The Great Culture and Language Wall

The Great Culture and Language Wall

Matthew Albertson

Meet ... Matthew Albertson

China Study Abroad Major: History and Political Science
Location: Beijing, China
Studying: Spending four weeks immersed in the Chinese culture while visiting majestic, historical sites and studying at the prestigious Institute of Chinese as Second Language of Peking University.

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As I stated earlier, I have not had any experience with the Chinese language. I decided if a future student wishes to go to China — but is in a situation identical to mine — this blog entry may be of service.

The program advertises that you do not need any prior Chinese knowledge to study abroad at Peking University. This is true. I would say do not let the lack of knowledge keep you from coming to Beijing but please understand that you will certainly be frustrated with either yourself and/or the locals due to the language barrier.

Beijing locals speak faster than many other Chinese, and there is even an accent when they speak. You must realize that learning a language in a foreign country is totally different than learning it in the United States. In the United States, you can easily communicate outside of class in English. Not so in Beijing. Some locals do speak English, but it is not a large number of individuals. This means you must be ultimately focused on your classes and pay attention to everything the instructors tell you, even if it seems irrelevant.

I would suggest you attempt to learn some basics before leaving for China. Be sure to learn the numbers, because that makes buying things much easier. There have been a few occasions where vendors have attempted to give us less change than we were supposed to receive but because we knew numbers, we corrected them. Also, throw the idea of an alphabet out the window. The majority of advertising and signs are written in Chinese characters. On occasion there is English or pinyin (Chinese characters transcribed into Latin script).

Hidden Benefits

Matthew Albertson These may seem like major drawbacks, and they are if you let them be drawbacks. But there is a hidden benefit hidden inside each situation above. Being immersed in the Chinese culture will accelerate your learning and help you retain the language and customs better than if you simply took Chinese 1 at Bloomsburg.

Do not be afraid to mess up because you are going to mess up. There is no way around that. Every English speaking student who comes to Beijing for the first time will experience the same setbacks even if they have learned Chinese at Bloomsburg. So if you’re considering a study abroad trip to Beijing, China, do not just put your feet in to test the water. Instead, jump in completely and immerse yourself in the culture and the language. You will certainly be a better person for it and will retain more than if you only use Chinese in class. The roadblocks are many, but there are ways around them.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently wrote in his book On China: When Chinese "written characters first evolved during the Shang Dynasty in the second millennium B.C., ancient Egypt was at the height of its glory. The great city-states of classical Greece had not yet emerged, and Rome was millennia away. Yet the direct descendant of the Shang writing system is still used by well over a billion people today. Chinese today can understand inscriptions written in the age of Confucius …”

Take the leap of faith and experience a culture that in some ways has not changed in hundreds if not thousands of years.

East and West: Yin and Yang?

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to complete an internship via The Washington Center (TWC) at the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington D.C. The experience was life changing. At the orientation, the many folks at TWC explained that it would take some time for us to get used to life in Washington.

I had no idea what they were talking about, because I adjusted very easily and without any issue. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed all of the food choices, I understood the culture, and I met some wonderful people.

On the other hand, adjusting to life in Beijing, China is certainly a task in itself. I knew the culture would be different. My political science courses taught me that China is a unique culture different from that in the United States. The Barack Obama administration has made it clear that the United States will become a Pacific nation.

When I first heard of this foreign policy objective, it made sense to me the “party” is in Asia and not Europe. But until I began to experience what I studied did I really begin to understand the vast differences that separate the United States and China. As much as I would like the United States to be as actively engaged in Asian international relations as it is in western international relations, I do not believe the United States can really be a Pacific nation. I will provide some examples that I have observed in the short time I have been in China.

The United States is often referred to as a melting pot (although the analogy of the “mixed salad” is more accurate). It is filled with diverse cultures from all walks of life with origins from around the globe. This is not necessarily so in China. The Chinese culture dates back thousands of years with seemingly no real origin story. Of course there are different sub-cultures within the overall Chinese culture, but my observations over the past two weeks have told me that for all intents and purposes, these cultures mesh and are generally even.

Americans (in general) see China as a communist country with limits on civil rights and a laundry list of other things we as Americans feel are “unalienable rights.” I know all the BU students were perturbed when we discovered Facebook and Twitter were blocked by the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken a lot of flak for its “Great Firewall of China,” but it just blocks internet websites.

Yesterday when I was walking back to the apartment from class, I saw a woman holding her child in an awkward way. The closer I got I finally realized she was openly breastfeeding her child while walking somewhere. She did not have a blanket to cover herself, and her child and nobody else seemed to notice.

To me, this was a culture shock.

I do not believe I have ever witnessed anything even remotely shocking as this in the United States. It did not bother me on a moral level; it just shocked my cultural conscience. Each day I’m here I see something new and intriguing. The three wheeled carts that carry anything and everything (literally) down a four-lane highway. The lack of “excuse me” and “God bless you/gesundheit” — and of course — the unique toilet system.

I do not think I have ever had to carry toilet paper with me on the off chance I might have to go to the bathroom. That is, until I came to China. Nevertheless, these few examples are things which do not exist in the United States.

So, what exactly is freedom?

The woman breastfeeding openly in public would not be tolerated in the United States, yet China is in an authoritarian country. Prior to the 20th century, a culture such as this would be deemed barbaric and savage. But these terms could not be farther from the truth.

In the case of cultures, freedom is relative. Americans have the freedom to criticize the government on a social media website, but women may not breastfeed openly in public without a cover or else they risk indecent exposure.

Conversely in China, people cannot criticize the government on a social media site, yet they can openly breastfeed. This is just one example of relative freedoms. In some cases, the East and the West are Yin and Yang, because they both exhibit unique freedoms. At the same time, the East and West are not Yin and Yang because these freedoms are completely different and are relative.

I have seen the top of the mountain, and it is good

Matthew Albertson We made our weekend trip to Shandong Province on July 13. We arrived in the first town after a two hour train ride and had dinner. The next morning, we arrived at the foot of Mount Tai (Taishan) and took a bus halfway up the mountain.

I must say that I love Chinese traffic. Our bus driver was essentially doing his interpretation of Tokyo Drift around the sharp corners. I enjoyed it though.

Once we arrived at the halfway point, we began our ascent up the mountain. From the halfway point, we walked up the 3,000 steps to the summit. The steps at the beginning of our climb were neither difficult nor steep. There were a lot of shops along the way, but we didn’t buy anything on the trip to the top. The weather was nice and much cooler than that in Beijing, possibly 15 or so degrees cooler and far less humid.

After 1,000 steps or so the climb became more vigorous, and our climbing rate was much slower. Steps were virtually directly in front of my face, and the steps also got smaller and more uneven. I quickly found out that I’m out of shape, and that I will never again complain about the Bloomsburg campus being placed on a hill.

Compared to Mount Tai, Bloomsburg is an ant hill.

We had lunch when we reached the summit, and afterwards we were given the option of either walking down the mountain or spending 80 Yuan and taking a sky lift to the halfway point. I decided to walk down.

My legs shook for about 1,000 steps before they got used to walking down steps instead of going up steps. We bought a few things on the way down, and I even got my picture taken with an old Daoist monk. The old man loved to have people take pictures with him, but he had a hard time letting go of the person because he loved the attention.

After we left Mount Tai, we rode a bus to Qufu, the birthplace and home of Confucius.

Confucius say …

Matthew Albertson The several field trips that we have made thus far have certainly been exciting. I was thrilled to visit the Forbidden City and was even mildly excited to visit Mount Tai. But when I learned I would have the chance to visit the town and grave of Confucius, I was immediately excited.

For those who do not know, Confucius was and in some aspect still is the center of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese culture. I learned how instrumental his teachings were when I took Dr. Jeff Long’s “Modern Korea” course last semester. Many East Asian cultures were heavily based in the teachings of Confucius.

We arrived at the Temple of Confucius in the morning. The temple is not just one building; rather it is a large complex of buildings and small squares. The compound was filled with massive stone tablets. Each tablet was put in place by a different dynasty. It was interesting to see the difference in the writing on the stones and how the Chinese character has evolved.

Also impressive is the fact that these stones survived the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) — former Chairman Mao Zedong implemented this policy to enforce socialism in China by attempting to remove any capitalist or traditional and cultural relics.

We spent about two hours in the Temple of Confucius. After lunch, we visited the Confucius Mansion and Grave of Confucius. The Mansion was a small private complex for the Confucius family. The Confucius gravesite was located in a private forest. The grave of Confucius, Confucius’ son and grandson were in the middle of the forest. It was not an average cemetery. Graves were located all over, and there was no rhyme or reason to their position.

I was extremely excited to be able to stand in front of the Confucius tomb and think “this is one of the men who literally changed the way the world functions even though he died over 2,000 years ago.” Outstanding.

Eye sea ewe two

I fully understand the title of this blog makes no sense. In fact, the only one of the words that will relate to this blog is “eye.”

In the United States, people walk by other people without really noticing. It does not matter if a person is white, black, yellow, red, Asian, African, American, or European. The United States is a mixed salad of cultures and we are used to seeing people who look and sometimes act different than us.

But in China, people in our group, myself included, get obscure stares from the locals. For example, a group of us will be standing in a small group, and a local will look inquisitively at us from a distance and then walk closer and continue their awkward looking. Sometimes a person like this will actually stand directly behind us and stare and study how we look and talk. It is really awkward and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, but it gives us something to laugh at.

At first we did not know what to do and how to react to this situation. My solution is to look back see how they react (hence I see you too). Often times they will hurriedly walk away confused and baffled. I would say a local will stare at me awkwardly at least two or three times a day. And that is not counting the “normal” stares I get.

At first glance (no pun intended) it is just plain weird. But, political science students are taught to look deeper into a situation like this.

Why do some of these people stare so awkwardly and with such curiosity?

It may be because they are not a local from Beijing, but rather from a small village outside the city. Thousands of Chinese workers illegally enter the city to sell their goods and to earn a larger profit than they would in their home town or village. For someone like this, I may be the first non-Asian person they have ever seen or may be one of only a few they have seen.

As I stated earlier, the United States is full of varying races, cultures, and ethnicities. China has this, but I think it is to a much lesser degree. So the likelihood of a villager seeing a white college student in a sea of Chinese citizens is probably unlikely. I continuously have to remind myself that someone who is so obvious in their curiosity of me is most likely someone who has had little contact with someone who looks, walks, and talks like me. This phenomenon demonstrates how inclusive and various the culture of the United States is and how a different culture, in this case China, is not as diverse and varied.

It is always exciting to apply what you learn in the classroom to real life situations in an effort to gain more knowledge or understand a new perspective.

    — Matthew Albertson, history and political science major