Written by Kira Porter, (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) Student Correspondent CET Beijing, Spring 2019
Approaching the completion of a full month since my arrival in Beijing, I’ve finally begun to fall into an awareness that’s larger than the confines of the dorm, the classroom, and the small radius around them. While I’ve already been out on several trips around the city with classmates (同学们 tóngxuémen) and Chinese roommates (舍友 shèyǒu), the first few weeks have been such a fast-moving series of adventures that for a while I haven’t really had time to stop and gather my bearings. The best I’ve been able to do is to find quickly familiar faces and hold onto my new friends for support, nodding along with whatever interesting, fun, new thing comes next.
In addition to being in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by Chinese language in the street signs, spoken language, and overall environment, Beijing simply feels like an absurdly massive city. And although I’ve never felt unsafe since setting foot in China’s capital, there have been countless times when I’ve found myself unsure of what I’m supposed to do, what I should say, or what’s going on around me. Coming into this intensive semester of Chinese language study, I had three semesters of 5-day-a-week college Chinese courses under my belt. Yet the reality of how different textbook Chinese is from the Chinese spoken in real daily life （日常生活 rìcháng shēnghuó）was not something I could have understood before beginning to live in Beijing. Although in my classes here at CET I’ve already learned tons of new vocabulary and made lots of really cool discoveries as far as my Chinese knowledge in the classroom goes, the huge amount of learning that happens outside the classroom has been more than I’ve had time to process.
At only a month into the program, I still feel like a bumbling idiot trying to make conversation with locals, lacking the confidence of the students who have already finished a semester of the language intensive program. But I’ve definitely begun absorbing some of the social patterns of the people around me. Sometimes these are as simple as tacking an “啊” or “吧” to the end of my “好,” as in “好吧 (hǎoba).”
Other times it’s something more complicated, like knowing when to cross huge intersections where the expectation is that pedestrians yield to vehicles, rather than vehicles giving pedestrians the right of way as is usually expected in the States.
After the language pledge kicked in, the first few weeks felt especially challenging. I’ve faced down insecurities when ordering food, knowing my textbook English won’t necessarily carry me through the conversation; embarrassment when trying to buy clothing and not even knowing what sizes I wear in the Chinese sizing system; and an initial fear of getting really, truly lost in Beijing because I didn’t know how to navigate the subway system or explain my predicament to someone if I needed to ask for instructions on how to get somewhere. But although plenty of doubts and confusion remain, with the help of classmates, Chinese roommates, and our teachers at CET, I’ve rapidly been chipping away at the things that worried me about everyday life in Beijing, even working up the courage to explore the city on my own.
One day, armed only with my wallet, my phone and portable phone charger, and a determination to try out some shopping and dining by myself, I hopped onto the subway (地铁 dìtiě) and headed for a yet-unknown destination in the city. Early into the program everyone quickly started to learn, rather through necessity, how to discuss things like food, money, WeChat (Wēixìn), preferences, and the day’s weather (天气 tiānqì) and air (空气 kōngqì) quality.
My first stop turned out to be one of Beijing’s shopping malls, where I walked through several of the stores, admiring how bright, clean, and extensive the mall was. In one shoe store, I tried on different pairs of boots and chatted with one of the store assistants, who helped me discover my Chinese shoe size. Using WeChat (which was connected to the Chinese bank account my roommate had just helped me set up), I paid for my purchase and continued my journey. Next, I hopped back on the subway and started wandering through calm neighborhoods, where I felt rather formidable in my black face mask (important to have on the days when Beijing’s air quality is particularly bad). I passed by local supermarkets, convenience stores, and an elementary school that had signs of motivational Chinese slogans, a recent topic of discussion in my classes, posted at its gate. It surprised me to see how akin the places were to any other neighborhoods; I suppose through all I had experienced in the past few weeks I had begun to grow accustomed to finding many differences between my life at home and the life I was falling into in Beijing.
After a while, the sun started to set and I became pretty aware of how I was a young person walking around alone. Moreover, I was in an unfamiliar place where I didn’t necessarily trust that I would get immediate help if I needed it. I had yet to feel endangered in any way since coming to the China, especially with so many other people around all the time, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Keeping the number 110 (China’s 911) in the back of my mind and my phone (手机 shǒujī) in my hand, I headed in what I believed was the direction of the CNU campus, where CET Beijing students are hosted. I was passing by landmarks I recognized: tall, lit up buildings that managed to stand out in the busy city landscape. Yet I didn’t know how the dorm’s location related to all these buildings. Eventually, all of my memories of where I’d been in my short time in Beijing started to blend together and I lost my sense of direction.
As I walked past strangers and shops that were still bustling, I was hit with an unexpected loneliness that I hadn’t had time to feel in Beijing with all the activities and studying I’d been doing. I approached a man as he looked at a map of the city’s public bus routes, summoning what vocabulary I remembered from my textbook lesson on how to give directions. Standing under one of the bus stop shelters, he was looking at a big map of the city’s bus routes. He wore a bright vest, although I didn’t know what kind of work he did, and he appeared to be in no hurry.
Rather than try to decipher the complex bus schedule, which listed dozens of stops I couldn’t possibly recognize, I went up and asked him for help. His Chinese accent wasn’t too thick for me to understand the gist of what he said and I definitely felt some exhilaration when he was able to understand me fairly well in return.
But in the end, he too was unsure of how I could get home. After we exchanged apologies, all I could do was thank him and move along. At last, I resorted to whipping out my phone and messaging my friends on WeChat. To be fair, I could have taken out my phone much earlier and likely avoided being lost in the first place. But I’d been a bit determined to get lost in Beijing and find my way home by reading maps and signs or talking to locals. Despite this ideal, there came a point when I realized that it was good to reach out to my friends and make use of WeChat, with its incredible usefulness and integration into Beijing daily life. I’d already spoken to random strangers and embarked solo into the vast city. Moreover, I’d have numerous opportunities throughout my semester to find more adventures. It was now time to embrace the support structures I’d developed since arriving in Beijing. Using location tracking to lead me back to the dorm, I was able to get back to my friends and the familiarity of our campus, where I was unspeakably happy to be back among the people whom I’d quickly begun to rely on for encouragement and camaraderie.
Throughout my adventures in Beijing, I’ve grown thankful knowing that, in addition to equipping me with the confidence to venture into the city alone, my time thus far at CET has given me a phone with a fully-working WeChat account; a Chinese bank account with which I can use my phone to pay for nearly everything I need wherever I go in the city; and a group of people, classmates and Chinese roommates alike, who look out for each other as we share the learning process that is living in Beijing.
Feature Photo: The CNU campus in early March, the beautiful trees already in bloom