Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Metcalf Elementary School Class!

Last time I told you about the different means of public transportation. Did you find it interesting or educational, convenient or scary?  I took a walk today and marveled at the skills the drivers here have. Some of the side roads I wandered down don't look big enough to fit one car down it, never mind two but somehow they manage it.  My friends and I have discovered a great alley that is hidden just across the main road from our school.  On this particular road there are small shops, repair places and restaurants on both sides of the road; some of them spilling out onto the sidewalks and into the street.  I figured it was a pedestrian and bike street until I almost got run over by a car which was going way to fast for it's own good.  Everyone around me seemed to see this as a normal event, so how could I be upset that I'm not used to this?

Now I'm beginning my project that I had proposed for the Gilman Scholarship. I'll be working with the 6th grade art classes at Metcalf Elementary School in Rhode Island, finding things around Beijing to help them explore an aspect of China's culture through art.  When I first told everyone at home that I wanted to learn to read and write in Chinese, most people said that I was crazy.  Here's a little bit of information that I grabbed off Wikipedia about Chinese Characters here if anyone wants to read more.  The biggest thing that most people are aware of is how many different Chinese characters (汉字 han zi) exist.  In books and historical documents there are more than one person could ever need to learn or use.  This is what makes the task of learning to write Chinese daunting. At first I was very nervous about never being able to become fluent in reading because there are so many different characters and combinations that it seemed impossible. Later I was told that I would only need to learn 3,000-4,000 characters to be able to be fluent.  Well that's better! 

I brought my fear of not being able to learn all the characters I would need to my teacher's attention.  She asked me "how many words do you know how to read in English?"  Well, I know a whole bunch of English words. "And how many English words do you not know?" Ahh. As it turns out, although there are many many words in the English language, I also do not know them all! This made me feel better about Chinese and writing.

To know where the bus is going, you need to be able to read the names of the bus stops!!

Writing Chinese characters is fun because you get to draw little pictures every time you write anything!  Some characters are very basic and easy like 不, while others can be difficult like 建.  The difficult ones are usually made up of a bunch of simple ones so they can be easy to learn also!  In my classes in Beijing we are learning 20-30 new characters every-other day which I find very quick. I needed to learn how to remember which parts make up each character fast so I could keep up with my classmates.  After trying for a little bit I discovered that each small piece of the character means something. When you put all the meanings together, you can understand the meaning of the whole character! Yay! It is almost the same as breaking down words in English to understand what they mean. One letter by itself does not help you understand the meaning of a word, but by putting them together you can make educated guesses!

In my next post I will go into more detail about the different ways of writing characters and will show you pictures of characters that I took while I was out walking around my university!

再见!zai jian! See you again!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Getting Around in Crazy Traffic

A small, but necessary skill I have learned so far while in China is about transportation.  My school and life here is in Beijing which has a huge population of Chinese in  a relatively small area.  I was concerned before I got here how I was going to be able to move about the city, namely how was I going to make it to Beijing Language and Culture University for another class that is about two hours away walking distance.  Lucky for me that because of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing now has a complex and cheap system of public transportation!

Since Rhode Island is not a very big place and I usually only frequent Boston, MA, I was not prepared for the size of Beijing. I had looked it up on Wikipedia of course and seen the numbers, but actually being here really threw me for a minute.  When I arrived at the airport a student member of CAPA came to meet Michelle and myself to bring us to campus.  Here I experienced my very first taxi ride ever. In America I had no need to ever use a taxi, I have a car in Rhode Island and am capable with Massachusetts public transit so taxis are completely new to me.  From the airport Doris and I took a taxi driven by a man who spoke very, very little English for an hour to campus.  For those of you who are not from RI, an hour is a very long time to be in a car going somewhere for me. I had checked out a map of Beijing before I came to see how far away the airport would be from campus and I honestly didn't think it would take that long!  Beijing is big guys, really big. So I got in the taxi to come to school and tried to put on my seat-belt, only to realize that while the shoulder part is accessible, the part on the seat is not because of the seat covers!  Every single taxi is like this! I spent a slightly uncomfortable hour in the taxi while driving past signs that say "buckle up!" but nobody does.

Driving in Beijing is a terrifying experience for someone who is used to American driving I think.  It certainly is for me. It looks like chaos and sometimes I think it is, but I've seen very few car accidents. You can not be a passive driver here and get anywhere. Buses and cars swerve in and out between each other and there appears to be a very small margin for error. I've just come to trust in the abilities of the drivers and keep my wits about me when I find myself on the street. 

The bus was the second mode of transportation I learned to use. Last semester I had used the RIPTA buses to get to URI and back because it was too far to use my car everyday.  I thought I was used to crowded buses, but RIPTA has nothing on Beijing buses.  Because the Chinese "personal space" is so much less than the American equivalent, I often find myself squished on a bus so much that I don't need to hold on to anything to stay upright. Elderly people and women with children are given seats if none are already available, even though they always insist that it's not necessary. The good thing about the buses are that there are bus stops everywhere and the frequency is awesome, plus if you have a Beijing transit card, a bus ride will cost you .40 kuai.  The bad thing, for me and my classmates, is that all the signs telling you which buses stop where are in Chinese.  There is no English to be found making getting on a new bus a scary thought. I usually use buses that I have used before for another purpose and can make a connection from a prior experience or if I've memorized the Chinese characters (汉字) for a particular bus stop and I know that the bus will take me there. Otherwise I'm a bigger fan of the subway system.

The subway system in Beijing got a super upgrade in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.  I had read somewhere that 10 years ago, Beijing only had one subway line and it was very difficult to use.  Now there is a great system with what looks like 13 or 14 lines and more being added all the time. Because it is super convenient, lots of people like to use the subway.  I was not prepared for the crowds I found in the stations themselves and then on the actual trains. I have tried to avoid traveling at rush hour because it is so many people moving around, but sometimes it can't be helped. Even at non-peak times the subways are crowded and depending on which stop you are at, they can be dirty.  At least the signs have English on them and a the announcements for the present and next stops are said in Chinese and then in English. Super awesome for the English-speaking tourist.  A ride on the subway will cost 2 kuai which is very inexpensive and awesome for the student traveler.