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Please, please tell us when our exams are!

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I remember when, last term, we’d asked the teacher of our newspaper reading class when the exam actually was, seeing as all we knew was that they were to take place the following week. He replied with a date, and hesitantly – a location, but in our next lesson, apologised for having told us the wrong day. And the wrong building, of course. Without sounding too harsh, HOW DOES THE TEACHER NOT EVEN KNOW WHAT DAY THE EXAM – which is in less than a week, did I mention? – IS ON?!?!!?

This is not only the case for exams, we’re also in the dark about term dates… BNU, please remember, us international students need to do things like booking tickets, IN ADVANCE.

This term, we were told that our mid-term exams would be taking place on the 18th and 19th of April. Until the middle of last week, we were still clueless about which exams would be on which day, the timings, the locations, the content… We asked each of our teachers last week, one replied that she’d tell us all at the end of the lesson (which never happened, because, well… it was the end of the lesson!), the other said that the exam timetable was not out yet(?!) but that as soon as it was, he would be able to tell us, and the third said “oh I’ll tell you guys next lesson”.
That next lesson was last Friday, and what we discovered was that the oral exam would not be testing our speaking ability as such, but rather how quickly and accurately we can memorise the textbook. We are to be asked questions, to which the answers literally require us to regurgitate the whole text. Maybe I had it wrong, but I always thought the speaking exam was to test us on our actual ability to speak Chinese, to hold a conversation, to think on our feet… But complete and total memorisation? Not only does this take time, (something we are not afforded, especially when it comes to exam preparation), but…. I’ll be blunt – it’s not so easy to blag 😀 If you haven’t memorised the textbook, you’re going to fail, it’s as simple as that. For some reason, I don’t think this really reflects how well (or not, as the case may be) I can speak Chinese.

The teacher for our reading/writing class looked a bit surprised when we asked her about the exam content and style.
“Oh, you want me to tell you now… I was going to tell you next week, but I guess if I do it next week, it might be a bit late…?”
Really? You think?

You know something’s wrong when you’re missing the SOAS system!!
The exam timetable for the May/June exams was published three weeks ago?! What?

Well, now that I’ve finished ranting, I better study for this exam tomorrow…

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Forecast: Hazardous

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It has been a long while since I last posted. The highlight of this siesta has been a ‘holiday’ back home, which really and truly allowed me to appreciate all the comforts home (just the amazing place that London is, really) has to offer.

I’ve been back in Beijing for 3 weeks already now, and have become painfully aware of the not-so-long amount of time we have left here, which is until the end of June.

Anyway, enough complaining about my not having been proactive enough so far in China. The purpose of this post was really just to highlight an issue that has recently become even bigger: Pollution in Beijing. By this, I mean that it now comes up in conversation a minimum of once a day. Of course, this change has not come overnight: it was, is and has been an issue for the last six months I’ve been in China too, but in the last month or so, the pollution levels have gone from bad to dangerous, bringing it to the forefront of everyone’s attention.

According to the World Health Organisation, “average concentrations of the tiniest pollution particles – called PM2.5 – should be no more than 25 microgrammes per cubic metre” .
Levels of air pollution over 100 microgrammes are ‘unhealthy’, and 300 is considered hazardous. Official Beijing readings have reached levels over 400, and unofficial readings from the US embassy have recorded 800.

I didn’t really used to think about the effect this would/could be having on my health. But recently there have been a number of small happenings that have really brought it to my attention. One was a friend telling me that being outside for one hour was equal to smoking 8 packets of cigarettes. (I make no guarantees as to the reliability or authenticity of this ‘fact’).  The second is that in our newspaper reading class this term, two students per lesson are required to present a summary of and their opinion on any newspaper article of their choice and then pose a question or two to the class, which sometimes – depending on the topic of the article – results in a bit of a discussion. A large proportion of the presentations recently have revolved around the pollution levels in Beijing. The third is a sort of knock-on effect of my becoming more aware of this issue recently, and it is that when I look outside now, I actually see the pollution and smog, when before I used to pass it off in my mind as fog. After commenting on how the smog looked pretty bad outside this afternoon when we could hardly see the tops of the neighbouring buildings from our 17th floor flat, when I stepped out this evening, I was sure I could smell the bad air. It’s really not pleasant to feel like you can’t or shouldn’t yawn or take a deep breath when outside, and feeling guilty when you do.

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View from our window on an early January morning

So, wearing a mask, as many people do, sounds like a simple solution. But how effective are they really? The most commonly worn masks are just plain cotton, and of course, you’re still breathing the same air whether or not you wear it. We’ve heard of what are probably more effective masks, that have built-in filters, but are yet to find any.
Another solution would be to stay permanently indoors, but it’s possible that this is somewhat impractical, not to mention undesirable(!)

Suggestions have been made during class discussions for what actions could be taken, what measures could be implemented to counteract this increasing pollution. A classic: allow only certain cars, limited by number plates, to drive on the roads on alternate days. The problem raised with this was that people could buy two cars, and still be able to drive every day. Another point raised was that while the pollution may be an issue affecting China right now, it is not only China’s problem, but is in fact, a world problem. Someone suggested that if the population of European countries, for example, was as big as that of China, we would all be facing the same problem, and that the major reason for the higher pollution levels in China was simply because of the much larger population. The most controversial suggestion was that we should ‘tell China to slow down their levels of development’. I’m sorry, what? Excuse me, but who are we to tell anyone to develop slower, while we sit comfortably in the West? Who are we to deny people that are yet to buy themselves a car, a television, even a fridge! Just because China is still going through its ‘developing’ stage, and we in the West have already been through it, that does not at all give any of us the right to make such a demand, regardless even, of the fact that air quality may be one of the biggest contributors to quality of life. Let’s not forget – the Great Smog of London. Haven’t we been through  it too?

Normality

There’s really only one reason why I’m writing this right now. That reason is procrastination. Exams this week? Normal behaviour: Do anything but study. Standard.

Speaking of normality, there are a lot of normal universities in China. This is no joke, I can vouch for it, I attend one. The name of my university is, in fact, Beijing Normal University. I’m yet to come across any that proclaim to be abnormal.

北京师范大学 beijing shifan daxue

The shifan is translated as normal, but actually means teacher training. Basically, it means that the university specialises in the training of teachers. These are seen all over China; there is East China Normal University, Shanghai Normal University, North East Normal University… and other such universities with equally original names.

The teacher for my newspaper reading class was telling us about teachers and students training to be teachers in China. The majority of teachers in China are all employed by the government and there is a lot of government support for students training to be teachers, the result being that you are committing yourself to only becoming a teacher after graduation. One element of this support includes having your food paid for. Students training to become teachers apparently get free food at university. (Chinese joke: the university is sometimes called 北京吃饭大学 beijing chifan daxue where chifan means eating.) We asked if it was possible to change your career at all after, but the answer was no. (It’s very hard to get out, if it happens at all, it would only be after at least 5 years of teaching).

He also seriously joked about the fact that no land is privately owned either, and people are always scared that the government might just come and kick them out, deciding they want to use the land for another purpose, because although you might own the house you live in, you cannot own the land your house is on. There’s no protection against this. In the past, if the government did decide they want the land where you live, they might help you on your way to find a new house by giving some money, but these days, the compensation you’d get is very little and is no where near enough to be able to find a house in the city, near to where you work etc.

Other normal things in China

More quite common behaviour in China is for couples (or whole families) to wear matching clothes.
This doesn’t require much explanation, see for yourself.

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Itsa Mario! x2

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If you’re going for public display of affection by wearing the same clothes, why not do it properly?

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couple jumpers

And my favourite….

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Spongebob Squarepants Family!

Taking orders now.

My classes

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This post is somewhat overdue, but a relatively easy one seeing as it doesn’t require uploading pictures.

I have to take four courses this year, two of which are compulsory – Reading and Newspaper Reading – and I had a choice of two others out of Listening, Speaking and Classical Chinese, of which I opted for the latter two.

Yes, all my teachers are Chinese and yes, the lessons are taught in Chinese, though most of them can speak some English. The students in my class, however, are not all English; it’s nice to have such a mix of nationalities in class.

Newspaper reading is probably the hardest, but my teacher is hilarious. He is constantly making jokes, leading off on interesting tangents, with his knowledge about other countries surprising us. A couple of his favourites that he keeps coming back to: Beckham – apparently a very influential figure in England; Mr. Bean – a symbol of English comedy; and ‘double O zero seven’ – no one has the heart to correct him. However, we’ve also managed to get onto Adele – the voice of Britain, and Susan Boyle…whose Chinese name translates into English as ‘old mother’.

Although the majority of my class are actually from England, the others are not forgotten. Italian Ferraris, pizza and pasta, Korean and German World Cups, Japanese delicacies, and Russian dolls (in the form of Medvedev, Gorbatschow etc) have all managed to come up in his lessons. The London Olympics, though, have a special place, and his impression of Britain – a place where all the men fit the typical ‘Sir’ stereotype: gentlemen with a top hat, monocle and a cane, and where we often have afternoon tea, makes us laugh every time.

All the classrooms are fully equipped with modern, state-of-the-art…..blackboards. I love them. It reminds me of primary school, and makes me think how much we take for granted in the West. I hope they never upgrade to smartboards; I think even whiteboards would be too far! I love the look of Chinese characters, drawn with chalk, on a real blackboard. I wouldn’t have it any other way.