The First Week- Learning Hanyu like a Laoban

Published: July 29th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

There is no way around this. I was nervous on the flight. The food seemed to taste like cardboard in my mouth (though in all fairness most airline food does anyway), and I couldn't sleep. Though again in all fairness, I can't do that anyway either. So to distract myself I put on some podcasts about Chinese history. On the onscreen map the plane hurtled across Central Asia.

Finally in the mid morning the plane landed, diving through what looked like a layer of thick cloud and touching down in Beijing Airport. The imagined hastle of getting through customs turned out to be effortless, and soon I found myself walking out through the Arrivals gate with my bags and £100 of changed RMB in my pockets, feeling ready to see what the city had in store for me. A driver stood with a sign upon which was written the name of my mysterious alter ego "Andrew Dawson" (usually reserved for French Essay Classes).


"He'o..." he mumbled something else and I realised that his English was little better than my Chinese. We walked out through the airport, only one kid pointing at me, and into a carpark full of black Communist party Audis and Mercedes. We went past those, got into a spotlessly clean Hyundai and set off onto a stretch of highway smoother and straighter than any I had seen in the UK. It also contained a uniquely Chinese innovation, which was that nobody appeared to bother to use indicators.

Eventually we arrived at the language school and after a wait I was let in by a cheerful looking young woman who got me registered and said I would not be staying in my accommodation for long, then took me down to the street, hailed a taxi took me to the location of my first room, a smart looking complex on a busy street opposite a shopping centre. The driver translated through her that I should teach him English and he teach me Chinese and I smiled- taxi drivers were clearly the same the world over.

We checked in and took my luggage up to the room. I stayed just long enough to catch a glimpse of my housemate, an Italian girl, before we hurried out to the street to find the nearest subway stop. Rain was now pattering down gently from the dull grey sky. The nearest metro station was close enough, so it was fairly quick for her to get me a travel card and explain how the system worked (oddly enough, just like an Oyster Card in the UK). Then she vanished on the metro.

By the time I reached the street again, the light rain shower had turned into this:

The rain was now thundering down and people were running for shelter, clutching their umbrellas and holding bags over their heads.

In less than a minute the sky turned as black as night and visibility dropped to little over a hundred meters. Smog surrounded us. Cars crawled through the darkness, their headlights switched to full beam, and red neon shone woozily from the sides of the building, which now loomed out of the thick fug like monsters. Just to check I wasn't dreaming, I looked at my watch. Yes. It was still 1 in the afternoon.

I heard English voices behind me and turned to see two foreigners, who both also turned to be fellow students. One of them had also arrived on the same day as me. He decided to make a break for it, whilst I waited with the other one. Having lived in Asia for several years he told me such storms were normal, which I found out later was normal. What was not normal was that this one lasted long into the night. We eventually ventured back into the hotel and as the rain lessened I finally met my housemate properly, and we went out to lunch.

I lay in my bed that evening, understandably worried that I was apparently going to spend my Summer in what looked like the set of a dystopian science fiction movie.

When I woke up and saw the Sun was shining I could therefore not believe that I was in the same city! I got up and got dressed, ventured out and saw the road outside transformed into a busy, prosperous, sleek modern street like any in New York. One that was also now bone dry. That day bought some groceries and proudly purchased a Chinese SIM Card, a demanding enterprise involving combining my phrase book, several podcasts and a dictionary to form the required vocabulary. News also graduallly filtered through to me about the aftermath of the storm. The flooding. The deaths. Late that evening, by which I mean four in the morning, my parents rang to ask if I was OK. And I most certinaly was.

I decided that during my first week I would simply try to settle in, get to know everybody and find my feet. I would sort out the basics, then get on with all the cultural stuff and the sightseeing later.

The lessons got off to a dodgy start, as due to a road accident (one of many in Beijing) there was a massive traffic jam. After fifteen minutes of sitting in a stationary bus I suggested we get out and walk, and so we did, trudging along mile after mile of baking hot tarmac and anonymous, corporate style buildings until we found the school, a cool half an hour late. Nobody minded however and the lessons have proved to be good. The teachers know what they are doing, and have gladly answered any questions we have, even though the lessons do sometimes prove to be mercilessly fast-paced. In a language such as Chinese they have to be.

I am also finding Chinese fascinating. Spoken Chinese at this level is joyfully easy compared to French or German- the verbs do not change, tenses are easy and cases simply do not exist. The writing is more of a challenge, though I am now able to slowly write symbols. Once they are broken down into their individual parts, they are not as scary as they first appear. I am now recognising signs sometimes on signs and menus, and this makes me eager to learn more.

My classmates and flatmates are also a lively, varied bunch, and I get on well with them. Some want to go clubbing, others want to try new food, and others want to see the sights. I have been doing a bit of everything.

I do not intend to go out that often in Beijing, but it is part of the city (Chinese people go out as well), and also a very good way to meet all the students, who I will be working with all Summer. However the clubbing has been good. Beijing's nightlife is cheap compared to Europe, and as it is in a capital city of a large and prosperous country is a step above what I am used to in Leamington Spa. My first night out on Wednesday was a pleasant one, during which I met a lot of new faces. My second was an epic trek through Sanlitun (Beijing's clubbing district), stopping at four different bars and clubs, and finally ending with a ride in a Chuzuche (taxicab) back at seven AM (in all fairness part of the reason I was so late back was that my Chinese was not yet good enough to handle a taxi driver on my own).

While my African dancing has been proving useful at night, my African bargining skills have come in much more handy during the day. My favourite activity so far was today, a trip to some of Beijing's markets, during which I managed to both haggle with and annoy the vendors into giving me T-Shirts for usually about a fifth of what they originally offered me. Had my Chinese been better I could have got them even lower, but I already feel like my numbers have been coming on a treat!

My accommodation is also good, now what I gather to be in a high-end appartment in the business district, near an Armani Store I have not yet seen any Chinese go into, and also near the school, which means I can avoid the hot crush of the metro in the mornings. My flatmates are all cheerful and welcoming, and happily most of them are staying around the same length of time as me. Most importantly, my room has air conditioning.

And finally on to the food, which has proved to be stunnning. Real Chinese food knocks both European imitation Chinese food and European Cuisine into the dust in terms of flavour, and it is given in pleasingly generous portions.

So all in all this week has already been busy, but I am coping well and having a good time. I am getting on well with my classmates and, thanks to Couchsurfing, have also met up with some Chinese people too. Although there is a month to go, I don't think I will have enough time to fit everything in! So then, tsai jiàn (or as more fashionable Chinese are saying these days "bye bye"), thank you for all your emails, and I will report again soon!


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