First Day of Class in China!

Today was my first day of Chinese class. The placement test put me in Intermediate 2, which is essentially the fourth level out of six. There doesn’t appear to be an Advanced 2 class though, so it may be the fourth level out of five. I don’t know. Regardless, it’s very difficult. Today I had three classes, speaking, comprehensive Chinese, and writing. We have the comprehensive course every day, speaking three times per week, listening two times per week, writing and reading each once per week, and a class called “zhong guo gai kuang,” which I think means something along the lines of current events in China. All I know is that I probably won’t have the vocabulary for it so I should probably look up some words before Thursday.

My classes today were quite difficult. The speaking class wasn’t too bad, we all just introduced ourself and said the meaning of our Chinese names, as well as our other names if we didn’t really know about our Chinese names or didn’t spend long enough talking about them. A lot of the people in my class are really funny, and the teacher for that class also has a great sense of humor. I didn’t always understand what was being said and I wasn’t able to converse with the teacher as easily as most of my classmates, but I felt pretty confident that I could survive the semester. My second class was the comprehensive course, which is very vocabulary-oriented, as far as I can tell. Our teacher for that class was much more serious, and talked quite a bit faster, but I could understand at least part of what she was saying. We went over about half of the 47 vocal words for the first lesson. She explained the meaning in Chinese, since that’s really the only common language in our class, which resulted in me kind of knowing the meaning (luckily for me the book is in English), and also kind of knowing a bunch of synonyms for all the vocal words. By the end I had a bunch of messy notes to translate later and a pretty big headache, but I still felt like I could probably survive if I studied a ton and learned at least twice as much vocal as everyone else. My third and final class was a writing class. My teacher was very nice but is clearly from somewhere in the North of China because she has a very definite Northern accent. Basically, she adds and “r” sound to the end of every other word. It’s so hard to understand. She even spoke really slowly, and I still can’t understand. It took me so long to figure out that “berrr” was actually “ben” and I should be buying a notebook to write my essays in. Most of the class, she taught us some vocabulary and grammar (explanations in Chinese again, but this time mostly indecipherable) and talked about something. I honestly had absolutely no idea what was going on. No idea. I just sat there and didn’t answer any questions and wrote down whatever she wrote on the board because that was actually the only thing I could do. I understood a few things, but never enough to actually be able to answer a question. She kept asking questions while staring directly at me, but the guy behind me always had to answer because I simply didn’t understand. I do, however, know that we have to write a short essay before our next writing class so maybe I’ll be able to use that to prove that I do actually belong in this crazy class. In the meantime I’ll work on understanding people with northern accents. I also think that she used a lot more challenging words because she kept saying “HSK 6″ which I think was in reference to the vocabulary she was using. (HSK is a test of Chinese language for foreigners, and 6 is the highest level. The highest level I’ve passed is 3 so hopefully she doesn’t expect us to already be at HSK 6 level. This is an intermediate class, after all). After writing I was kind of panicking on the inside, but my friend (who is in the same class as me and has about the same Chinese level because we studied together in high school. Her vocabulary is way bigger though) and I calmed down and went to a coffee shop and sat there for several hours trying to decipher our notes.

At this point, I’m pretty nervous about the semester, but everyone says that the first month is really terrible and then it gets better, so I guess I’ll hope that they’re right. At least I can kind of understand what’s going on, and my listening skills have already improved a great deal so maybe they’ll improve more. I’ll also really need to work on my vocabulary, and on making friends with other people in my class. I know one person, but I haven’t yet talked to anyone else in our class. Most of them are from South Korea, and then there are a few people from Japan and one girl from Russia. They are all way better at Chinese than I am. I will definitely try to make friends though, because we can practice Chinese together and that will be good.

First few days in Dalian

My first few days in Dalian have been great! I have registered at the school, but I won’t have a class schedule until after I take a placement test tomorrow, and school doesn’t start for another week, so I’m really just exploring the city. Yesterday, my roommate moved in. She’s from Costa Rica and she’s very sweet. She made a lot of friends because she’s been here for a couple of days, and yesterday, while I sat in the room exhaustedly eating crushed portraits that one of my roommates in the U.S. sent with me, she actually went out and talked to people. I still got to meet some people though because later, she and her friends all went to the beach and they invited me, so I got to see the beach. So far there are 4 people here from the U.S., all of whom my roommate knows and introduced me to yesterday. They have been here for about a week and said they haven’t met any other people from the U.S. yet. There are also some guys from Germany, Japan, and various South American countries who went with us to the beach and dinner.

The beach was pretty cool, but I didn’t fully enjoy it because I was still operating on jet lag and about 3 hours of sleep. However, I think that just powering through all that definitely helped me today, because I was able to sleep through the night and not really get tired all day today. Anyway, the beach was fun. It only cost 2 yuan to get there by bus (about 35 cents). The two Germans swam, but the rest of us either didn’t realize where we were going (this was me) or didn’t want to swim, so we just sat and walked around for a while. Eventually the other person from the U.S. in the group started dancing to “xiao ping go” (a popular song in China) with a random Chinese man, who was very helpful and tried (unsuccessfully) to teach him how to dance. After we got back to campus, we ate diner at the canteen, which was pretty good (also very cheap – I spent less than a dollar for dinner), and then I returned to my dorm to sleep. My roommate and I both went to sleep around 8 pm, because we were extremely tired and because it gets dark around 7 here, so it seemed much later than it was.

Today was also a lot of fun, because my high school classmate/good friend finally arrived. She also had some flight trouble, and arrived in Dalian last night at midnight. She has a host family, so she had a bed to sleep in, but she was still pretty exhausted. We walked around for a while because she left some of her documents in her host family’s house and couldn’t figure out how to open the door (later her host mom showed us that you have to unlock it while kicking it in exactly the right spot for it to open). It was really great to see her, and I got to meet some of her friends from her school in Scotland who are also studying here in Dalian. Other notable highlights from the day include accidentally walking into a nice restaurant and having to order expensive food (although once you convert it back to dollars it isn’t expensive at all), trying to get bubble tea and ending up with a smoothie, and successfully ordering dinner which I subsequently spilled all over my room.

That’s it for now! I’ll post again once I’ve taken the placement test and started class!

再见!
Louise

My long and tiring (and exciting!) voyage to Dalian

My first flight, from Oklahoma City to Detroit, went quite smoothly. I said my goodbyes the night before I left, cried a minimal amount, and dutifully arrived at the airport two hours before my flight boarded. Thankfully, my boyfriend was willing to drive me to the airport at 3:30 am. Of course, since I was in the OKC airport at 3:30 am, I had to stand around for the ticket kiosk to open before checking my bags, getting boarding passes for all three of my flights, and passing through security in about 10 minutes. Luckily, the airport in OKC has plenty of outlets to charge electronics at 3 am, and free wifi, so the one and a half hour wait wasn’t bad at all.

The flight from OKC to Detroit was pretty short, particularly since I slept through most of it. My roommate advised me to set my watch to Dalian time as soon as I arrived at the airport, and to sleep and eat according to Dalian time, so as to help with jet lag. My flight was at 8 pm Dalian time, but I figured since I’d be sitting in Detroit watching my bags during the time that was supposed to be night, I might as well sleep. Plus I didn’t manage to go to sleep until midnight and woke up at 2:40, so sleep seemed like a good idea.

The Detroit Airport was quite an interesting experience. There are apparently quite a few flights to China out of that airport, despite the fact that they all have to go either over Europe or across the entire U.S. before crossing the Pacific. From what I could see in my complimentary Delta Sky magazine, most of them go across the Pacific, including my flight to Shanghai. In any case, there are enough Chinese passengers that some of the airport announcements are in Chinese. I was also quite delighted when a small child ran down the moving walkway in from of me screaming, “pao bu! Pap bu!” (“pao bu” is “run” in Chinese). Detroit also has trams that run above the walkways to transport people around the airport quickly, because it is quite large, particularly in comparison to Oklahoma City’s airport.

Upon arriving in Detroit, I exchanged some currency, and went to check which gate my next flight was at, only to find that it was delayed by three and a half hours. Luckily, I had scheduled a very long layover in Shanghai, so it looked like I might still make my connection, if I didn’t get lost and made it through customs really quickly. However, as I waited, the flight was further delayed several times, until we eventually left the gate four and a half hours late. For some reason, it looked like the flight might be 13 hours, instead of 14 hours, but that was not the case.

Needless to say, after 14 hours of flying (at least we got three meals!) I did not make my connection in Shanghai. The flight attendants told us that there would be several customer service agents to help us arrange new flights when we got off the plane, but unfortunately, this was not the case. We were essentially herded off the plane and into the immigration line, with no chance to stop and even look for someone to help me exchange my ticket. After waiting in the immigration line for about 40 minutes, I was finally able to claim my bags, go through customs (which was much simpler than I expected), and look (unsuccessfully) for these customer service agents they were talking about. Of course, no Delta customer service agents were to be found, so I moved on to plan B, which was to attempt to figure all this out using Chinese. By this point, of course, I was pretty tired.

I began by talking to the ticketing counter for China Eastern airlines, which was the company that was operating my next flight (I bought the ticket through Delta but the plane was a China Eastern plane). Conveniently, I didn’t know how to say “missed my flight”, so that was a bit of a problem. But I eventually conveyed the idea, and the lady at the counter told me to go to area B.* When I went to area B, they told me to go to C, so I went to C and they told me to go back to B, who then told me to drop my bags off at C and then come back, so I went to C again. The lady at area C finally sent me to kiosk 13, which did not have a worker at it. So I stood there and waited for a long time, until I finally decided that she must have just wanted me to stop going back and forth asking her the same question. I also tried going to kiosk 13 in area B, which was manned, but the worker did not respond to anything I said. So, I took off to wander the airport some more. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I found a Delta employee, who was at a closed customer service counter. I talked to him anyway, and though he did not talk back, he took my boarding pass and printed me another one for a flight that left at 10 pm (by this point only about an hour and 45 minutes away). Finally, I was able to check my bags, go through security, and find my gate. Also, throughout this whole experience I did not have phone service and only very spotty wifi (which I paid 5 dollars for), so I could not communicate with anyone back home except to send one 6-word email to my mom saying that I had a new flight. Surprisingly, I didn’t have a full on mental breakdown, probably because I was too tired.

Don’t leave yet, because the story keeps going! Except after this it gets a lot more awesome. While I was waiting for the plane in Shanghai, the lady sitting next to me started talking to me in Chinese (she spoke English too, so she would help me learn if I didn’t understand what she said). Eventually, we discovered that we were on the same flight, and she and her boyfriend would sit just in front of me on the plane. She also discovered that I was just planning to wait in the airport until morning, when I would get a taxi and go to campus. I had booked a hotel, but since the plane wouldn’t arrive until midnight I thought it might be too late to check in.

Anyway, this lady I was talking to was pretty sure that they would kick me out of the airport, and then I’d just be outside in the city in the middle of the night, so she invited me to stay at her house in Dalian. I was a little freaked out because I didn’t really know her, but my instincts said she was ok, so I decided to go with her and her boyfriend to their house. That ended up being a very good decision because I got to sleep in a real house, with a real bed, and her boyfriend made us breakfast in the morning. We had rice with vegetables and doujiang, which apparently has the same nutrition as milk, but tastes like the liquid part of what you get when you add too much water to instant oatmeal. It was actually quite delicious. We had to leave her house at 6:30, because she had another flight to catch for another business trip that morning, so I got in a taxi** that she had arranged for me, and went to the school for registration. Since I had left so early, I was the first in line for registration, which was actually quite nice, and allowed me to move into my dorm early enough to Skype home before they went to sleep. I’m sure there will be many more stories to tell later, but that’s it for now!

再见!
Louise

*In the Shanghai airport the bag drop/check in kiosks for domestic flights are arranged in groups of 26 labelled with letters, rather than being by airline, because there are really only two airlines operating out of Shanghai but there are a ton of people and it’s a really big airport. Each area handles different destinations, so you pick a line based on where you’re going. Dalian, which is where I wanted to go, was in area C. I don’t know why people kept telling me to go to B.

**The taxi is a whole story by itself, because the way people drive here is insane. Lane markers and yellow lines are completely optional apparently, and it’s also apparently totally appropriate to just hop up on the sidewalk for a bit and almost run over a bunch of kids on their way to school, as long as you honk at them constantly.