defining cultural sites.
Still, my perception of China is through American eyes. Everything I did I experienced as an American. I contrasted the social habits of the Chinese students I met with American social habits. I did the same when I talked to shopkeepers and nurses. We were treated differently because we were visitors to China. I’m not saying this was a bad thing. Often it was fun to see the differences in culture and I learned a lot from it. I think I might have learned too much from China because being back in America feels strange and a little lackluster when compared to living in the diverse “middle country”.
People stress the importance of learning from the culture that you’re visiting, but there’s not a whole lot to be said about what to do about it when you get home. There are some things I dearly miss about China that I want to start doing here. One of them is simply socializing more. Americans put so much stress on being independent that they forget that we are social beings. China has taught me the value of daily interactions with the community and spending more time out in the world instead of watching sitcoms on TV.
I also learned to be more assertive in China. In a country with a population so huge, although it enforces a one child policy, you learn quickly to make your demands heard or you will be completely swept under the chaotic noise of the average Chinese street. There’s no time to consider every individuals feelings when you’re sandwiched in between fifty people on a subway train or trying to get food from a cafeteria so huge that it resembles a Walmart storage building. In America, we wait in line and say thank you too much. We take everything just a little farther than it needs to go so that “Thank you” doesn’t have sincerity anymore; it’s just a form of speech.
I miss China more than I’m happy to be home, but I think this could turn into something positive as well. Being a traveler makes you less afraid to be different. I know I can grow from making my own decisions and following through with those decisions. This means I can try to teach my friends and family that if they’re unsatisfied there is more to life than the Western way.
The Chinese culture unraveled
By Ryan Leirvik, CLI Study Tour student
One of my favorite parts of the trip was making the comparisons between my culture and theirs. There are so many differences and similarities to speak of that this journal entry would not do it justice. This is why I must focus on my own experiences of being a minority. This is one thing that I can confidently say is a contrasting experience for American minorities. Rather than delve into the apparent experiences of American minorities, I will simply give my own experiences, and premise those experiences with this: I felt more comfortable and accepted in China than any minority in America will ever encounter. Of course there are outliers to this statement, and perhaps it is naïve to say this, but I can only make claims of what I actually went through.
When I sit back and think about how I was viewed by Chinese natives, there is one thing that easily sticks out more than anything else: I wasn’t given any attention! Wherever we went, there would be the occasional person that noticed 20 random tourists walking by, but for the most part they wouldn’t even acknowledge us. And when they did, it was purely out of interest, such as the desire to take a photo with us. This also makes it sound like they realized we were there and just didn’t want to be friendly, or contrastingly, show their distaste for us. But I believe that none of this was the case.
As the trip progressed, I realized that what was happening was people for the most part didn’t make a scene about anything! Even amongst each other, I noticed that there is this sense of comfortableness and security that you do not see between American citizens. One could argue that this depended on where we were in China. But I experienced this wherever we went, and we certainly visited the whole spectrum of sub-cultures within China.
I think their level of comfort bleeds into the way they treat foreign minorities. They don’t have this constant desire to prove themselves, the way it seems in America. I never saw a chip on anyone’s shoulder. This may again be my own romanticizing of the culture, but I truly felt more comfortable there than I sometimes feel back in the states!
The students were so patient with us, they treated us as if we were family. When we would go out at night, people would offer us their friendship as if we had known them for years. This pretty much alludes to my experiences as a minority. I could write a whole book on the anthropological and philosophical implications as to why they do this, but I summarize it by saying this: If you come across as friendly and open-minded, that is exactly what you will get in return, and more. There are so many negative connotations with the word “minority”, but I can’t really say I have any in regards to my time in China.
More than any other aspect of the trip, I was able to connect the importance of Confucianism in their everyday life. One example of this was the way people commuted wherever we went. After spending a couple days in China, it was quite apparent that the traffic is beyond chaotic. Every two seconds you hear a car beep their horn. There are people cutting off people that are in the process of cutting off other people. Scooters weave through cars and buses weave through scooters. Lane barriers? Pfft, even if they’re there, their existence seems to be invisible.
Streetlights also play a similar role. Red means stop, but if you really want to go then that’s okay too. People are walking through busy intersections, as if the bus zooming by three inches directly in front of them isn’t there. When you describe it on paper it seems like it is destined to be disastrous. But, when you see it in person, it is quite the opposite. In the month that I was there, I only saw a single accident, and it was very minor. Considering the amount of cars, scooters, and buses that are on the road that’s a pretty insane statistic.
But all of this alludes to a deeper aspect of the culture. They are all living in this mega-populated area to the best of their ability. The traffic is controlled chaos. People only beep their horns to let others know they’re there. In America, the beeping of a horn almost ALWAYS signifies that animosity is being spewed out on to someone. When observing this, I would literally watch drivers who beeped their horn, and see their reaction afterwards. Every single time, directly after they beeped their horn, their emotion wouldn’t change the slightest. There was never any sign of apparent anger.
I made a joke about this because it happened so frequently. Whenever I would here a horn beep, I would personify the horn, and have it say, “I exist!” because that’s literally the reason people use horns. They merely want to tell their neighboring vehicle, “Hello, I am in close proximity to your car, and it would be kind to perhaps speed up, but if you would rather not speed up that’s perfectly fine. I will switch lanes when I can and this minor impatience that I have will most readily be resolved.” There would be times when our bus cut off someone so sharply that I was sure we were going to crash. But every single time, the car we were cutting off would gracefully accept defeat, and let us get in front of them without a problem. Try that in America and you’ll quickly wish you hadn’t.
The reason I focused on traffic here is because it is an excellent way of showing how Confucianism has its roots deeply embedded within the culture. So much so that something as modern as the vehicle, and its place in a land of overpopulation, have quickly assimilated to these roots. The Confucian goal of social harmony plays a large part on how this is possible. If all that we are is our relationships with others, then there cannot be an ego trip on the road as to who is the king of the mountain. Rather, the goal is a collective effort to get to whichever destination we have. If you look closely, and spend enough time seeing the patterns, then this becomes apparent in many other aspects of Chinese culture.
This week the University of North Florida’s contributions to CLI Perspectives continues again. Michele Pierson, Trey Brooks and Patricia Willis share their experiences and thoughts about life as a foreign minority in China. From the relentless asking of photos to be taken to the gratuitous help of passers by, they write about the good, the bad, and the ugly of life as a foreigner in China.
The highs & lows of minority life
By Michele Pierson, CLI Study Tour student
Being a minority was definitely a huge change for me. Having light skin and obvious western characteristics (although some of my students thought I was Chinese for some unknown reason), I stuck out in the Han dominated China. Here in the melting pot that is the United States, all ethnicities and cultures are represented—maybe not equally, but still present within our multicultural landscape. So the experiences I had in China, concerning my apparent ‘whiteness’, is ultimately unique to this generally one ethnicity country. When I initially stepped off the plane from Newark to Beijing, culture-shock set in immediately. The airport was filled with thousands of people of the same ethnicity, stopping and staring at us with intense curiosity. While the trip progressed, people would ask to take photos with us like we were celebrities. Every time we would try and take a group photo, people would just start taking photos of us and not just a few people, but an overwhelming amount.
There was a time when this started to become frustrating—when we were in Guilin one of my student’s friends kept taking photos of us every five seconds. I’m sure there are hundreds of photos online somewhere of me slurping up mí fěn (a local Guilin noodle dish) and almost falling on the bus. I could not go anywhere without stares, sometimes laughter, and photos which hindered me from some activities such as just simply people watching discretely in a park. Overall, my experience of being a minority in China was positive, which is not usually the case when it comes to being of the marginal population. It would be interesting to study more on Chinese minorities, such as the Hui people, and understand their day to day lives in the Han dominated China compared to my experience. There are probably a lot of differences between western ethnicities and actual Chinese minorities, especially in western obsessed China.
My home away from home
By Trey Brooks, CLI Study Tour student
One of the greatest things about my experience in China was the people. The majority of people greet you with a smile and seem genuinely happy that you are there. The people go out of their way to be friendly and courteous to you; something that rarely happens in the U.S. I found myself in a few situations where if I were the local and not the foreigner, I would have been frustrated and angry with myself. I never felt like anyone was being impatient, or upset at me for being ignorant about something in a certain situation. The kindness of people was truly amazing and made my experience unforgettable.
My month spent in China was easily the best month of my life. This trip changed me in so many ways. I learned a lot about myself and about a country that I have now fallen in love with. My time spent in China has opened up my eyes to an entire new and amazing world I can’t wait to get back to. There is so much to do and so much to learn, you could spend a lifetime in China and still not have scratched the surface. A single month in China was not nearly enough. All it took was me stepping off of the plane back in the U.S. for me to miss China. They warned us that we might get homesick and feel melancholy a little bit after we got to China, but that never happened to me. I only feel sick and melancholy now that I am back in the U.S. I feel like I left home behind.
A new perspective
By Patricia Willis, CLI Study Tour student
I like that we’ve been presented the question of being a foreign minority in China. What a whole new experience for myself, being looked at as an outsider. I have never been followed around in a public store in my life, but no one in China seemed it strange to follow us around. On the other hand, some people were thrilled to see us, they wanted to practice their English with us and help us navigate the buses or take our photo! As strange as that was, I tried to be patient with them. China is such a huge country and people don’t seem to have the availability to travel and experience other cultures like we do in the US. It seems that our “melting pot” of a country really has succeeded in exposing Americans to other cultures without needing to travel.
Whenever a shop owner was a little frustrated, I tried to set a good example for America by smiling and making it clear that I was trying to speak Chinese with them and understand how their stores and community operated. As hard as it was to communicate, I really welcomed the challenge of communicating with people. It was exciting and challenging, but something that I had to overcome. It was actually a shock to get back to the US and easily be able to communicate with people. I’ve had to be more careful about what I say in public knowing that others can understand me. I’ve also began practicing toning people out on a more frequent basis so that I don’t have to listen to pointless conversations of vain Americans just because I can understand what they are saying.