Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to School!

So this week it has been very much 'back to school' for me! Though I was very nearly late for my first class - needing a notebook I rushed to Wu-mart (clearly a Walmart rip-off hypermarket!) and bought breakfast (I had no idea what I was buying, it looked like a doughnut but tasted just like dough, but it was hot and tasty anyway) and a notebook for class. But queuing took some time and I had to run back across the crazy intersection and to the class just in time for the bell!

In a class of just 4 people we have been learnind Mandarin (the most common dialect of Chinese) right from the very first principles. In the ironically-named 'A' class is Iolo, Aisha and another Russian girl whose name I have never learnt and we have 2 50-minute sessions of Comprehension with one teacher, and the same of Speaking with another teacher, per day. It's in a nice small classroom directly attached to our hotel - so incredibly convenient for getting to class, fetching forgotten supplies, and not having to rush anywhere at breaktime!

Our first objective in these classes is to learn Pinyin - a writing system, using the Roman alphabet, for learning and pronouncing the very alien Mandarin sounds. When you learn a Western European language (French, Spanish, German, Italian etc), your existing knowledge of the alphabet vastly helps the learning process. Also, many words have similar roots and can in some instances be guessed. Mandarin has neither of these advantages - the words we are being introduced to have very little context on which to hang them, and don't relate to any language I have learnt before! I think it would be very difficult to learn in the UK but, surrounded by the language here, it is easier to start to tune in to the subtle differences between sounds and words.

The Pinyin sounds and accents we have been learning are partly similar to British sounds (p, l, m, n, b, a etc) and others pronounced very differently (x, q, ie, umlaut etc). Therefore we have spent most of our time so far reading aloud words from a book which we have no awareness of their meaning, but are chosen to tune and improve our accent. I like this part because it is not so mentally taxing!

However, in the comprehension classes, we are trying to hang meaning on these words and bring them to mouth when required. Also it is vital to remember the precise tone of each word - most syllables have u to 4 meanings, depending on whether your voice is high or low, rising or falling, which are completely different and unrelated! So very different from English, where you could talk in a monotone and still be understood. Thankfully, Chinese doesn't seem to have much in the way of tenses...

Back at school!

In each of the 10-20 minute breaks, we have been enjoying playing badminton, football, table tennis or chatting. Sometimes I have just sat on the hotel steps and watched, listening to the patriotic music that the nearby highschool plays every morning!

Our classes finish every day at 12:30 (for those of us who aren't on the intensive course) so I have been able to explore the city with Ann and the others in the afternoons. Tuesday afternoon we went to the Summer Palace, one of the 'must-sees' (according to Ann's friends) which was a 2.9 square kilometre paradise with the huge Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill, covered with temples, palaces and natural areas for the quite reflection of its residents - namely the Emperor and his family. Although partly destroyed and re-built in the 19th century, this was a very impressive area of Beijing and full of very Chinese, very beautiful strucutres! Here are but a few, have a look at the Wiki page to learn more:


We had an audio guide to share with us (I was kicking myself for not bringing my spare headphones and a splitter) which pointed out some of the interesting attractions. By far my favourite, though, was this feast boat moored alongside the edge of the lake. Can you see what's wrong with it?*

We managed to ascend the Temple of Buddhist Incense with just minutes to spare, and enjoyed the amazing view from the top. Visability was perfect for at least 4 days, thanks to the rain storm on the day we visited the Wall, so we could see part of Beijing stretching out in front of us from the top of Longevity Hill:

On our way down, this ramp was at exactly the same angle as the sun, causing these amusing shadows to be thrown to the bottom! Can you guess who's who?

On the way back, I popped into Wumart and got myself a Beijing SIM card. I also attempted to withdraw the money remaining for the tuition fees using my international Caxton card. But it was saying that the card was blocked! Something to sort out later then... Knowing that the only way I could get it sorted was by phone, I topped up my Skype so I could call Caxton later.

That evening we went back to Wudaokou for Bouzi (steamed buns) and an evening at KTV. This is a very popular Asian evening activity, especially for students, and you book out a room for between 4 and 50 people to enjoy karaoke! We had a TV and sound system, with thousands of karaoke songs loaded (in English, too!) and enjoyed all sorts of classics while getting through more and more beer... We had Queen and the Macarena and Aerosmith and sooo much more (I can't remember) and it was an awesome night out :-)

Having returned from KTV, I tried hard to get in touch with Caxton on Skype but it had refused my PayPal payment for more credit, for no good reason! So I had to call Caxton on my new SIM card. Infuriatingly, the   message at the start, listing all the options and reminding me that lots of information is available online, went on for minutes so I had just enough time to confirm my identity with the lady on the other end before I ran out of credit! Thankfully she returned my call and got my card un-blocked. But it was quite infuriating because I was assured that Caxton does not block cards if it sees international transactions, and apparently they had emailed me but I had not received anything. I logged into the website and tried topping up my card, but that didn't tell me it was blocked either! And now my SIM card is out of credit again! Grrrrr......

The following day, after school, we headed out to get some noodles, doing the now-familiar dance of just pointing to stuff on the menu and having no idea what it is! But at this very small, local restaurant, the noodles are all hand-made and thefood was very tasty at only 15 Quai (£1.50) for a main meal. I don't usually feel rich, but here, money just doesn't seem to diminish very quickly and you can eat at the poshest restaurants in the city without paying more than a normal restaurant at home.

So we travelled to the Art District (another Ann-must-see) in a highly amusing taxi ride where we sang songs to the taxi driver, and he sang songs to us (while sometimes forgetting to drive) in Chinese, us having no idea what the subject was!

The art district was quite unlike the rest of Beijing, prices hiked to almost Western levels and lots of brides having their photos taken in front of various exhibits (marriage, and bride photography, is a huge thing here). There are some very expensive art shops and some very modern, gleaming exhibitions - but all of them seemed to be in the middle of reconfiguration so we couldn't actually get in! There is visual art everywhere, much of it proudly saying 'Made in China' on the underside. Like these dinosaurs:

One of the reasons we were in the district was to try and find some afternoon classes for Itka, who is accompanying Aisha from Poland and isn't actually here to learn Mandarin (contrary to my earlier post). We found a very inviting and colourful school, but it took some time and conversation by those much better at Mandarin than me to work out we were actually at a kid's school! Nethertheless, an American teacher got involved and the end result was that they decided to start running their first ever Adult course, with Itka as their first adult pupil... so the result was positive after all :-)

We went for a drink and I had seen enough of people drinking yoghut from a small porcelein container with paper lid to want some of my own. Itka here had some of Beijing's very own orange soda:

With Ann's flight back to Chongqing that evening, we decided to go for a bite to eat at HouHai lake (, surrounded by nice restaurants and small shops. It was very picturesque in the evening, and we were approached many many times by people selling bumpf and junk (a repeating trend across China) but very few beggars here.
We had a snack mostly composed of small pastries with raisins, very tasty and still warm, then Ann was dispatched at the Subway to make her way back to the airport. In the mean time, the rest of us (Leslie, Itka and I) journeyed back to Wudaokou where I left them for Benedikt and Corinna (henceforth known as Coco), had dinner, and then went back to the Hotel. I vowed to do some homework but still didn't get round to it!

Of significance, though, is my recent move into Ann's old room which is otherwise identical to my own but much less grubby!

*It's made of stone and doesn't float at all! It is popular because of its irony...
Posted by Picasa

No comments:

Post a Comment