Life in China gets easier when you know the language

I’d like to say that I have reached mastery in the Chinese language after only five weeks, and I can now rival mall cuisine with my version of ‘chao fan’ (fried rice). In reality, my accomplishments, although less monumental, have been useful. I can start a simple conversation with anyone I meet. I have mentally converted my life to Celsius, kilograms, kilometers, and sometimes centimeters if necessary. I can order practically anything on the ‘caidan’ (menu) in any of the restaurants in Dong Men, a row of 10-15 restaurants and shops right outside the eastern gate of campus. Most importantly, I’ve learned that routines, routines, routines are the standard in China. And routines work.

On a typical school day I wake up at 7 a.m., shower and get dressed for my 8:40 a.m. Chinese class. We have our first break at 10 a.m., and my ‘tongxue’ (classmates) and I walk to our favorite of three campus cafeterias, called canteens, to grab a beverage and pastry for breakfast. My peers in language classes are like the League of Nations; they’re from Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Morocco.

If not all, then part of ‘the league’ ambles its way back through the maze of classroom buildings toward our classroom. There are at least 7 stairwells in each of the main classroom buildings. The major staircases are color coded by department: grey banisters represent the school of journalism, pink for law school, brown for business, green for sciences. Everyday we debate which tangled way through the buildings is fastest.

We have eight or nine student teachers instructing the language classes. The student teachers are graduate students on their way toward completing their degree. Each has a different style of teaching. They follow the material closely, so we don’t miss any thing.

The language classes are split into two periods. I have reading and writing everyday, in addition to oral communication, singing songs, calligraphy, or listening comprehension. The most important difference between Chinese language classes I took at Florida State and at Shantou is in order to communicate with the teachers here I must speak Chinese. We are allowed to speak in English outside of the classroom; however, my tongxue all have native languages that are not English, which forces us to work on improving our communication in Chinese.

We leave language class by 11:50 a.m. in order to get to the best lunch selections. As soon as we exit our building, I can see the swarm of students beginning to form. I was astonished to see the lunch madness lasts for only 15 minutes. It took me a week to realize what was happening. The students would get to the canteen, eat within 10 minutes then go to their dorm for ‘noon naptime.’ It’s not just the students either; faculty and administration offices are closed from noon to 2:00 p.m. everyday for lunch and naps. The idea is so institutionalized that when I tried to convince a journalism classmate, who I was having lunch with, to walk with me to the art building on the other side of campus, she said she didn’t have time. She had to get started on her nap. There is a noticeable difference on campus at that time too because after an hour of ‘naptime’ the basketball courts start to fill up, bikes reemerge whizzing past and you can hear life come back to campus.

In the U.S. we are discouraged from sleeping in the middle of the day somewhere after Kindergarten. I would try and nap in the day my freshman year but 1 hour turned into 2.5 hours, and the ‘catch-up nap’ ended up putting me behind in my schoolwork. When I told some friends here that we have classes scheduled all throughout the day, even during naptime, they were surprised. They asked me “when do you sleep?” My reply: “when we can.”

I am taking four journalism classes here and auditing two more that I was interested in learning more about. All but two of my classes are taught in English by international professors. The classes where instruction is in Mandarin are digital media classes.

Thankfully, the software (Final Cut Pro, Motion, Soundtrack Pro etc.) is in English, and the instructors speak English and give me a summary of their lecture at the end of class.