A Canadian In Beijing: A Shu-in for Language Training

School is… school. It’s hard, but it’s helpful. It’s work, but it’s bringing pleasure. It’s a commitment, but it’s enabling a freedom that I couldn’t have predicted.

I am a part-time student at the “Beijing Yuyan Daxue,” or Beijing Language and Culture University in Wudaokou, a suburb of Beijing. Above is a picture of the southern campus gates.

Every day, I wake up at about 7:15 in the morning, shower, get dressed, make tea and then take my bag and leave my dorm. I have to walk about ten minutes from my building to the classroom and I grab my breakfast en route. There are kiosks between here and there. One sells fresh fruits and I buy two bananas everyday, which costs me 3 kuai. The other sells hot buns and various other non-vegan items. I buy “su baozi” or vegetable dumplings, which are more like thin rolls filled with vegetables and the occasional chunk of egg that I pick out and leave for the birds. They cost me 5 mao each but I usually get two, which amounts to 1 kuai. All in all, my breakfast costs me 4 kuai, or just under $0.60 Canadian.

With my bananas in my bag, my tea in my travel cup in one hand and my warm “su baozi” in the other, I enter the classroom building and mount four flights to my classroom. Everyday, we greet each other with “ni hao” and smiles and we’re all getting to know one another as we move forward with this language.

I haven’t been a student for nine years. I mean, an “officially enrolled” student. Of course, I’ve been learning constantly and that includes lots of reading and research and discussion about lots of different topics. I’d consider myself a student by nature even without an official student card. Our student cards actually look more like mini passports. They have photos and covers and are very formal-looking.

In some ways, being enrolled somewhere is an experience that has been hard to get re-accustomed to. Having to wake up early, for example, has been tough for my nocturnal self. I have taken to afternoon naps to recover from late-nights and I have been a slave to the caffeine in my morning green tea. I’d also say that the studying outside of class has been hard to be disciplined about, too. After I’ve gone to school and napped, I always want to explore this city and not sit over my books for a few more hours. I’m having to push myself to get the homework done and I haven’t always been successful.

My classes begin at 8:00 am everyday, five days a week, and they go until noon. They consist of two hours of grammar and textual understanding and then two hours of conversation classes, which rotate between a listening and pronunciation class that happens twice a week. We have breaks every hour for about ten minutes and then a longer break at ten a.m. for about twenty minutes.

Everything is in Chinese. All instructions and all descriptions of meaning and all definitions of words are in Chinese. Everyone in the class comes with their dictionaries in case a word is introduced and the definition makes no more sense than the word itself. Sometimes looking up a word and finding the translation in one’s native language is the easiest way to understand it and I am often flipping through my dictionary to catch up with the teacher.

There are about eight levels here and I am in about the fifth level — pretty much right in the middle. I have been slotted in an intermediate class as a result of my previous foundation for this language. I share a class with nineteen other students who also have prior background of varying degrees. Some have studied Mandarin before in their home countries (like I have) and others have taken lower level courses here at this university or at privately owned smaller schools here in Beijing.

One student is a Chinese woman who was raised in Switzerland and whose main language is French. She spoke Mandarin with her parents at home but never learned to read or write. As a result, she is quick to understand what’s going on verbally but slow to understand what has been written in the texts or on the blackboard. It is this student who I regularly access if I have questions about something the teacher has said. She and I speak French together in those moments. My second language has truly come in handy here.

Otherwise, I am the only student in the class whose mother tongue is English. If I need help understanding something, the best I can do is speak with that one student in French. Otherwise, I have to resort to speaking in Chinese with everyone else. Sometimes we have lunch together and it is a lunch of choppy, remedial Chinese but a chance to help one another be understood.

Here are the cultures represented by my class: Nine students are from Korea, three are from Indonesia, two are from Japan, two are from Italy, two are from Thailand, one is from Switzerland and one is from Canada – me! (Not all of the students were present when the above picture was taken.)

For the most part, I’m really enjoying it. I have already started using the new vocabulary in my non-school life. For instance, I had to look into some train tickets for the upcoming May holiday (hoping to get to Shanghai!) and I utilized most of the words we were taught in a previous chapter about “holidays.” It was fun to put those words to use and to know that they were the right expressions before I launched into guessing and gestures – a dangerous miming game that often leads to more confusion in Chinese. (This is the kind of language where guessing at words is often a dismal failure. Trust me, I’ve tried it.)

I’ve also had a good time with my fellow students and teachers. After class, I helped one of my teachers with some of her writing in English, for instance, which was rewarding because it had felt like forever since I was considered an “expert” in a language! We are also doing a big class meal this week that is being prepared by the Korean students at one of their apartments. They are excited to introduce me to Korean vegetarian food.

Finally, I think I’m learning how to be funny in Chinese.

Many of the words in this language are the same sound, just different tones. For instance, the word “brother-in-law” is “shu(1) shu(1)” (tones are marked in parentheses); the verb “to count” is “shu(3)”; a way of saying “several” or “a few” is “shu(4)”; and “book” is “shu(1)” (again, another first tone but a different character than the one for “brother-in-law.”) Side note: In English, the words “shoo” and “shoe” sound the same but are very different, so context is everything in both languages!

So a few days ago, I asked the pronunciation teacher (in Chinese, of course) if the following was a grammatically correct sentence: “the brother-in-law counted up the books.” In Chinese, the sentence sounds like: “shu shu shu shu shu” (but I did pronounce the tones!) There was a pause in the classroom and then everyone laughed. When the laughter trailed off, the teacher told me that it technically did work as a sentence but was not exactly a common one! And then she smiled.

Well, I guess not. Otherwise, things could get confusing very quickly!