Assuming everything goes according to plan, by the time I leave China I will have been here for 143 days. Yesterday was day 72. Since I just crossed the halfway point, I figured it would be good to do a little reflection of my time here so far and of the second half that lies ahead.
If you go back and read my very first post on this blog, you will feel a great sense of optimism and expectation as I look forward to the months ahead of me. Having never studied abroad before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I came here with many assumptions, most of which have been proven wrong.
Perhaps the largest of these is the assumption that being immersed in a language will result in a sort of magical, osmosis-like absorption of the language. In fact, I've heard many testimonies from others of that sort of thing happening. One of the students in my class who has already studied here for a semester said after a couple of months "something just clicked" and he was able to pick up the language rather easily.
Unfortunately, I have yet to experience anything like that. The journey so far has felt uphill almost constantly -- and not just uphill, but sometimes uphill in a massive blizzard with falling rocks and wild animals making creepy noises at night...then after 2 days of climbing you look down and see that you've only made it 10 feet up the mountain.
Today, in one of my classes we were talking about newspapers. Our teacher gave each of us part of the newspaper to do some role-playing. In the midst of this, my partner and I looked at the front page. After a few minutes he said, "I feel so stupid. I've studied here for a year, and I can't even read one sentence in the newspaper." I can't either.
It seems ridiculous that you could study a language while living in another country for a year and not be able to read a complete sentence in a newspaper, but that's the reality I am facing and many here are facing (though I've only been here for less than 3 months). In fact, a Canadian friend in another city has been studying Chinese in China for 3 years and is actually just now taking a "newspaper reading" class.
One would think after living for 3 years in a country solely studying the language you wouldn't need to take a class to learn how to read the newspaper. But so it is.
At times I get the feeling that there's a secret conspiracy here to make learning Chinese as difficult and confusing for foreigners as possible. Maybe everyone here has a list of all the words and phrases that our textbooks use, and they make it a point not to use any of them when speaking with foreigners or when writing any form of public communication.
The English equivalent: Instead of saying, "It looks like it will rain today," you say, "According to my observations of the current condition of the atmosphere, I postulate that droplets of the substance inside a bottle of Aquafina will plummet to the earth's surface in massive quantities before this planet makes one complete rotation on its axis."
Of course I'm going a little over the top, but I did not expect it to be so difficult to communicate after two and a half months of living here and after two years of studying Chinese in the States. And the little I do know hasn't come from some sort of magical "enlightenment" that happened when I started living here. It has just come from plain hard work.
With that said, I have made progress. I'm higher on the mountain than when I started, and I'm making much more progress than I did in the States.
When I started taking classes here, I could barely understand my teachers because they only spoke in Chinese. But now I can mostly understand them. Even if my teachers and my textbooks are speaking at a very elementary level, at least I know what they are saying.
Another wrong assumption I came here with was that living on campus in China would be similar to living on campus in the States. It is so much more difficult to interact with Chinese people on campus than I expected. The international student dorms and buildings are piled together into one segregated area, as are the restaurants and stores that cater to them.
I think I would be making much more progress if I was allowed to live in a Chinese dorm. But as it is, no one speaks Chinese in the international student dorm. I have to go way out of my way to visit Chinese friends on campus. It's very, very easy to only speak and read English. Most things are translated and most people in this small area speak at least some English.
I also thought I would have plenty of free time to explore the city and hang out with Chinese friends. In reality, my time is quickly swallowed up by a variety of things -- mostly studying. This makes practicing speaking and listening especially difficult.
So, after 72 days here I have a much more sober view of things. It might seem that I have gone from 100% optimism to 100% pessimism, and at some point early on I probably did. But slowly I have been gaining some of that optimism back. Although the road ahead seems much longer, I have gained more of a desire to get to the "end."
It has been helpful to hear from others who are advanced in the language now but in the past have experienced the same kinds of things I'm experiencing.
I've also made some good friends, and I have really enjoyed the time I've gotten to spend with them. I continue to love how interesting the culture is here, and I have yet to get bored walking down a random street during the day.
If I had the opportunity to go home right now, I wouldn't. I really do want to stay here and continue learning and challenging myself to interact with people. I imagine the next 71 days will be full of more hard work and slow progress -- but progress nonetheless.
Chinese is certainly a horse of a different color...possibly a dark blue. I knew it would be difficult, but I didn't expect it to be this difficult. And yet I'm writing small articles in Chinese! And having short conversations with people in Chinese! And reading my textbook in Chinese! And listening to my teacher teach completely in Chinese!
That is certainly encouraging, and I look forward to my last 71 days here -- that is until I come back.