Chinese for newcomers

I, an alumna of the Belarusian State University (Minsk), have traveled to China for the first time. I am one of four students from Belarus who were offered to continue our education in Chongqing University. The first year is dedicated to the study of the Chinese language, followed by three years of study as a master’s degree candidate. The university has great experience in the education of foreign students: more than thirty nationalities have already recorded their names in its history. As the first Belarusian delegation to attend the university, we have been given the chance not only to multiply our professional knowledge, but also to become acquainted with one of the most mysterious world cultures. China is just a half opened book for many Europeans. And I am glad that I will be able to read at least some chapters of this folio which was written over the course of many centuries. Indeed, I have already turned several pages…
I, an alumna of the Belarusian State University (Minsk), have traveled to China for the first time. I am one of four students from Belarus who were offered to continue our education in Chongqing University. The first year is dedicated to the study of the Chinese language, followed by three years of study as a master’s degree candidate. The university has great experience in the education of foreign students: more than thirty nationalities have already recorded their names in its history. As the first Belarusian delegation to attend the university, we have been given the chance not only to multiply our professional knowledge, but also to become acquainted with one of the most mysterious world cultures. China is just a half opened book for many Europeans. And I am glad that I will be able to read at least some chapters of this folio which was written over the course of many centuries. Indeed, I have already turned several pages…

Chongqing sky cries at night

Chongqing, along with Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, operates directly under the Chinese central government. It has received such a status relatively recently — only eleven years ago. Today it is the biggest city not only in China, but also in the world. Its area covers 82 thousand square kilometers — just as large as the territory of Austria. The population exceeds 31 million: a number greater than the total population of Canada. Chongqing expanded to such an extent after incorporating several neighboring counties. In the city six million people live, while the remaining population reside in the suburbs and countryside.
Chongqing is more than three thousand years old. During this time its name has changed many times. The city obtained its present name owing to one of the governors who was lucky enough to celebrate the elevation of his rank twice: first becoming a prince, and then an emperor. This is why the city was called Chongqing — double celebration.
When entering the city, the eye is hit by many bridges. In a way it resembles Saint-Petersburg. It is no wonder: one of them is situated on the Neva, and the other one — on the Yangtze River. Bridges are necessary here as one more river flows through Chongqing — the Jialing River. It is smaller than the Yangtze and its water is not so clayey. The center of the city is at the crossing of these two rivers. Moving into one bed, they flow separately for some time: one blue and one a muddy yellow-brown. Then they are mixed — as a result, the Yangtze completely absorbs its water companion.
The city is surrounded with mountains on all sides; it is as if it were situated in a stone barrow pit. This is why winds are very rare here. And sometimes they are so needed during the intolerable heat for which Chongqing is famous. It is jokingly called one of the Chinese furnaces: in the end of September, when in Belarus the temperature was only +10 єС, the stem of a thermometer showed +32 єС in Chongqing. Moreover, because of high humidity it seemed to be even hotter. There is practically no sun here: instead, there is a constant humid gauze in the air. This is why Chongqing is also called the Chinese capital of fogs. There are few rains, and when they occur, they are real tropical downfalls. Puddles appear in an instant, and runlets on the asphalt resemble small rivers. It is interesting that the sky more often cries at night and, as a rule, quiets down toward the morning.

In the stream of hieroglyphs, English and gestures

The university is situated on the outskirts of the city. The surrounding campus includes dormitories, dining-halls, a library, a polyclinic, a sports complex, a post office, and even a hotel where the parents of students can lodge while visiting. This is the main campus where the major faculties are located. There are other campuses of the university to which special buses commute. Foreign students live together in a single building where there is free access to internet and a gym. Last year I studied in the University of Lund (Sweden) where I also lived in a dormitory. It is difficult to say which one is better — they both pleasantly surprised me with comfort and cleanliness. As for the dormitories for Chinese students, I paid attention to the fact that there are male and female dorms. There is no such separation in Belarus.
Chinese classes are held in the main building. This is a tall, modern building constructed not long ago. Nearby there is the department of art. Its architecture is more ancient: roofs with the corners curling upward, stucco patterns, red lanterns... Through this contrast the mentality of the Chinese is partially revealed: on the one hand, they follow old traditions; on the other hand, they valiantly move forward surprising the world with their know-how. In my opinion, this is the best formula for the nation’s development: preserving originality to improve constantly.
Local instructors teach the language. Everybody knows English, but tries not to speak it — they want us to listen attentively to Chinese speech and, recognizing these or those words, try to understand the conversation. In the beginning it was difficult, but little by little, everything became clear. Now there are three subjects in my schedule: listening, writing, and new vocabulary with grammar. In several weeks, when the vocabulary is enough for dialogues and composition, conversational Chinese will begin. As for the sounds, they are easy for us: practically all of them can be met in Belarusian and Russian languages. However, several people in our class still have difficulties. This is because students from the USA, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh and Kenya study with us, and for some there are no equivalent sounds in their native language. Then the teachers become speech therapists. Pronunciation in China is very important: one inarticulate letter — and the interlocutor loses himself in conjectures: what did you mean? During one of the first classes we even watched a film about correct tongue position: how wide the mouth should be opened and where the tongue should be placed in order to pronounce correctly this or that sound. It is simpler with writing. To study hieroglyphs, one does not need any special abilities apart from diligence: sometimes it is necessary to re-write one word twenty, thirty, or even forty times. I personally involve my imagination. For example, a hieroglyph 食堂 (dining-hall) I remembered this way: its first part has a roof, underneath of which there is something resembling the steam from hot food, and below that, a stove. The second part of the word is just like a full student: a glad and merry man. Of course, it is impossible to select so many associations to each hieroglyph — and there is no need to do this: there are simple hieroglyphs which instantly sink into the mind. TV viewing is also helpful for studying since all Chinese channels broadcast with subtitles. The difficulty is that many words sound alike but have different meanings and spelling. Only “yi” has 177 meanings. This is why for correct understanding the subtitles are necessary. We are sometimes intimidated by the flow of incomprehensible words heard from the screen and subtitles. We calm ourselves down: the understanding will come, learn to say before you sing. To communicate with the Chinese in the street, in transit, in the shop — we use an independently invented language — a mixture of English, Chinese, and gestures. It looks funny, but it works.
The best way to learn the language is, of course, to make Chinese friends. Engage in daily communication and the result will not keep you waiting. With their help it is possible not only to study the language, but also to know much about the country and people. It is not difficult to make friends with the Chinese — they are very companionable and they establish contacts quickly. In the hall of our dormitory we often meet local students who come to acquaint themselves with us. They are also interested to know about us and our countries. Such friendship helps local young people to study English (to which much attention is given in China today). I have often observed a foreign student speaking Chinese to a local student, while the Chinese student responded in English. This is very good practice for both. I also have made Chinese friends. I like their goodwill and kind-heartedness most of all: one invited me to visit her parents — she wanted to show me the city where she grew up (Fengdu, which is famous in China as the “City of ghosts”) — the other one wanted to invent a Chinese name for me. In China, practically all names mean something. The name of one of my friends is Chen Bing Yu. The last word in his name means “fish”: when Chen Bing Yu was born, his father was a fisherman. It was on money earned from fishing that the whole family was able to live. This is why his parents simply could not call their child otherwise.

Hot pot, games, dances, music…

The province where Chongqing is situated is famous for one of the spiciest cuisines in China. There is a great variety of spice and zest here, not only in food, but also in the air. There is new flavour down each lane… At the beginning my head was spinning from such an abundance of unusual flavours. After a month my sense of smell was obtunded: now I hardly notice it. The favourite dish of Chongqing citizens is “hot pot.” On nearly every corner you can find a restaurant with this theme. You have to cook for yourself. In the center of the table there is a metal pot full of hot oil: you can add vegetables, meat, fish, mushrooms, noodles... After they are cooked they are fished out with sticks, let cool for a while, and eaten. You can spend several hours in a hot pot restaurant without even noticing it. The reason is a fascinating cooking process, and also the fact that the Chinese like to play games at the table. To shoot dice, to play cards, to throw numbers on fingers (the participant wins who guesses a number common for him and his rival)… They also play “paper-scissors-stone”: a game many Belarusians know from childhood.
Chinese also like gymnastics. Whether it is early morning or late evening, you can always find people in the street doing exercises. Sometimes accompanied by music in the city square, sometimes in peace in the park. In general, these are group classes. You look at these smooth movements and admire: so beautiful! You immediately want to join them. You can easily do this: simply stand on the corner and follow. The movements are not strenuous and they are done slowly; this is why it is not difficult to learn them. If you do have some difficulty, you can ask to be shown the movement one more time. The Chinese are impressed, as much as any other nation, when people are interested in their traditions. In the university you can also visit a kung-fu section. I have already been registered there and I can hardly wait to start. I planned to bicycle to my heart`s content, but it is difficult to turn the pedals in such a hilly area. This is why this mode of transport is not so widely spread in Chongqing as in the other Chinese cities. But table tennis amateurs have planty of space here. There are tables for the game in the streets — you only have to bring rackets. Without ever going far, you can play billiards or train on fitness machines. All this takes place outdoors and in a big company of like-minded persons.
According to my observations, the Chinese are not only sportive, but also musical people. Perhaps it is second only to Japan in the popularity of karaoke. There are many bars in Chongqing where people come especially to sing their favorite songs. It is curious that many foreign hits were translated into Chinese. We were greatly surprised when in a karaoke-bar we heard music to “Moscow nights” — a Russian folk song. However, there were hieroglyphs on the screen. Standing with microphones in our hands, we were at a loss, but then we composed ourselves and sang an original song in Russian. Our performance was a surprise for many people, but judging by the applause, it was well liked. From time to time foreign singers come to Chongqing. Recently the Russian singer Vitas has visited. I managed to attend a concert of the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne. The voluminous live sound wouldn’t let me sit. I wanted to dance but I was embarrassed by one thing — nobody danced. The viewers sang along: they sang many hits with the star, waved neon sticks, and the stadium looked like a night field spangled with lightning bugs; they applauded…but they didn’t dance. It is strange that such a musical people as the Chinese are totally indifferent to dances. Even in many clubs, dance floors are absent. The tables are everywhere, at which people play and simply communicate.

Be in a hurry leisurely

The Chinese are very superstitious. For example, they try to avoid the number four: its pronunciation is accordant with the word “death” and so it is widely considered to be unlucky. Some people will even refuse a taxi if there is a four in its number. In the mobile phone department where we connected to one of the Chinese operators, practically all telephone numbers containing the unfortunate number are offered for free. People also believe in other mystical things — ghosts, transmigration of souls. This is a part of the Chinese culture which comes from many centuries ago.
Perhaps, even four years of my study will not be enough to understand the soul of China. However, in my opinion, there is no need to be in a hurry. Otherwise, I will not notice exotic flowers, lush tropical greenery, whimsical arbors painted with sophisticated ornaments… I will not look into the warm Yangtze River with its yellow water, I will not hear the whisper of the river, I will not get into its tranquility… And, of course, if you are in a hurry, you will never understand the Chinese wisdom: “Be in a hurry leisurely.”

Olga Korney
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