Linguistic Shifts and Role-Reversals
Wow, it is odd to be writing in English after my first few days of intensive Chinese language study at PKU. After working with English all of my life, an all-out East Asian language shift is a nice change. I guess before I go on, I should introduce myself.
My English name is Sarah Halter, and my Chinese name is 文琪 Wen (2nd tone) Qi (2nd tone), thanks to several amazing PKU classmates and Chinese language teachers. I just graduated from BU in May with a Bachelors’ in English (creative writing concentration) and a minor in Art History. Last winter, I accepted an English language teaching job at Shandong University of Technology, another university in China where I studied abroad at last summer.
I remember last summer I had a tendency to be long-winded when it came to my blogs, but I will make this one brief because I don’t want to cram everything I’ve experienced during the first week in one confined space. I’m a goal-oriented person, so I guess I’ll answer in this section: Why did I choose to study Chinese at PKU before I begin working as an English language teacher?
Even though it may seem pretty obvious from the information I provided so far, I certainly do have the intent to improve my Chinese language skills; and so far, I’ve even noticed excellent results in only four days. I also wanted to put myself in the position of a student who is being taught another language in a language different from their own. Through experiencing this, I feel it will certainly help my teaching capabilities because after this program, I will face and hopefully gain somewhat of an understanding of the difficulties and triumphs of students of second languages.
I had completed an online TEFL teaching certificate before studying at PKU, and I’ve already noticed several trends during lessons my teachers use for language acquisition and practice that were previously taught to me for certification.
It is one thing to learn about language teaching in theory. However, being able to experience a course taught completely in Chinese, the mother tongue of my future students, from a language student’s perspective before I go teach English to Chinese students is supplementary material that was definitely not included in my teaching certification course.
Of course, I also intend to enjoy the scenery and explore all that Beijing has to offer while I’m here, even though one could try to see everything in this city and still have a long way to go even after a month’s time.
Chinese Class 4 and A New Chinese Name
I was put in Chinese class number four out of nine, which is a high-elementary level, and I am the only student from Bloomsburg in that class. The other students in my class are mainly from CLEREC, which is a study abroad agency, and are either European or Korean.
I find it so fascinating how we all have different accents when we speak Chinese and when/if we speak English. In my mind, it is an oddly beautiful concept. People come from all different backgrounds and tongues, and yet we’re united by Chinese, a non-native tongue, and for the most part, we understand (or at least mostly understand) what our teachers are saying and are trying to teach us.
I also thought it was so cool during the first day of class when my class gave me my Chinese name, 文琪。I simply said in front of the entire class when I gave my introduction, “我没有中国的名子（wo mei you zhongguo de mingzi – I have no Chinese name,” and my teacher and several classmates gave me suggestions based on what I had told them for my introduction. Somehow, I didn’t feel nervous at all during this exchange, even though I was the only one in the class without a Chinese name. 文琪 was the final decision for my name. I said I liked it, and returned to my seat. The two characters put together only translate to a phonetic pronunciation (the name itself), but each character has an individual meaning. The first character could have several different meanings depending on where it is placed in a sentence. However, literary, composition, language script, and writing are some of the most common meanings. The second character translates to angel, or fine jade.
As for class instruction, if I don’t already completely understand what the teachers are saying, I at least get the general idea. They are very interactive, friendly, and answer any questions I have. They also correct us when we make huge grammatical or mistakes in character formation. Chinese is a very difficult language to learn because as an English speaker, I have to know the characters (be able to read and write them), their pronunciation and tone, and their meaning.
As for the difficulty, we normally have daily quizzes in my spoken Chinese class. It certainly gives me a challenge, but I’m up for it. I’ve only been in classes for a week, and I already am seeing awesome advances in my Chinese language skills.
New Korean Friends!
During the first week of class, I made friends with a few Korean girls who are in my class and live in the Global Village dormitories where everyone from BU is living. Zhang Ma Li and Cui You Mei are their Chinese names. They speak very little English, and I don’t know any Korean, so we mostly speak Chinese when we see each other in class and around the dorm building.
For the most part, we understand each other fairly well when we speak Chinese, even though our accents are quite different. The first Friday, we had short examinations in our classes, and we studied together in the study café-lounge in our dorm building. Even though we misheard what we said in Chinese a few times due to our different accents, the study session was a successful one. For our exam in our spoken Chinese class, we had to introduce another student we met at PKU to the class and use the new vocabulary and grammar we learned so far that week. While preparing for our spoken presentations, we helped each other with any unfamiliar characters or pronunciation.
My new friends have electronic Chinese dictionaries in their phones, and they were fascinated by my paper-back English-Chinese dictionary. They are very cool gadgets. One girl’s dictionary even spoke the Chinese word during class! Nobody was expecting it to go off, not even her. Even the teacher got a good laugh.
I enjoy speaking Chinese with all of the Korean students as well as the other foreign students I met so far. Some of the Korean students are very soft-spoken, and others are always looking for conversation! We all want to improve our Chinese, so we definitely have a common goal. I think this will help us in class and with our interactions.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
It was a very humid day when we trekked through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but the experience itself brought back some good memories from last summer’s trip and allowed me to make some new ones.
I remembered a lot of the history the tour guide explained from last summer, including the wide-open Tiananmen space where the student riot and hunger strike took place in 1989 and the pagoda-style architecture which served as a place of imperial political matters in the Forbidden City.
There were so many tourists from all different countries present. Since our tour guide was not the only one from PKU, she had to hold a toy flower instead of the PKU flag as a guide. She could speak English very well. Some of us also tried to speak Chinese with her, and she was glad to hear us speaking it.
Since our tour had students from BU and other study abroad groups staying at PKU, I was able to meet a few other foreign students during the trip. Two girls were from Australia, but they were also Chinese. One was in the highest Chinese language class, class nine. She said she was from Sydney, but had grown up speaking Chinese because her father was from Beijing and her mother was from the southern region.
All in all, the trip was a memorable one because I was able to make some new friends and revisit one of the best historical sites in Beijing. Next weekend we go to the Shandong province to climb Mount Taishan and visit Qifu, the site of Confucius’ tomb. It will be very nice to revisit some fun historical sites during this upcoming trip.
Food: Traditional Chinese Cuisine and Western Imitations
During the first week of the trip, it was nice to be reacquainted with traditional Chinese food as well as observe how the Chinese imitate western cuisine.
The welcome lunch banquet for all of the short-term foreign students was my first batch of Chinese cuisine. It had it all, the sides/appetizer dishes, the main course dishes with meat, rice, fish, vegetables, and of course, the soup and fruit served at the end of the banquet.
We also went to a restaurant that served the famous Peking duck. The best part of this meal was a tortilla shell stuffed with the duck meat, sauce, and cucumber pieces. Duck meat is greasy, but when it is combined with the other dishes, it tastes delicious!
Another traditional Chinese cuisine highlight from the first week was when we went to a restaurant in a shopping mall nearby the university. I ordered a spicy shrimp dish with pineapple-shrimp rice. It was fantastic. The sauce on the shrimp dish was sweet, tangy, and not too spicy. However, I accidently ate one of the hot peppers, and did it ever burn going down! It took a good five minutes until my mouth stopped burning.
Last Friday night we all went to Laker’s Pizza, which is an American-themed restaurant/bar just down the street from campus. It had a restaurant, bar, and dance club setting. I ate and shared some Hawaiian pizza and drank some Tsingtao beer, my favorite Chinese beer. The pizza wasn’t bad. It had a thin crust and a very light sauce. This place also had hookah! That added the perfect finish to a meal/outing.
The western-style food, drink, and environment also allowed me to recall memories from home. For a brief moment, it felt like I was still in Bloomsburg! This place reminded me of some of my favorite places in Bloomsburg – Nap’s Pizza, the Crimson Lion Hookah lounge, and the Capitol bar/club. The imitated American scene brought back a lot of memories I made in Bloomsburg, but at the same time, now I am set to be in China for a longer period of time, those memories remain, but are in a way, distant.
So I guess here’s to new memories in a new place with new people! I can’t wait to make more!
— Sarah Halter, English graduate