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Month: November 2017

Shades of Fluent

Shades of Fluent

I am approaching the end of month three of my residency in China. This is often the time when the “honey-moon period” ends and the reality of living in a new place sets in.

In my case, the three-month mark has not been so ominous. I have settled into a rhythm with my classes, done a bit of traveling and have a clear view to the end of the semester. Shockingly, we only have six or so class meetings left! Though a four month semester sounded long at the beginning, somehow the time has flown.

I can now travel around in Nanjing without looking up my destination every time; I have a few favorite haunts and a reliable source for my import good needs. Last time I returned to Nanjing after traveling, it felt like coming home for the first time.

The way in which I regard being “fluent” in a language has also shifted during these few months. Before I arrived in Nanjing, I had never really tried to become fluent in a living language before. Though I greatly enjoyed studying Classical Greek at Wellesley, studying a dead language is very different than trying to learn a living one. There is no pressure to form your own sentences and thoughts in a dead language, only to translate others’ (which brings its own share of difficulties).

Since I am a newbie at learning languages, I had a mistaken idea of what being “fluent” in a language means. Somehow I thought that if I practiced Chinese enough, one day I would just wake up and understand everything and everyone all the time. This is not so of course, and I am learning how many shades of fluent there are.

I would describe many of my students as fluent in English, though of course they do not understand all of what I say all of the time. My roommate describes herself as fluent in transactional Chinese: she can order food, get a hotel room or a train ticket, all the day-to-day things. But, it is a big jump between getting a train ticket and holding a conversation. To participate in a discussion, you must be listening and comprehending most of what is said, and be able to quickly form your own thoughts, then vocalize those thoughts in a way that others can comprehend. It is hard work!

Right now, my vocabulary is quite small and I take a while to form complex sentences. It is difficult for me to participate if I haven’t reviewed the relevant vocabulary in advance. These challenges can be discouraging. But I try to remind myself that I have only been learning Chinese for about five months. I am lucky that my students are such enthusiastic language learners: they are good reminders that with time and effort, I will make progress. Until then, I’ll be off watching Chinese kids’ shows.

Note: To illustrate my title, here is an image of the many variations of fall color in the Summer Palace.

How did you navigate Beijing alone?

How did you navigate Beijing alone?

This question came from one of my students, doubting my formidable Chinese skills. I did in fact manage Beijing alone for several days and only spent most of my time lost!

This post is long overdue, but the past four weeks have been filled with traveling and midterms (for my lucky students) so I didn’t get around to writing as much as I and you, my vast readership, would like!

The first weekend of November I headed to Beijing, which turned out to be excellent timing. Slack season officially begins on November 1, so this bargain hunter was thrilled. Not only that, but early November weather in Beijing is crisp, not yet cold. Both the bargain hunter and the Californian in me were thrilled. Nothing I love better than sunny skies and a good deal.

It was a fun, packed weekend, split between exploring and seeing friends. On Thursday afternoon, I went to Tian’anmen Square, the largest public square in the world, and saw the monuments and museums there. It was a gorgeous sunny day but I arrived later in the day, so the site was not too busy. From there, I caught the subway one stop to Nanluoguxiang station and walked to Jingshan Park to watch the sunset. This park is directly to the north of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City and Tian’anmen are the symbolic and literal center of Beijing the city, and because Beijing is the capital, of China. Here is a mockup of the layout:

Jingshan Park was built up with soil excavated when they built the Forbidden City and serves two functions. It blocks the evil spirits from the north (according to feng shui) and it blocks the winds from the north. From the top of the hill at Jingshan, you have a fantastic panorama of Beijing and over the Forbidden City. I went right at sunset on a clear day, so the view was spectacular.

Getting to the park was a fun adventure. Although it is only one stop from Tian’anmen, there is a 15-20 minute walk from the subway station to the park. The walk is a fun one, through hutongs, the traditional alley houses in Beijing. They are one story with a courtyard in the middle. The hutongs are fun to wander because they are old and charming, but there is usually not one direct way through. I got a bit lost, which was fine, but I was trying to make the sunset at Jingshan Park. I knew that the sun was setting at 5:17 and I had to make it. Because I got lost and loitered in the hutongs, I had to sprint up to the top of the hill to see the view. It was worth it once I caught my breath.

On Friday I headed to the Summer Palace (颐和园). This pleasure palace was used as a summer retreat by the emperors and used to lie outside the city. Beijing, now with five ring roads, has grown greatly and the palace is now accessible via the metro; it takes an hour to get there from the center of Beijing. The trip is worth it because the gardens are absolutely lovely! The center of the gardens is Kunming Lake, around which are scattered bridges and palaces. The leaves were changing already (they hadn’t by that point in Nanjing) and the gingko trees turned a gorgeous, rich shade of yellow.


Friday evening I met another Wellesley ’17 alum from Beijing for dinner and we got the most delicious Beijing-style hot pot. The pot used is special: it is made of bronze and looks like a small volcano, with the flame in the middle of the oil. It is supposed to bring out more flavors from the meat. We got beef and lamb and it was excellent!

My roommates arrived Saturday afternoon and we headed to Beijing’s super hip art district, 789. It is too hip for street signs so we got lost and walked in circles for about 30 minutes before stumbling upon the main attraction, a craft beer festival. China has a burgeoning craft beer industry and it was fun to try some offerings. One of my favorites came from Nanjing’s very own Master Gao. Along with Master Gao, breweries from Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chengdu attended, along with some breweries from their partner region, the Pacific Northwest. Once discovered, the festival was great. From there, we met another Wellesley alum, this time class of 2015, for Yunnan food in Dongcheng. Highlights of the dinner included pineapple rice and ranting about the patriarchy.

Finally, Sunday and my last morning dawned. One of my roommates and I were up early and leaving for the Forbidden City (紫禁城) around 8am. This was a good choice to avoid crowds. Getting into the city is actually really confusing and took us a good 40 minutes. Once there, it was great. The audio guide is very well-done and informative. Because it was early on a Sunday during slack season, the crowds were very manageable. We walked around for a few hours, learning about what different buildings were used for and when they were built.

The Forbidden City is gorgeous but lacked greenery. The red buildings faded into large stone pavers, with nary a tree nor green thing in sight until the garden, which also boasted lots of rock formations, similar to those in Suzhou. (I have since learned that these formations mimic mountains.) Without plants, the Forbidden City feels very controlled and stark, which I suppose was the point: to impress upon visitors the power of its main inhabitant, that he can control even nature.

From the Forbidden City, we headed to noodles for lunch and then I caught the subway to Beijing’s southern train station. It was a nice end to a wonderful weekend! Beijing is a huge city but because at its center are one story hutongs (and I mostly stayed in the center) it doesn’t feel unmanageable at the street level. I noticed its size more when I went to take the subway. Crossing the center of Beijing alone by subway takes 40 minutes. It covers a huge expanse of land!