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Work, work, work

Friday 18th September 2015, 12:10pm

How has this week flown by so quickly?
It’s given me an idea of just how fast this whole year is going to go, and in all honesty, that in itself is making me antsy already, because I have so many plans!
There is way more homework than I expected, and classes are tough and demanding. I have four core courses; intensive reading (精读), speaking (口语), newspaper reading (报刊), and ‘listening to news’ (新闻听力).
(Translating Chinese class names into English makes them sound so weird…)
I love the speaking teacher and his relatively more interactive teaching style; I like the way the intensive reading teacher breaks down characters, but extremely dislike his public shaming method of teaching. He’s constantly putting us down for not knowing a new word, or reading a character incorrectly; we are a disgrace to Fudan University, falling below his expectations for the language school’s highest level class (Level I, ranked alphabetically).
As students in the highest level, we are also required to choose two extra elective courses, out of a choice of three: Chinese idioms and culture (成语), Chinese grammar (语法词), and Shanghainese (上海话).
To me, the choice seemed obvious: idioms and Shanghainese (a new language, yay!), but I thought I should attend each before making a decision. Man, did that just confuse me a whole lot more…. The idioms class was not even close to what I’d hoped; idioms in Chinese have rich, interesting stories behind them, but this class explained none of that. Instead, the teacher essentially gave/told us a list of about 20 new idioms and briefly explained what they meant. The grammar class was unfortunately taught by my intensive reading teacher, but, to his credit, at least relatively useful. The Shanghainese class however, much to my disappointment, fell short by the largest margin. The first hour or more was spent explaining the geography and development of Shanghai, and the first words of Shanghainese were ‘taught’ minutes before the end of the lesson. But no introduction was really given to the language as such, before we were supposed to repeat words after the teacher said them once, and that was it. If it’s any indication as to how the rest of the year will go, I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand it. The textbook we are required to purchase also looks terrible, and is also kinda expensive, by Chinese textbook standards.
I’m leaning towards idioms and grammar, but then remind myself that I’ll never get a better opportunity to study Shanghainese than now. Gaaaah, decisions decisions.

On another, more exciting note, tomorrow there is a publicly funded (i.e. free at point of consumption (well hello, economics degree)) trip for students of various scholarships, including mine. The confirmation slip of paper we were given when we signed up doesn’t give much information:
“One-day tour to Science and Technology Museum, Global Financial Center”

Given the above, I’m not sure I should have any high hopes for what precisely that entails.

To end, here’s another picture of a cat that is definitely fast becoming my favourite. He (she?) has the best poses, and is often seen lying around as if he owns the place.



Adaptation complete

Monday 14th September 2015, 23:30

Everything’s great.
By that, I mean there are none of those ‘ah, I wish I hadn’t come’ feelings that accompany the first few days. All in all, I guess that phase lasted about one week, which I’m pretty pleased with.
The formalities aren’t all yet complete though; my residence permit won’t be completed until early October at the earliest, which means I will be unable to travel during the October National Week holiday (which is when I had come to Shanghai the first time in 2012!). However, I fully intend to use that time to explore Shanghai and crack on with some other mini-projects and plans I have in mind.

I shall write about my classes next time, but have an 8am start tomorrow so good night, Shanghai!


Here is a nice picture of a nice cat, a stray around the foreign students' dormitory

Jet lag struggles

Sunday 6th September, 23:40

After falling asleep toward the end of the opening ceremony this morning, all the students gathered around the board with the class lists, just as you’d see in movies when exam results are published for all to see…


Opening ceremony

Most of the rest of the day was spent helping a new friend buy a SIM card, and encountering all sorts of problems along the way for buying my own. There was a silver lining moment though while waiting in the queue in one of the stores, when a random man pointed out that being able to resolve such issues in Chinese meant that my language level was decently high. Despite not having resolved the issues yet, he made me aware of my progress: the last time I was in China, I would not have been able to discuss network and phone-related issues with Chinese workers/salespeople as easily as I was doing today.

Tomorrow’s missions: buy a godd*mn SIM card, and open a bank account.

Tomorrow is also the first day of classes. Stay tuned.

An aside: This blog was never meant to be only about my travels, so bear with the negative beginnings. I’m confident that within a few weeks (less, I hope!), I will be absolutely fine, and ready to absorb whatever experiences I can, but for now, thinking about a whole year without family, friends from back home, home food, and other facilities we’re accustomed to, can make one feel lonely and somewhat dejected about the year ahead.
The method I used last time worked well enough though: taking it day by day, and not thinking about the prospect of a whole year gets you comfortable much quicker.

Studying Chinese: FAQs

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1. Why did you choose Chinese?

Sometimes I think I’m only asked this because my course choice is unexpected for a person of my colour, religion, race, culture, all of that. I’m almost certain I would not have been questioned at all had I been studying medicine, pharmacy, optometry or dentistry, or straight Economics. Depending on who I’m talking to, I usually have to repeat my degree title, because they’re not sure they heard correctly.

My answer really isn’t all that special. I really enjoy languages – and aren’t we always told that we should study something we enjoy? I decided to study Chinese because it was new to me – a language with which I had zero previous experience. The fact that it is also the most commonly spoken language on our planet possibly helped that decision, as well as encouraging me to study Economics alongside it.

2. How was China??

It was great. Indescribably so.

No, but seriously – I still need to come up with the perfect one-liner to answer this EXTREMELY broad question. I know I’ve already ranted about this, and I know it is only asked good-naturedly, but it can get hella annoying.

3. Wow, so are you fluent in Chinese?

This one always gets me. I’ve thought about it a lot but I think I’ve found an answer. The first step was defining ‘fluency’ in my own terms. For a language student, attaining ‘fluency’ at a native level is incredibly difficult, if not near impossible.

After exchanging greetings with my neighbours when in I was in China, they would often ask if I speak Chinese. I would always smile and reply ‘yes, a little’. My answer stayed that way for a long time, even when I was having full conversations in Chinese. It took me a few months to realise what I was doing, and that prompted me to question why I answered as such. It was difficult though – at what level does my Chinese have to be until I can just reply with ‘yes’?

That’s where my definition of fluency comes in. To me, fluency means being able to say pretty much whatever you want to, even if you don’t know all the correct terminology. For example, I may not know how to say ‘unemployment’, but I can express the same thing by saying ‘people without jobs’. Or I may not know how to say ‘fructose’, but I can refer to it as ‘the sugar in fruit’.

In this way, you can still make yourself understood, even without the same extensive vocabulary possessed by native speakers.

4. Is your course mostly full of Chinese people?

Sorry, but I don’t even understand the logic behind this question. I am studying the Chinese language as a foreigner. How on earth would it a) make sense to put total beginners and native speakers in the same classes?, b) be fair to test them in the same way as learners?, and c) be worthwhile for a native speaker to sit in classes well below their knowledge and ability??

In short, no – my course is not mostly full of Chinese people. It’s full of people, who, just like me had little or no previous knowledge of Mandarin and chose to take it up as a totally new language.

5. Would you want to go back to China?

Without a doubt, YES. I definitely want to go back – for the food, the cost of living, and the opportunities – for work, for travel, for language practice. But there’s a caveat. I don’t want to live there permanently. The absence of family, the lack of a supportive and tight-knit community, …the pollution.

Who knows, though? Times are changing…

A special type of collector

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As I was walking to uni on Monday morning, I saw a man sitting by a whole load of little bird cages on the side of the pavement. I remember seeing him one morning last week (for the first time), but I didn’t stop, because I wanted to make it to class on time. I hoped I’d see him again. When I did see this sight again on Monday, I was actually running later to class than I probably was that day the previous week. But I realised that, with this being my last week of uni here, and the fact that I can’t really afford to say things like “I’ll do it next time”, because there probably won’t be a next time(!), I had to stop then and see what was going on.

I didn’t think this was the case, but not knowing how else to strike up a conversation, I asked him:

Ibby: Wow! So many birds..! Are they for sale, or?

Birdman: Haha, no, not for sale. For fun!

Ibby: For fun?

Birdman: Yeaahh 😀

I: You have so many, what do you do with them..?

B: I teach them to sing 🙂

I: Oh?

B: And I like to listen to them… and see which one is good… you see?

I: Ohh…so, which one is the best then?

B: Hm, what?

I check my Chinese.

I: Which one is good then?

Hmm, he thinks.

He points.

B: That one.

I: Is it alright if I take a picture?

B: Yeaah, go on!


As I took a few pictures, he piped up.

B: You see, they’re afraid of humans. (He had to repeat this 2 or 3 times, cos I wasn’t sure what he was saying, it was a bit out of the blue)

I (finally): Ohhh, yeah! I understand, afraid of me, afraid of you…

B: Yes yes, exactly. Afraid of kids… *gestures to the street*


I didn’t count exactly, but there must have been at least 20 cages!

Inside each cage was a little container, similar in shape and size to that of a tealight. There was a piece of cucumber inside them, at which the birds had pecked away. Some cages had two containers, one with cucumber, and one with seeds.


You can just about make out the cucumber in the cage furthest on the right

B: How did the sound come out? Can you hear them singing?

He was so smiley and proud of his birds and their ‘singing’, as he should be! It was really sweet 🙂

I: Oh I just took a picture, not a video..

B: Oh.

I considered.

I: Oh well if you don’t mind, let me try then…

He smiled.

As I started taking a video, he asked me if I could understand what he was saying. They really do like this question.

I stopped recording, all I could hear was a lot of cars on the road (although, thankfully, it hasn’t come through as loud in the actual video). I thanked him. He smiled again and asked me the inevitable question – Where are you from? As is also always the case, he repeated my answer (England) back to me as a question, for confirmation.

I: Yes, England.

B: Oh. (He was a man of few words)

I: Well, thank you 🙂 I should go now… I’m late for class.

B: 🙂 Ok.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said he was a man of few words.
But he was a man of many birds!
It was a nice start to my day, I walked the rest of the way to class really happy 🙂

(I saw him again this morning: Wednesday! I didn’t stop though, I was running late (anyone see a pattern forming here?) and he was also talking to someone. I smiled and waved a little as I went by, and he just smiled and acknowledged in return. The birds sounded louder today, and dare I say, more sing-songy!)
Also, I want to share the video, even though it’s nothing special, but that’s gonna take a bit more time to sort out and get up, so hopefully after exams and everything is over.

The countdown begins!

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How is it already MAY of 2013? How did that happen?
In just over a month, I will be FINISHED with my year abroad in China. It’s crazy.
The next few weeks are going to be crazy. The coming week is my last week of actual uni before exams. Apart from the classical Chinese exam which, only last week, was confirmed to be this Friday. Of the grand total of 4 exams, the other three will be held on the 5th and 6th of June, and then the leaving ceremony on the 9th, after which we’re totally free to leave. Which is exactly what we plan to do, flying to Urumqi the next day. That reminds me, that trip still needs planning… Heeelp!

La duzi, 拉肚子

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A quick story that our Classical Chinese teacher decided to relate to us today:
He’s a very nice man, quite old, but his sense of humour is really quite strange. He chuckles somewhat creepily after almost every other sentence, when it wasn’t even the least bit amusing, but today he said something which we’d probably be able to call half a joke by his standards, cos at least there was a punchline of sorts. So, without further ado, Chinese sense of humour for you, readers:

Teacher: Once, an American student who was also studying abroad here came and asked me if it was the Chinese water that had given him 拉肚子 (la duzi) = diarrhoea. *creepy chuckle*.
I said to him, “No, it’s not… maybe it’s because your stomach is an American stomach! Hahahahhaaaaaa..!”.

I’m sure you’re all just rofl-ing. We found it hilarious too. Genuinely… Almost genuinely.

He then proceeded to chuckle to himself and, still laughing, told us that when he went to America and drank milk, he got 拉肚子 (la duzi, diarrhoea) straight-away. More chuckling here.

Turns out he told us that story as a personal(ish) example, for the purpose of explaining a phrase, 水土不服, shui tu bu fu, meaning “not acclimatized”.

Although it may seem unusual for someone to casually go around talking about their bowel issues, 拉肚子 la duzi, is a really really common ‘topic of conversation’, so to speak. Kinda like the way the topic of weather is for the Brits…
We’ve all been told numerous times that eating this and that will give you la duzi, and that you better drink warm water after eating this in order to avoid la duzi, and don’t eat that food at that particular time of day otherwise you’ll get la duzi, and oh! What happened to you last night..? I bet you got la duzi, right?!
Uhh, no actually, and if I did, it’s not exactly the sort of thing that people typically broadcast.