Written by Emma Tilley, (Brown University) Student Correspondent CET Beijing, Fall 2018
After having been jokingly called a fake American throughout my time in Beijing, I have a confession to make: I’m just not that into Thanksgiving… or Christmas. The New Year, on the other hand! A night of debauchery followed by the repeated promise of self-improvement? Poetic!
Jokes aside, I’m incredibly fortunate to be returning to CET next semester, this time in Harbin. As my last post was already fairly retrospective (and maybe I’m not ready to think about leaving my friends and this spectacular city in under a week), this time I’d like to look ahead and make a few resolutions for the spring semester based on what I’ve learned from my time in Beijing.
Watch more movies: I’ll be the first to argue that you can’t understand America from Hollywood alone, but hear me out. Every movie I’ve seen in theaters here has had English subtitles as well as Chinese. This makes even the most highbrow Chinese films accessible to beginners, so why not dive in? The documentary 生活万岁 (English title Hello Life, though I haven’t found any indication that it’s playing in the US) offers a look into the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people, from a married elderly couple of blind street performers to a soldier in a remote watchtower. 快把我哥带走 (literally “quick, take my brother away!”) may look like a cute high school movie but my roommate and I left the theater in tears; the same goes for 狗十三 but I should’ve known with that one since it’s about a dog.
One we watched in class, 中国合伙人 (English title American Dreams in China) is based on a true story, following three friends from their college days in the 80s through a tumultuous business partnership and the conflicts inherent in the extremely successful ESL/test prep industry. All these movies, particularly contextualized by discussion with Chinese friends, have increased my understanding of Chinese society as well as artistic/entertainment sensibilities.
Talk to strangers: One of the assignments I dreaded most every few weeks was 采访: interviews. This occasionally involved a round-table discussion with a few roommates, but more often required us to visit a specific location and approach passersby to get their opinion on a certain topic.
I have an incredibly hard time with the notion of bothering people going about their day but the assignment to interview retired people in a park gave me an appreciation for the rewards of doing so: older generations in China have seen sweeping, historical changes multiple times over.
The changes brought about by the reform and opening up in the past 40 years alone permeate every aspect of society. Anyone older than 70 was born before the People’s Republic of China even existed. A presentation by one of our professors on her childhood before the reforms first instilled me exactly how much context I was missing that is actually common knowledge to every ordinary Chinese person, but it was 采访 assignments that made me realize that in order to acquire this knowledge, I need to actually engage with people outside the small circle of students and professors.
Get off campus: And out of areas populated mainly/exclusively by foreign students from other campuses too. That bubble isn’t conducive to challenging oneself. And, if and when possible, get out of the city you’re based in. I don’t claim to completely understand Beijing, but it was fairly enlightening to take a bus just a few hours into neighboring Hebei province and see the contrast between first-tier city and village life. Organized and independent travel to smaller cities like Xi’an and Nanjing, though brief, has led me to consider what’s universal to China, what’s regional, what’s dependent on economic factors, and what’s purely location specific in a way I might not have had I never left Beijing. I’m hoping next semester to arrange some solo travel and, on the day to day scale, get out into the city more when looking for places to study or relax.
I hope these resolutions can give you a sense of my present and future studying in China, which is to say that it’s always a learning process. It’s been a great semester – thanks again to CET and everyone who’s been with me on the way! See you in 2019!