Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Beginner Chinese Lessons

By Lín Tiān Jié  林天(Kevin)

It was like drinking water from a firehose,” I sighed, when Ruth asked how the first day of class went.
It was so much, so fast.”

I just returned from my first morning of class as a full-time student in 11 years. I'd just finished my Intensive Reading and Oral Chinese lessons. My brain was numb. To say the lessons were difficult would be an understatement. Although we enrolled in “Beginner Chinese” classes, all but one or two of the students had at least a small amount of exposure to the language. Several mentioned having studied in another class that apparently comes before beginner Chinese. Most rattled off long sentences using grammar we hadn't yet been introduced to. 

Thankfully, I managed to recognize my new Chinese name when the teacher called on me without too much of a delay. I decided I needed one that wasn't a partial transliteration of my English name, so out with Kai Bo Wen and in with my teacher's recommendation: Lín Tiān Jié 林天 (means Forrest, 天 means Sky/Heaven, and means distinguished or looking toward).

What have we gotten ourselves into?” asked one of my classmates.

Between two lessons, we were expected to have grasped and retained close to 40 phrases by the end of class. After the teacher wrote a character once, she rarely wrote the pinyin (phonetic spelling) for it again unless asked to do so. Thankfully I already knew how to say two-thirds of them. But reading and writing are another story. Although our Character Writing class won't begin until next week (we have Wednesday through Friday off because of Ramadan), homework for Oral class involved writing 20 of the characters ten times apiece, plus writing out five sentences using the characters. Good thing I have a rudimentary understanding of stroke order from previous tutor times.

There were 17 students in all. Five Americans, five Sudanese, two Koreans, one Canadian, one Iranian, one Dutch, one Mexican and one Indian. Today, the second day of class, none of the Sudanese showed up. Perhaps they were preparing for Ramadan.

Even though the pace was fast for most of the first two lessons, it slowed a bit during the second day. One of our more overwhelmed classmates decided to slow things down by asking the teacher to write the pinyin for the sentences she'd written on the board or to translate phrases he didn't understand. But I felt particularly bad for my Mexican classmate. When he didn't understand the teacher's rapid explanation of how to say different numbers in class, the teacher asked, “Do you understand English?”

A little bit,” he said.

I can't imagine having to use your second language to understand a teacher's directions to learn a third. Yet, that's where 10 of my classmates sit. 

So, two days down. We have a long way to go, but at least we speak English.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Electrical Adventure

By Kevin

Our first goal upon arrival in Yinchuan was simple: get the power turned on. Or so we thought. As often happens in China, a simple task turned into a bit of an adventure.

In America, paying your electric bill is a fairly straightforward proposition. Someone from the electric company comes, reads your meter, then you wait for your bill to arrive by mail and send the company a check. If you don't pay, they send you a warning, then eventually shut off your power.

As teachers in China, dealing with utilities was simple because our school footed the bill. Occasionally, we saw a paper posted on our building in Weinan listing the electricity charges for each apartment, but the school paid it. We didn't have to concern ourselves with the process, so we didn't know how it worked.

We knew coming into Yinchuan that we likely wouldn't have power when we got here, but we had no clue how to solve the problem. Upon arrival at our apartment in Yinchuan, after five trips hauling our luggage up and down six flights of stairs, I flipped the light switch. Sure enough we had no power. So I enlisted the help of Angel, the Chinese friend who met us at the airport, to pay the electric bill.

Naturally, being fresh out of college and never living on her own, she didn't know what to do. So, she knocked on the neighbors door and asked them where to pay. They told us to bring the prepaid electricity card, which the landlord had left for us, and to set off for a building across campus. We had to stop a couple times along the way to ask directions, but eventually, we found ourselves walking down an empty alleyway adjacent to the Muslim dining hall. At first, we walked right past it because it isn't clearly marked, but someone pointed us in the right direction. Naturally, the door was locked. A faded sign was posted listing hours: 5-6 pm. Apparently the office is only open for an hour per day to pay for electricity.

Thankfully 5 pm was only ten minutes away, so we waited. When the worker arrived, she opened the dingy door, pulled the cold weather flaps to the side and let us in. She headed for a desk and removed the dust covers from the computer and a handful of other devices.

She plugged our electricity card into the computer and frowned, saying something about it not working. Then she declared that we needed to go back to our apartment an plug the card into the electricity meter before we could add money to the card. Apparently it had been inactive too long to add money to the chip on the card.

Ok. So we went back to apartment, plugged the card in, flipped a switch and
Voilà! It worked. There were still 104 of whatever unit of electricity they measure electrical use by on the card (kWh perhaps?).

Since by this time, it was 5:30 and we were exhausted, we decided to just wait and add more money later.

After about 10 days, we noticed that the amount of power was beginning to get low. We were down to a quarter of that original number – 27 kWh. So, on Wednesday night, I decided to go ahead and add money to the card, thinking it would be an easy process. I was walking across campus to pay the bill, bumped into Harmony, so I asked if she would mind coming with me just in case there were any problems.

When we arrived, I was surprised that the office was closed, even though it was 5:30 p.m.. “Angel said it's open from 5-6,” I told her, pointing to the sign.

She read the weathered print-out posted next to the door. “It is only open from 5-6 on Tuesdays and Fridays,” she said.

Angel didn't mention that,” I muttered.

These are the summer hours, which run through Friday.”

We might have a problem,” I told her. We had already made plans to go to dinner as a team at an Inner Mongolian restaurant across town on Friday night at that time. “But we'll run out of electricity before Monday.”

She tried calling a phone number written on the sign to ask if there is another place we could pay. Naturally, one of the numbers was illegible because it had been torn off. We couldn't tell if it was an 8, a 6, a 5 or a 3 (the bottom, which was all that was left, was rounded). She tried these numbers, but figured that someone in Dalian or Chongqing wouldn't be able to help us.

So she called up our landlord and asked if there was another place we could pay. He directed us to the Bank of Ningxia, across the street from campus.

When I went to the bank the next day, we were down to 18 kWh.

Seeing several long lines, I asked the manager where I should pay my electrical bill. Thankfully, hearing my poor Chinese, he started speaking English. “You can't do it now,” he said. “Follow me.”

He walked me out of the building and down the street to the State Grid (the power company), repeatedly grabbing my hand and saying “follow me.” “Five years, I study English,” he said. “Where you from?” he asked. “New York? Chicago?” “California,” I told him. “Ahh, California. Very good.” The woman at the State Grid plugged the card into her machine, frowned and said something about how I couldn't add money to it there because I lived on the university campus. I'd have to pay somewhere else.

The helpful bank manager walked me back, saying “Come back to bank, six time,” which I interpreted to mean to come back to the bank at 6 p.m.

I thanked him and went home. “Still no power,” I declared to Ruth.

That night, I went back to the bank. I waited as several people deposited large stacks of bills. When I got to the front, I said I wanted to pay for electricity and handed the teller my electricity card and some money.

She plugged the card into the “adding money machine” and frowned. She pulled it back out and tried reinserting it into the machine several more times, each time followed by a frown. Then she handed the card back to me, declaring something about it not working.

My mind was blank. I did the math – at the current rate of power consumption we'd run out on Friday or Saturday. Then I remembered – I'd forgotten to plug the card into our meter immediately before coming to the bank – maybe that was the problem.

So I ran home, declared to Ruth that we still had no power, plugged the card into our meter, then hurried back to the bank. When I got to the front, the teller didn't even try plugging it in. Exasperated, she repeated the same phrase she uttered earlier. For the second time, I didn't understand much more than a the words “electricity” and “not able.” I tried to explain that I had talked to the manager earlier and he told me to return. She called out a manager who spoke some English, who told me that my card was broken, so I needed to go to the State Grid during business hours. They would give me a new card and solve my problem. She too insisted upon walking me down the street to show me where the State Grid office was located. I thanked her and called Harmony, who contacted the landlord. I wanted to make sure it was OK with him if I got his card replaced.

The landlord insisted that the card worked fine. I should just go back to the place on campus to buy more electricity.

I told Ruth the news. “Still no power. I think we need to turn off all non-essential items.”

We were down to 16 kWh.

By this point we were relatively sure that we would run out of power sometime Saturday, but since we weren't sure if the power company office on campus would be open on Saturday or not, we decided we'd take our chances and run to the office at 5 p.m. We would have to be late to dinner, but our food would go bad without a working refrigerator.

I plugged the card in: 9 kWh left. I rushed over to the on-campus electricity office fifteen minutes early and waited. I anxiously hurried in when she opened the door and whirred the computer to life along with two other students. I got nervous when she turned the other students away. I went ahead with it. I handed her the card and the money. This time it worked. 400 RMB bought us about 850 kWh. That should last us for at least a few months, I figured. Relieved I hurried to meet Ruth and Harmony so we could head off for dinner. “It works. We have power.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Our first impression of Yinchuan was a good one. Of course, after being stuck in Beijing an extra day due to a delayed flight, and waiting standby with a dozen other people trying to get to Yinchuan on totally full flights, we were just happy to finally arrive! We walked out of the airport greeted by blue skies and balmy weather. The fields surrounding the city were surprisingly green for the dry climate, and we passed a magnificent lake filled with thousands of blooming waterlilies. Not exactly what you think of as desert!

Our first impression of our apartment was slightly less glowing. After we (and by that I mean Kevin) hauled all our luggage up to the sixth floor, we looked around our new home. The living room was piled full of boxes we shipped from Weinan. I tiredly surveyed the grimy floor, wondering what I would do with my little crawler, ready for some movement after all that time in planes and airports. Step one, put that questionable looking mop to use. Of course we had no cleaning supplies. Or maybe step one, figure out how to get the power turned on before nighttime. Unfortunately the place we need to go pay is only open from 5-6pm, naturally. No actually, step one: must find water!! While our house water was on (yay!), it is of course not drinkable, and we haven't drunk hardly anything all day. So step one, find water. Step two, get our exhausted baby to take a nap. Step 2.5, find some sheets. Probably should have thought to mark which box they were in...

Gradually, our apartment became more and more livable. I mopped the bedroom floor so Juliana could play on the floor, even though she still ended up with black hands and knees. We moved the boxes out of the living room and haphazardly unpacked our things. Kevin scrubbed and scrubbed the moldy fridge. I scrubbed the nasty bathroom floor. We cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. We tried to sleep in between waking up 15x a night with a jetlagged baby. Kevin got a nasty cold and then Juliana and I caught it too.

We bought a cabinet for the kitchen so we have somewhere to store things. We set up a water delivery company, internet, and cell phone plans. We put together the crib, moved some giant pieces of furniture (after taking several doors off their hinges), and made a few trips to the supermarket. And by “we” I mostly mean Kevin. Meanwhile I mopped (baby strapped onto my back – thank you Ergo!), tried to get the baby to sleep, set up the kitchen, made baby food, and chased the Juliana around saying, “No no no! Don't go there. What did you just put in your mouth? You can't touch the cords/scissors/screw/exposed outlet/dirty shoe/old trashcan/bike tire/pile of plastic bags.” It's a wonder we survive childhood.

The apartment has some definite good points. Being on the 6th floor means we get lots of light, a nice breeze, and built-in exercise. The supermarket is only a block away. Our classroom building is just a 5-10 minute walk. We can see the mountains from our kitchen window. It is fully furnished, and most of the furniture is even usable. One day we'll put up “before and after” pictures so you can see how we've fixed things up, but we're not to the “after” stage yet.

Now we have been in Yinchuan a little more than a week and things have really come together a lot. We are not completely unpacked and moved in, but we have made great progress in that direction. We have started our “foundations week” of classes, which is thankfully just an hour a day, going over tones and pronunciation to make sure we get them right. Today we talked about the six different “s” sounds in Chinese and how when a third tone is in front of another third tone it becomes a second tone, and how the fifth “neutral” tone is pronounced at a different pitch depending on which tone comes before it. The cold is certainly not helping my pronunciation, and my ears are so plugged up I can't hear things right. I really hope it gets better before next week when...

We start full time! (Dun-dun-dun). We may not have a chance to come up for air until January. Kevin will be taking classes in the morning. We will try to find someone who can watch Juliana for a few hours so I can meet with a tutor in the morning. I will have class in the afternoon, and as soon as I am done with class, Kevin will meet with a tutor. At least, that's our hope, but we don't actually know how it will all work out. So if you don't hear from us for a while, assume that we are alive (though possibly braindead) and chugging along. I think once we can get into the swing of things, it's going to be a good (if very challenging) couple of years.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Yep, Chinese is Hard

For an example of the complexity of Chinese, here is an excerpt from a woman who has been in China for quite a while.  She talks about how China 'newbies' will often ask the meaning of a word they heard, but figuring out which word they heard is more difficult than you might think!

In order to ascertain the meaning of the word in question, though, we have to know which character it is, since meaning in Chinese is carried by the way a word is written, not the way it sounds. And since there are only 400+ sounds, the word they are inquiring about could be any of a handful, dozen, or hundred different characters.
Take the word (sound) ju, for example. My Wenlin Chinese software program indicates that there are 158 different characters that are pronounced ju. And to make it even more fun, many of those characters have multiple meanings.
Here are just a few of them....

Ju (Small)
You can check out her blog, always an enlightening look at China.

Juliana's (Early) 1st Birthday Party

Last weekend we had an early 1st birthday party for Juliana!  I thought I would share some pictures to let you in on the fun!

The birthday cakes, modeled after Juliana's favorite books
Decorations!  Balloons, streamers, paper lanterns, and a big glittery sign

Pictures of Juliana from the first 10.5 months.  It was hard to choose from all the thousands!
Juliana wore a pretty dress from her Nana

We got Juliana to wear a hat for about 3.5 seconds.  She was not a fan.
Playtime with her cousins

A new xylophone from Grandpa and Grandma Yaya

A special box from Aunt Anna

Time out for a train ride!  Juliana LOVES riding on this little push train that has been around since we were kids.  She bobs her head, squeals, waves at everyone around, and puts her hands in the air roller-coaster style.

Enjoying her first cake.  She had quite a sugar high (and sugar crash) that evening!
Yummy cake

Fun with bubbles!

The happy birthday family!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Not Quite Excited

by Ruth

It's only two more weeks until we head back to China, and I'm not quite excited about it.  There have been times in the past when I have dreaded going back to China because it was China.  Now I am starting to feel a lot more at home in China; I am just intimidated by what lies ahead of us.

First, we'll leave here at around 3am to start our ~30hour trek across the world.  We will be tired before we even start!  After three long flights and a couple of long layovers, we will arrive in Yinchuan.  We have an apartment waiting there, but we don't even really know where it is or how to get there.  Someone is supposed to meet us at the airport to lead the way.  When we find our apartment, we will need to carry all our luggage up to the 6th floor.  Our baby will want to crawl around on the dusty, dirty floor while we look through our boxes of belongings (already waiting there) to find useful items like sheets and towels.  Too bad I have no idea where they are packed.

Then we will spend the first week staying up all night with a jet-lagged baby and trying to get her back onto a normal day/night schedule before our classes start.  During the day we will be trying to unpack and get settled in, find the supermarket and vegetable stores, buy cleaning supplies and clean up the apartment, buy a refrigerator and water machine,  set up internet, and entertain a tired/confused baby.  And after that restful week of getting settled in, we will start our very busy lives as students, where we will try to fit in both of us taking classes, meeting with tutors, having team time, doing regular household stuff - oh yes, and taking care of Juliana all the time.

On second thought, let's just go back to Weinan.

Grumble, grumble, groan.  Anyway, we will get through it all, and I am looking forward to a few months from now when we have gotten more settled in and are figuring out our stride with life as students.  We will know where to find thing at the supermarket and which vegetable ladies are the nicest.  We will have found some favorite restaurants (including a PIZZA place nearby!!).  We will have gotten to know some of the other people around.  Maybe Juliana will be sleeping better (hahahahahaha).

I know these next two years will be difficult and busy, but I think they will be good as well.  I am looking forward to being around some families.  While I am daunted by the actual learning process, I am excited about knowing more Chinese and being able to communicate better.  I hate moving to a new place, but I like getting settled in there, and I'm glad we get to stay there for at least two years.  Who knows, maybe we will even be able to settle in for longer!