Beijing Accent

12th January 2010

Success!

I arrived at the International Office with some trepidation. Xia Li Zheng, zhe shi nide! I was given a slim package – slim next to the other heavier packs – I always felt that slim letters contain bad news – but no it was my leaving certificate – most of the others are staying on for one more semester and have no certificate just yet, but a big pack of joining instructions.

People are rushing to look for results on the sheet and yes it is true – not only did I pass but, on an adjusted basis, I cleared the hurdle by some marks. There is still a feeling in the back of my mind that they let the old boy pass because of the effort that he put in but no – I’m sure it is a justified achievement! I would have given a million dollars to do it and two million not to do it again.

8th January 2010

Jie shu le

We are now finished! My Koyu test (oral test) finished in a blaze of incompetence owing to the fact that I could not understand one word in one of the questions – just one small word. The lao shi said it again, she said it slowly, she explained it in Chinese. I just became more and more confused. If I have read the passage in Chinese, I would almost certainly have answered immediately. In fact, in a long and irrelevant reply to something else, I surprised even myself with my fluency and breadth of vocabulary, so I’ll pass that course.

But it is an anticlimax. We have had no word of what is to come in line with Beida’s non-existent administration. When does the term end? When do we collect our results? Can I collect my 750 character essay on Margaret Thatcher?

All of this is unknown so one final trip back to Beida, and memory lane, is due within a week. Will I pass Hanyu – whatever pass means? Certainly I have improved immensely this term and now have street-level Chinese that is not bad at all. But not for specialist language. That requires much more work.

For the next two weeks I am studying Business Chinese focusing on stock market Chinese with my tutor, Jasmine, that will be the icing on the cake for now.

I need another year to be really good- but for now I can speak and chat at dinner and that was the first step – it shows commitment and determination – and now there is no doubt about that – I am a local.

10th December

Do you speak ……?

My Chinese conversation is now not doing too badly. I spent part of the morning mai dongxi (shopping) in the local market and having lots of nice conversations in Hanyu. I even seemed to make sense at times. I had the best haircut that I’ve had in Beijing – for 35 kuai and generally felt comfortable. Then we went for lunch.

Ordering coffee is sometimes a complex affair, getting it the right consistency, temperature and style but I have become pretty good at it. I explain to the nice young fu wu yuan lad my order and he looks perplexed. Then again, at which point he looks furtively around the restaurant in the style of Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Then again, with a more wild-eyed look for anyone who can help but none is near. Finally he uses his initiative and gives me the menu – I know what I want to say is not in the menu.

Again his eyes search frantically around the restaurant – then he has a brainwave. “Do you speak English”, he says.

27th November

Learning Chinese at age 53 has been an eye opener for my own personal understanding of how I learn. I knew a great deal about this from continual exams, from professional CPD exams to motorcycle and private pilot’s exams over the years. Yet again, I have had to adapt. I’ve had to develop strategy after strategy and many have not worked. It frustrated my tutor no end that I seemed never to learn anything she said to me – and she barely registered on MY frustrat-o-meter. I have developed a number of pointers for similar foolish mature students:

Age is a factor; your brain is less supple. It is like an old athlete, a little creaky but if you had it, you’ve still got some of what made you great. But you are much smarter than you were then and that works better for mental against physical tasks. I CAN remember things rapidly if I need too. As long as it is not too much at one time and usually for not more than 5 minutes.

The main factors with age are patience, attention and confidence. These are not the same but similar. Patience is a virtue when you are younger but you don’t have to have patience as you get older, you can often see outcomes a mile off and your first though is to improve them.

As you get older you definitely suffer from ADS (attention deficit syndrome). I can switch off in an instant even when I am looking at the board. If the class Chinese gets too hard the switch breaks and I can miss a vital 90 seconds. The only positive thing is that I can switch on quickly but it does break the flow. It is partly because I care less – of course, there is less riding on it and I know where I lose ground and where my targets are to change the plan and get back on track. There are many ways to catch the mouse. I did not know that at 20. I think we call that experience.

Confidence is a strange one as I am confident. I will speak to anyone, no nerves. However, I can’t trust myself to just listen and guess; to go with the flow. I feel that I have to know the meaning of every word and, while I am savouring the first phrase the rest of the paragraph has gone by. The 20-year olds seem to pick it up osmotically.

This is related to the fact that this is my first second language. I don’t know what it feels like to speak, be understood and to understand another language. If anything this is my biggest single inhibition. But not one to be used as an excuse. Knowing a second language would have helped me appreciate the language process that I have had to learn the hard way.

I cannot remember and recite passages. This is the key Confucian method of teaching and does not work for a very highly-educated Western trained mind. After struggling with this my tutor and I have put a ban on it. Beiyu (BLCU) used to love whole paragraph recitals and I was never able to pass the first phrase. Beida is more relaxed in this department but when they do recite a passage, I can wing it by writing notes to myself and making it look like I’ve memorised it.

We now read a passage (perfect Beijing accent, please) and I translate it into English. Good old fashioned 1960′s way of learning Latin in England. But it works for me. I am now much more confident with my reading and general understanding. Hey the Chinese speak and understand the same way that we do. They have verbs as well – missing them out is something a lifetime of using pigin English in Africa and Asia has encouraged!

So I will end this year with basic – more accurately Intermediate Mandarin. Enough for a rustic chat, perhaps enough for dinner, and about 1,000 characters. All good enough for street people to think me fluent – for a while at least.

And in most cases ………….. my Pu Tong Hua is MUCH better than yours!

22nd November

Mid Term Exams tomorrow and this time I have a strategy. This time I have actually read the rubric – the exam instructions, with the help of a dictionary and know my marks and times. With a bit of luck I will devote the right time to the right number of marks this time. I am still fearfully slow at reading but given time not bad and 18th October

As I whizz along on my modern, green, electric bicycle to University in the increasingly cooler autumn mornings of Beijing, it is not difficult to see the future.

I travel along Cheng Fu Lu on my way to the East Gate of Peking Universisty, and I am surrounded by a stream of hundreds of bicycles, only moving apart to allow the odd car to speed down the bicycle lane. Nearing BeiDa there is a common early morning Beijing scene. This is at an especially wide junction where the road from Tsing Hua University meets Cheng Fu Lu, which is always blocked by cars.

These are people dropping off family members to go to the neighbouring schools and universities. In true fashion it is hen luan, complete chaos, with cars just stopped at all angles in a completely selfish manner. It actually allows me to cycle down the protected right hand turning car lane. Because it is blocked no car can go down it. Like a true Beijing ren, that protected lane is quicker and smoother than the (by now) small and narrow bike lane on the final run to BeiDa.

The bicycles are worth observing too. Perhaps half of them have more than one rider – often Dad or Mum with a child on the back ranging from 3 years old to mid-teen. Bikes hold Boy and Girlfriend or even a whole family; Dad pedalling or squeezing the electric bike throttle, Mum on the back holding the three year old, or if the child is older he or she will be on the bar in front of Dad. One benefit of the One Child Policy.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this is a big bull signal for the domestic car industry and the oil price long term. As Chinese individuals become wealthier, they WILL aspire to being warm and entertained in a car, not freezing on a bicycle and in danger of being hit by a taxi. There is nothing so focussing to people of all nations as the battle to get to work.

It may also be a good signal for the authorities to use their undoubted organisational power to force improvements in Beijing traffic discipline by keeping the flow moving – and by making it less luan.

29th October

Riding to work

I often give my daughter Chloe a ride on my bike to Wudaokao ditie (subway) in the morning. We are surrounded by hundreds of bikes but it is a pretty efficient way to travel and quick for the long distances between public transport stops in Beijing. Every second bike has dad pedalling furiously on the way to work with a school kid on the back of the bike, or Mum going to the office taking her son to his classes on the way.

I too have my daughter on the back of the bike – she is aged 23 – then again I am a bit older than the average Mum and Dad on their bikes. There are many similarities that I like to have with the Beijing ren besides me but here there is one difference. I am going to school and my daughter is going to work!

16th October

I fit in an extra two hour lesson with my tutor as we have a full two hour exam first thing Monday morning. The technique we use is to take the new words required for the exam and for me to make a sentence with each one. This works well. I’m not great but for two hours I basically speak and think in Chinese. ‘A constant drip wears down the hardest stone’. The appropriately Chinese phrase seems to be doubly appropriate in this case.

15th October

After a long battle to try and get me to remember the simplest word, my teacher threatens to quit again. I really do seem ben, stupid. Even to myself. Then again I can see that it is very difficult to teach an opinionated 53 year old who wants to move much faster than the twenty-somethings and with a punishing schedule and with a less agile mind.

I know I’m dreadfully tired. Anyway she goes off for a 5 minute walk and when we come back we agree to do the same exercises from another book. She reads, I listen. I can not remember anything so she reads sentence by sentence – or word by word until I finally comprehend. The we put it back together again and I read the passage – all in characters of course – out loud.

It is very intense, mind crushingly boring but necessary. And all of this after 4 hours of teaching each day – and with two hours of homework to come (that is if I skip or ‘wing’ half of the homework).

Anyway the new process seems to work better on everybody’s nerves.

12th October

Back to School

After a long break in the UK and HK – of which I only really missed about a week of university, I am back at school and enjoying it. I am behind but not by that much. However the first night’s homework was a 500 character essay – supposed to have been done over the holiday ….. and several other pieces of work for the teacher tomorrow. I can do the essay but not the other work. I’ve done enough to wing the class tomorrow but the submitted work won’t get done tonight.

For the Ko Yu course, I haven’t done anything for nearly 3 weeks! In addition, we have the dreaded ting xie dictation tomorrow. I’ve done some work but the 40 words that were covered in my absence will be largely guesswork. However, my guesses are not too bad now as I know enough character structures to wing the pronunciation in many cases. I actually received 9/10 for my last essay and my private tutor has this time helped me with the 500 word one – after I had written it of course! No easy ride here.

One difference between my classmates and I is that my private tutor takes up 3 – 4 hours of my time a day – the rest of the class have the afternoon off. So it is perhaps not so surprising that we get so much homework. The teachers think that they have lots of time to do it! I’m still keeping the pressure up . I’m here to learn.

23rd September

I am leaving for two weeks in the UK and HK during the National Day – 60th Anniversary – holiday. Back on air permanently after 12th October!

22nd September

After all of the trouble over the right level class, I was informed quite casually today that I was to be downgraded to a lower class in my already quite easy Ko Yu subject, because there were too many in the class! After enquiry, I was told that it was quite all right because the same book was being taught. That is not good enough, as the lower class will have lower standard tong xue (classmates) and I’m struggling to be attentive even now. I firmly said NO and went to the administration office immediately, which is next to the classroom, to remonstrate.

In fact I didn’t need much of an explosion – I had been chosen at random and I suspect they went off to find another victim. However it was another unnecessary cause of stress and another indicator of how disorganised the administration of the course has been.

As I am in the UK for two weeks no doubt it will all have blown over by mid-October.

21st September

Class Update

18th September

My Fudao (private tutor) threatens to quit!

I’m not sure if she is joking or not but I am keeping it open as a prospect. Apparently , I am reducing her life span with my inability to pick up even the simplest of Chinese grammar. My persistence means that we repeat and repeat and repeat ad nauseum. I do seem to make the same mistakes time after time after time.

The current process is for her to read a passage to me – which of course i don’t understand. So she unpicks it sentence by sentence. When I’ve translated almost each single word (frequently with her help), she then asks me questions on the passage to see if I have actually understood it. With that over, she makes me read it to her and then I am to ask questions of her. It is those questions that are tough and I retain a complete inability to remember them by rote or ask the same question in the same way.

However, I feel that I have made a lot of progress this week – not just being in the right classes but also in terms of learning. I am no longer a beginner or indeed an Elementary Chinese Scholar.

I am Intermediate!

16th September

Class change completed.

A massive scum combined with the use of all the skill of decades of getting to the front of lines at airports came in useful in terms of changing classes.

Far from the placement exam being the best way to do things, let alone the final arbiter, there were 50 people looking to change classes at 2pm. That is a third of the class! There was no rhyme or reason as to why or why not people could change but the main answer from the authorities in general was NO.

However, I think my general expression of belligerance was enough to convince them of my determination to change. The precaution of getting two teachers to sign a piece of paper agreeing to my move, plus my gatecrashing two out of three classes worked their magic. I was told mei you difang in the new classes (a pathetic excuse) – no places – but replied that I had already been in the class that day – so there were places. I got my ticket to change.

I actually did not move my relatively lower level KoYu (spoken) class because the scrum was too big but I also felt that I needed a bit of a teaching holiday and that pacing myself in the high level HanYu – the most important class, was the best strategy.

I needed that Hanyu class level 7. Not just because I was looking to get a greater academic potential from the upgrade – but because I get all of the the afternoons off with my private tutor!

And a big bonus – finished by 10 am on Fridays. YES!

12th September

Some incidents around China

Two guys getting into a fight at Changsha airport

Girl being hit by a taxi on a bicycle

9th September

Placement Test and the next day’s results

4th September 2009

Peking University – here I come!

The summer was an extraordinary one. I lost my brother in an accident in early July followed by my father finally being overcome by his illness just three weeks later. We had planned 3 weeks in the bush in Vietnam and the Tibetan plateau part of Yunnan and got 2 which was both fortunate and a blessing. The rest of the summer was spent in several countries, many cities, and the same bed for no more than 3 days at a time – until now.

I have now registered for my semester at Peking University, Beida. I arrived 20 minutes early and was out before 8.15! The Admissions lady said, “Ah Harris, the early bird catches the wurm!” One advantage of being older – you can get up early.

It was a delight to see the huge Fresher’s Stalls reminding me of my own Fresher’s week some 35, yes THIRTY FIVE, years ago. most of them seemed very academic, whereas the ones that grabbed me were the mountaineering and the canoeing club.


 

27th June

The BLCU Chapter closes

So; my time at the Beijing Language and Cultural University is over. My semester at Peking University begins on 3rd September (for historians among you; the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War).

BLCU was good and proper experience. There is no good was to learn Chinese but this was about as good as any, if you are not party to a better way of starting to learn your first second language at 52 years old. Yet, I was very frustrated by the old-fashioned teaching methods at the end.

Nevertheless, it did get me going on the right track. I know about 600 characters and have learned probably 1,200. I can read simple things and can apply a good guess to many other readings. I have made a start on the speaking and I have started to dream in Chinese! Not to converse but to structure phrases or words. It has left me at a point where I can teach myself – an in the next semester to use PKU and my private tutor< jasmine to learn effectively myself, tailored to what I need. Such appreciation is something that does come with age.

The big negative, mainly that I was rarely asked questions in class which stunted my progress not a little, is now counteracted by my undoubted success in acquiring an excellent grounding in the language. I now fully appreciate it’s structure, its backgound and in the people who use it. There is no teacher like experience and after 40 years in Hong Kong (not quite China), I have now been immersed, deluged, become intimate with China. It has provided a platform. It has done its job.

Now to look forward to a summer of continuing to drill the characters and towards the end of August some early time in China using my limited conversation skills I will be preparing for my Peking Uni Placement Test! This will be critical in determining the class level that I get into – also a very important feature of any course. It is not perfect but better to be in a class where you are struggling, than one which is too easy – at least for me.

I reach the halfway point, not yet at half-way in terms of my learning of the Chinese language – but standing on an excellent springboard for the future that should leave me plenty of scope to travel more than a half between September and next January.

See you in September.

26th June

Exams weren’t perfect but went well. Exams are an area where BLCU generally puts on a good performance. My only problem is in the actual exam instructions (the rubric, as we scholars call it). There is a minimum of instruction (none in English) of how you are to answer questions – so the inevitable confusion – and unnecessary loss of marks occurs as a result. Especially in time dependent exams such as Ting Li, or listening.

This system seems to follow the general societal ‘need to know’ policy, where information is given at the last possible moment – in case you want to argue.

23rd June

BLCU Final Report.

It is a little early (we don’t graduate formally for a week but I am off the second the exams have finished and my young class and I have downed a few ales ……… ) but this is where I am now – on the eve of the exams and after exactly four months in the classroom.

BLCU FINAL REPORT CARD.

Richard Harris

Age: 52 ……… and OK a couple of weeks from 53.

Ting Xie / Dictation 5/10

Ting / Comprehension 3/10

Xie / Composition 7/10

Yufa / Grammer 4/10

Fayin / Pronunciation 6/10

Han:Ying / Translation 6/10

Reading: 5/10

Summary: Listening is my big road block, with speaking to follow (as a result of not being able to understand I am not learning as fast)

NOTES:

Ting Xie: plus 2, I am not doing any more work on this (too much to do elsewhere). Indeed a careful analysis of matters would show that the words that I don’t know exactly correlate to the words we are supposed to know for that day. However, I am not bad at retaining characters learned a while ago (most people are getting 9′s, I am actually on 7′s – but not bad based on that strategy)

Ting Li: Still very poor. However, I am picking up a lot more – though most of the rest of the class is quite fluent in listening – yes often they do come from Mandarin-speaking families.

Xie: Better, writing is very time consuming but has a great sense of achievement about it

Yufa: flat marks, getting better but it is still very difficult. When I crack this my Chinese will improve dramatically. I am often completely wrong on word order p but that is better than being always wrong …….

Fayin: no change, probably my best area,

Han: Ying. Translation: The work on vocab is paying off but it is two steps forward and 1.5 back.

Reading: improving and faster – if still painfully slow.

Effort: plus two as it is the exams now in focus – which have been my focus for 6 weeks.

21st June

The Longest Day

It is the longest day – in the Northern Hemisphere – but we are still here and on the lip of exams. At my age exams mean nothing in career terms – but I am still forcing them to mean just as much as they ever did in terms of driving my effort.

I am putting the hours in and so will do until the last second. It is the only way that I can get the pressure up to drive the the vocab and grammar into my brain, which will let it mature over the summer. This is the time to put the pressure on and this is when I will have the time to do it. I wish I had an extra week. I may do a lot over the summer, but it won’t have the same intensity.

I have learned to write very well and I’ve just taken an hour to pen a 300 character essay – wenzhang – as a practice for Thursday’s exam. Almost all of it from memory. But my conversation skills are excrable. There are lots of reasons for this but a big one is that this is my first second language (at 52.5) and I don’t really know how to let myself go. Hopefully the next six months will help with that.

As I was fuming at the end of class today about STILL not being asked to speak in class – partly my own fault, I should have had a row about it 3 weeks ago (but by then it seemed rather end of term), I ruminated that I will not return to BLCU.

I would recommend that others do the exact same course but for me it has done its part. The teaching method is too poor – for foreigners. A student from another university said yesterday that her Canadian Chinese professors of Chinese in Canada taught much better Chinese as they had learned as foreigners and they understood the pitfalls.

Foreigners don’t learn as Chinese do – for a start they may be more than 50 years older (!) – and they need more congnitive rather than repetitive teaching. And more use of modern multi-media. But of course that may cost money!

The universities will continue to lose out to private schools. who do have the better teaching method but who’se quality may vary widely. However at the ab-initio level they are ok, especially if you have time. I don’t excpect Beida to be very different in method but I look forward to being pleasantly surprised. However, there I shall do 4 hours a day and 3 hours with my very wonderful private tutor so I should have a better mix of teaching. I really need to speak this language by the end of next semester. there are no excuses.

17th June

Things are getting a little better. I am understanding my teachers more – although long instructions still elude me.

A teacher change has coincided with this happening , which is unfortunate as it doesn’t totally represent the last teacher, but the new one speaks a little slower and doesn’t focus as much on the two top performers. At least the rest of us get to sound idiotic in class as well.

They are racing through the syllabus at high speed though – far too fast for any information retention but clearly in an effort to finish the syllabus. Typically sacrificing substance for form. There is a heavy end-of-term emphasis in the air and a pre-exam sense of end gaming. Certainly from Friday I shut down for the exams.

We did receive our HSK results with impressive speed – or in my case … not. My tutor was very kind and pointed out that I would probably have been a level 1 – if they had a level one. Howeve it was a good experience and gave me some forced study time.

13th June

Post-HSK.

The exam was every bit as hard as expected. There were at least a third of the words that I’d never seen and out of the rest I probably recognised at most half and could piece together an interpre tationof maybe 10%. So the exam was a piece of educated guesswork and in many cases uneducated. Indeed for large parts of the answer paper, it was a case of looking at the multiple choice marking sheet and producing a nice random pattern of answers from A to D.

It seems silly that we can not take an exam that we can at least compete in. I don’t mind being an HSK level 1!

Unfortunately it was so hard that even things that I should have known were masked in the fog of ignorance. Still, I was expecting it, to be tough and my tongxue taking the exam were equally horrified. It turns out that only the very best in the class showed up anyway. So it was a good experience for doing the exam in the future – and if I ever get to a level in the exam – I know now that I will be pretty fluent!

11th June

Exam Methodology

Exams have been big in China from historical times. I’ve just done an easy practice paper for the HSK test on Saturday morning. It is impossibly difficult. I could, if lucky, get no more than 25%.

It is not a sensible approach for beginners like us. By rights I should have been refused admission, but hey, it’s offered at a big discount and it is good practice / experience for the exams ahead.

Yet it is the exam that they are putting us in for and it seems impossible to put us in at the elementary level which we could have a go at. Surely no test is a test if a decent chunk of the learning population can’t pass it. That thinking tests the testers and finds them tested.

We may not yet be linguists, indeed we are barely aproaching anything but the most halting ordering of lunch or train tickets, but we are now a long way along from most other learners and we should be offered something. I estimate that we have seen over 1,200 characters and should be aboe to remember 600-odd. Which is not a bad result to date.

It is not a work factor. I’m taking 6 hours of teaching a day, two hours of private tuition and a further 3+ hours in the evening. That’s almost worse than working for Citibank and certainly a lot more intellectual.

Again the philosophy is to force you to struggle – a most unnecessary and inefficient learning experience in my view. I am now an expert in designing language courses and I would not design it this way, although there are many good points and the enthusiasm with which Chinese accept people learning their language is most commendable.

10th June

I’ve put my name down for the HSK – Han Yu Shui Ping Kao Shi. The national Chinese exams for foreigners. We are not allowed to do the elementary ones – level 1 and 2, so I’m going in for the 3 to 8 levels. Just for the discipline of the exam practise of course!

4th June

Frustration

Class frustration bubbling over. It is near the end of term so this is perhaps natural. The teaching structure is very poor. Indeed in some way the way we are taught is 30 years old. Very little multimedia. After some comments our teachers have come back with some work that they have clearly done themselves with no help from the school.

The teachers are great – the system is poor. So today we have not seen a Chinese movie. Not much good for me as I could understnd barely a thing. It is a step in the right direction though. Our teacher came up with a lesson of powerpoints that explained the text much better than the official materials. All in her own time. Still a taste of tihings to come.

Quite a few students have all but given up. As for me … it means too much. Early for every class, most of the excessively load of homework done and every class attended.

20th May

My three quarters term report

Self-scoring …. Three Months in Boot Camp

REPORT CARD

Richard Harris

Age: 52 and 3/4 (still again).

Ting Xie / Dictation 3/10

Ting / Comprehension 1/10

Xie / Composition 6/10

Yufa / Grammer 4/10

Fayin / Pronunciation 6/10

Han:Ying / Translation 5/10

Reading: 5/10

Summary: Listing is my big road block (no comments please!)

NOTES:

Ting Xie: minus 1, due to a deliberate downgrading of study to spend time on more difficult topics

Ting Li: can’t be much worse; still very poor. I can not understand even what my tutor is saying first time. m

My tong xue are miles ahead of me on this. There is nothing worse than people chuckling around you during a reading and you not knowing a word. This is concerning as this is an aptitude thing rather than a work thing. I think that I am too stressed about it. Once I relex this will improve but it is going to take quite a bit of time. James Alderton suggested the application of alcohol befoe class which I am seriously considering apart from the sleep factor.

Xie: no change, writing is very time consuming but it is a very important in improving all sorts of parts of speech. I am having to be very careful about what is a verb, and object and a directional complement. Understandig this is key. Even more important than in English and I am feeding off English grammar learned nearly 50 years ago.

Yufa plus one, getting better but it is still very difficult. When I crack this my Chinese will improve dramatically.

Fayin plus one, not perfect but getting better

Han: Ying. Translation. no change, I need a lot of work on vocab but it is just work – not aptitude.

Reading: new category. My reading is pretty good – my understanding of what is read is abysmal.

Effort: minus one but that is because this is bacause i am preparing for the big run up to the exams at the end of June.

8th May

Tutor

She is great and I’ve decided to pig out on teaching. I am now doing two hours four days a week – not inexpensive, but critical for my real progress.

15th May

I’m still frustrated by the narrowness of the teaching process. Not the teachers who are generally excellent but by the rigidity of the teaching system which in some places does not facilitate learning except for the fastest in the class. I am making progress although it is very difficult to monitor the pace of my progress or what it should be.

I still can not speak properly and although my vocabulary is quite large – to read – it is still not robust enough to converse. To deal with this, I have stepped up the pressure – two extra hours of a paid tutor each day – except Thursday and Friday, pushing up my contact teaching time to 8 hours a day alone. This is followed by 3 hours of homework.

I am also devising a ‘must learn’ hit list of longer descriptive, conversational words that I have to drill in to my memory in the next 6 weeks. Only 6 weeks to go – it will move fast now. We do have an wonderful class with intelligent, motivated and young(!) tongxue (classmates) …. but every good thing comes to an end.

I did hear yesterday though that I have been accepted by Peking University (Beida) for my next semester – so plans are now afoot for the summer and the next academic year.

6th May

It has been a frustrating week. Not only have we received the exam results back but I have had a stream of dictations, ting xie’s, with poor marks and a really tough time in class understanding anything that is going on. Situation excellent, we proceed positively from here.

28 April – 4th May

In HK for R&R, personal admin and private revision as I am cutting class around the Labour Day holiday.

27th April

Not so fast, Mr. Bond.

After thinking that I had the right strategy for the exams, I was right.

I did have the right strategy – just not enough of it. I managed a heady 60% in both papers – not bad when you consider this is two months work from cold. However, when compared against a class average of 80% it is pretty poor – so not so fast Mr. Bond, you are surrounded! (But James Bond always escapes, doesn’t he?)

Still, there are only a few of us in the class with NO natural advantages to learning this language and as I keep saying, we are a very motivated, hardworking and young group of people. (I include myself in all of those categories) Idon’t feel good but have to compare my progress against myself – not anyone else.

I need more vocab – and the aging brain is certainly less supple than it was (although it is more cunning). I certainly need more grammar – that indeed is really what let me down. But grammar will come in the next half, especially if my new Fudao (private tutor) works out. We have our foirst session when i get back from HK next week.

So I am not downhearted – when you know and can face the challenges, it is easier to overcome them.

26th April

The class trip was not too bad – despite travellig 12 hours by train out to Luo Yang (an ancient capital) and then to Xian (another ancient capital.) We spent a lot of time in buses but did see some historic sights, including of course the famous Bing Ma Yong, the Terracotta Warriors. The level of technology available to the Chonese 2,200 years ago was astounding.

We arrived back on Friday 24th, and after a good 10 hours over the weekend I have completed a single side of A4 of closely spaced characters as my report for the trip. It may not look much but there is a great deal of effort in there. compared to the level of my Chinese 10 weeks ago, I can’t complain.

I’m off for some R&R in HK this week as it is Labour Day holiday this week. Looking forward to the Shepherd’s Pie in the HK Club. back next Tuesday, 5th May.

19th April

Off to class trip to Xian.

18th April

My half term (two months report card)

Self-scoring …. Two Months in Boot Camp

HALF TERM REPORT CARD

Richard Harris

Age: 52 and 3/4 (still).

Ting Xie / Dictation 4/10

(but I can get these marks up by cramming tthe night before – not the point byut I know the trick now)

Ting / Comprehension 1/10

(the hardest of all is to understand people – even lao shi)

Xie / Composition 6/10

(feeling better – but SO time-consuming)

Yufa / Grammer 2/10

(only mark to go down – I’m still lost!)

Fayin / Pronunciation 5/10

Han:Ying / Translation 5/10

The vocab is not bad but remembering it is so fragile)

Effort 9/10

Summary: Better but worries remain about spoken side of matters

17th April

Aural kou yi exam. Not bad once the lao shi had spoken slowly and even repeated one question. Actually pathetic but I exceeded my low expectations by feeling and beign fairly chatty – in a kindergarden sort of way.

16th April

Half Term Exam Day

The Written paper went ok – I was able to answer more than I expected. There is definitely a preparation element here – you have to prepare lots. Given time this is a 100% paper, even for me as it does not include much practical knowledge. It is a work function.

The listenting paper also went better. I blanked on only one of the listening texts (usually it is all of them!) but the big last one went fine.

My happier mood was due to the fact that my preparation/revision strategy – with so little time – went very well. I crammed 7 chapters of the book (out fo 10), throwing the first two and the last chapters for quality on the others. I also prepared heavily the written section of the paper, as we had the topic to begin with. I wrote it out in Pin Yin , then in Hanzi and revised all the hard words that I wanted to use. It worked out exactly as planned.

I shall not leave it so late next time at the end of the semester and have my revision plan already worked out.

You HAVE to have a strategy.

15th April

Exams tomorrow – anticipation

14th April

Exam Strategy

My exam strategy is set – vocabulary is key or else you can founder on one word. And if I prepare a planned text, I will have the hard words already memorised – which will make my vocab seem even bigger!

10th April

Beijing Botanical Gardens

School trip – language trip to the Botanical Gardens. Not much Chinese spoken and trying to overhear conversations in the thick Beijing accent is hard. IM puts on a sterling performance at shuttle kicking. She clearly had an idle youth – or possibly a trial with Arsenal ….

9th April

Comprehension

Or lack of it.

8th April

The joy of Biking to work.

This is the way to join real Beijing. Sitting in the heart of hundred of bikes all moving below 15 miles an hour – with the main stream moving at about 6 mph with the odd faster one cutting through. I feel like I am back in the good old days of the 1970′s in Beijing. until I see a gap and squeeze the throttel of my Xiao Niao eleectic bike and burn through. A taxi beeps its way fast and the faster bikes tail chase it to get through the mass. the moment has passed – but for a minute I felt like part of history.

7th April

I am having a problem getting called. The Japanese guy is getting asked to run through sentences over me at a rate of 4:1. Apart from being annoying, he is being chosen as he can do it word for word – albeit with terrible tones.

I find it hard to remember the rote way in which we have to remember exact sentences. Very much against my Western education culture. Those of us having the same issue are all very much less rote and more freewhelling in our thinking.

Also as the lao ren, old guy, I think they don’t want to show me up! It is annoying so I make myself ready to answer every question – the best and only way to stay engaged.

Our new book now has no pinyin in the readings – quite a nice milestone to pass!

6th April

Back to 3/10 for dictation! Last night we had so much homework that I decided to spread the losad anad do something other than ting xie. With consequent results. It needs at least an hour of memory work, early morniing and night to so the new words. I’m not worried as I now know that I can turn the results on andd off like a switch. There are no major pronblems there and less chance of falling behind – which is the key concern.

3rd April

A well earned rest – late in the evening after a very hard week. The class continues to motor but the recent dictations haven’t been too bad as a result of the five hours of homework every night after the six hours of class contact time every day. Tonight I spent 3.5 hours of composition; writing is one of the best things I have done so far and needs to be repeated. The lao shi are continually saying that they will mark whatever we do and that is helpful

2nd April

Our two lao shi showed much grace today in organising a special work session for us after class. three of us were there and I had connfirmation that I was on the right track. The answer is still hard work.

They gave some good learning tips and again offered all the help that they could provide. It is up to us to keep it up – especially conversing in Chinese at lunch! I need to find a language partner that is more appropriate and I am now at about the right stage to start using some of the vocabulary that I have learned.

1st April

Tough Comprehension

This might be April Fools day but I felt like the fool this morning. The HG read a passage, little of which I understood, and there is nothing worse than hearing the class erupt in a huge laugh halfway through a passage that you should have understood! I was totally lost during that exercise and indeed also the next one where my Jpanese colleague spent the whole of a preparation time explaining the story that I had just read in Chinese. Once again we were ssaved by the bell – sounding the end of class.

Thank good ness for that bell- class always ends precipitously regardless of what we are doing – indeed most times the lao shi time it most impressively to the second.

The secret to my problems is that I am not quite processing mentally fast enough. I don’t think there is anything that can’t be handled but I am not quite processing fast enough in real time what I should be learning. Some of my tongxue are conversing really very well but my instant vocabulary is still quite limited. I have to remember that they only know the same words that I do so I have to believe that I am not far away.

We are a fast moving class however, by the lao shi’s own admission. I am not competing against them but against myself. But the competition is what I want and need – to struggle and keep pushing the boundaries.

I’m sure it helps knowing another language would have helped in the dicatation but I think the patterns will fall into place as long as I keep the pressure up.

25th March

Tai Kuai le!!

They really are moving too fast in class. The class pace is set for the fastest students and if you have 1,000 characters already or your parents speak Mandarin at home then it is really very difficult for the rest of us mortals to keep up.

The best students are always asked to contribute 6 – 8 times a class and the rest of us make do with one or two hesitantly, stuttering, out-of-practice performances. Sometimes I think my age is a little daunting to teh teachers. I understand that (as it is for me) – but I expect (and give) no mercy!. They could improve things by going a little slower and letting the facts sink in. It seems a terrible surprise to the teachers when they haven’t, not just for one student but for several who thenn pipe up with questions. We don’t need much leeway – just a few seconds more thought time for the brain to process and catch up before moving on to the next topic or grammar.

So when I’m back from the HK Sevens on the 31st, no more Mr. Nice Guy – it is Mr. Interrogative Nice Guy!

I blew up on Ting Xie (dictation) again with some schoolboy errors. A shame as I really knew them this time. I seem to take longer to process things than the class median – or maybe it is happening to half the class and the voices that are heard are the loudest saying “look, look, miss; I’ve finished!” I have to catch the first word of any listening piece to have any chance and with the pace of action, and the paucity of introductions (a former luxury) missing the start is easy to do.

We are a very motivated class – much more so than the class below but nevertheless the hammer is unceasing. And about to get heavier with daily Ting Xie. Some of us are spending 5 hours on homework each night and still missing tasks. But that of course is why we came.

24th March

The Shi Tang

The ShiTang is ……. a hilarious experience.

More later ……

23rd March

Minor dictation victory – results of the last test came back with a very creditable 8.5/10. I think I’ve peaked now and proved what hard work and a system can do. I now have to get back to more broader work!

23rd March

The Beijing Bikerati

I have joined the Beijing Bikerati. Adding to the 10m or so other bikes in BJ. But this is NO ORDINARY bike. Oh no!

Last Friday (after some research on the Wednesday) I went into the local bike shop run by a very helpful lady and various other hangers on. Using my fluent Mandarin, actually timely in that the current lessons are all about buying stuff. I was able to define my key criteria – hen kuai!; and I was also able to say bu da, bu xiao; biede yanse? My dictionary helped with repair questions and I even had several test drives as well as a lesson on the many and varied features – strident alarm, in-built locking mechanisms, charging procedures etc.

A most unusually helpful shop. I settled on a gleaming red 48 volt, Xiao Hong (little bird) and drove it away with pride of ownership. Three security locks (I’ve had scooters stolen before). Y2,200 all-in, for you, sir.

I have done some scientific time trials using my aviation GPS to determine electric bike Warp Speed. Here are the results. Over a measured distance – Qing Hua Dong Lu bike lane to precise – and with half a battery of energy, the little bird reached a peak consistent speed of just under 14 knots. That was wind-assisted however. On a reverse track (this time with a headwind) the consistent peak speed was some 11 knots. That is equivalent to about 15 miles an hour on average. Hen Kuai!

And for those of you who are younger, a very respectable light-bending 24 kph. Certainly enough to reduce journey times and light up the commute, which is now down to 5 minutes.

22nd March

I had an epiphany in church today. And it is an old mantra that I have learned over the years. It will all be all right on the night.

I am working 24/7 on my characters, my vocab, pronounciation and the rest. And I have been doing it for only a month. Of course I can’t speak fluent Chinese. but keep up the pressure as I am now; persistence, diligence and homework and the results will follow.

I have over three months before I graduate from this semester. That’s a long time to improve!

22nd March

Zhe ge, Zhe ge Zhe ge. That’s the level of our linguistic shopping skills at present days. Er…, zhe ge, zhe ge and ze ge; xie xie. Seems to work.

We couldn’t have had better teachers, they are all extremely experienced and professional and have a strict idea of how we shoulld be learning. “You WILL learn to speak this language” – and, you know, they will be successful.

The HG is imperious. She runs class strictly, but with a lot of humour – sometimes humour at rather than with. She is obviously very intelligent but doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I should think the uni is very lucky to have her and so are we.

IM speaks like a machine gun, especially in class butin fact is quitte clear and is obviously using vocab tht we know – that is her job as her class is to reround out the learning with a bit of practical. Lightning speed tapes of beijing market conversations are not that helpful at present though when the brain is overloaded and processing slowly.

If I were writing a novel about my exercise book, the main characters “Da Nei” and “Shang Ben” who are continually giving each other presents or buying stuff or getting in taxis would definitely be killed off before the end of the book.

21st March

In two hours, I managed to rise to the full heights of my Han Yu expertise by saying how cute the little girl of my housing agent was – when he was obviously a boy.

I gave Y10 to the taxi driver instead of Y14, missing out the obvious final word and gave taxi directions in fluent Cantonese, a language that I have not excelled at so far. Lots to learn after the first month!

19th March

Self-scoring …. One Month in Boot Camp

REPORT CARD

Richard Harris

Age: 52 and 3/4.

Ting Xie / Dictation 2/10

Ting / Comprehension 1/10

Xie / Composition 4/10

Yufa / Grammer 3/10

Fayin / Pronunciation 5/10

Han:Ying / Translation 3/10

Effort 9/10

Summary: Must try harder

18th March

Pronouncing Chinese

In a language such as Chinese, pronounciation is primes inter pares – first among equals. pronounciation takes three parts: initials, finals and tones. All must be correct for every word for it all to make sense.

As a result our teachers pay enormous attention attempting to set our mouths, teeth and tongues to come at least close to what we want to say. Some of us have an easier time than others – the sound ‘sh’ in sheep is fortunately used a lot and English works well here. Trying to say ‘hot’ properly, re, is however unpronounceable for non-Chinese.

Our teachers must have enormous self-control not to laugh at some of the things that we are really saying. It really becomes obvious when you are out in the streets trying to talk to real people (as opposed to skilled teachers) who have no idea what you are saying.

The amazing thing is that one’s brain has perfect tone and pitch but it rarely comes right in the execution. Today we had yet another rendition of si shi si, shi si shi si etc… Such tongue twisters always bring a laugh, especially from those more used to speaking Japanese.

The best first tone (rising) in the last three weeks came not from a Beijinger but from a tongxue (classmate) of mine who had zoned out for a minute (resting his eyes) and was called by the lao shi. His tone of surprise was just perfect for the word – an unaccustomed skill – and it was with some effort that I managed to avoid the giggles.

17th March

China and the Environment

China and the environment is currently epitomised by solar panels, new clean cars and electric bikes and scooters. Beijing City is full of vehicles but few of them have any smoke coming from the exhausts. The buses are brand new, clean, cheap and frequent. in the rural areas outside Beijing there are an incresing number of public lighting in streets lands and houses – all powered by solar panels. taxis too are generally new and clean. yes the olympics helped but it makes for a clean modern city.

I am completely enamoured by electric bicycles which come in all shapes and sizes from bicycles with a small battery to machines that look like big scooters, without pedals, and run at over 50 kph. They are fast clean and silent; and just need plugging nto the mains every now and then. They cost around US300 for a good model. I loved my Piaggio scooter in London but this is the next generation – and that cost GBP2,000 twelve years ago. I’m buying one tomorrow. Why has the world not woken up to this – well they will.

Only thing left to fix is two or three wheeled tractors and bikes that exhaust neat carbon, rural burning, illegal factory effluents and power stations. So many of our class are complaining about sore throats. Mine is sore, I am splutteringa lot (I can see wy the national sport is spitting) and my asthma is barely controllable – especially as I can’t run in the environment.

But the point is that there are some bright spots.

16th March

A Big Decision – to go for the full year.

Every Monday, indeed every class, is still intense. We start the week with Ting Xie (dictation) covering not only the last lesson, but all five lessons so far perhaps some 300 characters in all? Twenty questions … of which at least I recognised all the words, even if I know not how to write them.

Embarrasingly I was concentrating so hard that I wrote no. 11 twice, arriving at the end of the ting xie at the number 19. I managed to find out after the usual panic and an audit of the whole list of questions with the long-suffering teacher. As usual, I had practised and forgotten several words within the last 24 hours. leaving me with more sense of annoyance and incompetence but also a little pride in how far we have come.

I also suggested that I might like to stay for another semester to Y lao shi. This started off the correspondence route again as she asked me to pop down to Administration Room 109 in the rest break to ask them how to do it, only to be given a form, in Chinese, which my lao shi then said that she had to fill in overnight and get chopped with the usual critical red stamp.

So far the form-filling route – as with my visa extension which I got back today – has worked smoothly if you stick to the rules. This comprises taking each step at a time and don’t think ahead, everything being on a ‘need to know basis’, so I am going to patiently try that here too. I suspect my age will count in my favour – as usual.

My visa is now an ‘X’ Visa so I am now a bona-fide Beijing Resident – able to drive as irresponsibly as I want. Though many will say ‘no change there’.

15th March

China is getting really quite free. Following a very open church service this morning, I’m now listening via BBC and internet (complements of BBC Radio Five Live) to the France – England rugby match on the radio. England up 34-0 just after half time! Why didn’t France play as badly as this against Wales? Listening to live rugby must be the definition of the ultimate in human rights.

13th March

Class at that Great Wall.

Day trip to the Great Wall at Mutianyu today which turned out to be great fun on a cloudlessly blue day with good shots of the Wall away from the low sun.

Fortunately the bus ride was relatively short – less than one hour with our starting time delayed as expected by young LS. Of course when we got there on the “need to know” basis there was a very steep 30 minute climb up the well laid stone steps to the Wall which – despite my hill trekking and marathon experience was a bit of a blow – managed to be in the leading pack while the young ones coughed and spluttered at various stops.

We got there to be met by the IM who told us off for not looking after the girls. Personally I felt that the young girls should be looking after me and if I can get to the top in 20 minutes, so should they! It turns out that the IM herself is pretty fit proudly telling me that she was over 50 – and not older than I as she had promised! I told her she looked san shi ba – 38 – which to be fair she does look. Which should hopefully crawl me up the grade column.

10th March

Visitors to class

We had visitors to class today from a Canadian University. It was clearly a big thing as all the big brass from the school came and sat in class with the visitors, while we made our stuttering replies to lao shi. I think she must be pretty highly regarded. Even I managed to say a whole sentence without hesitation, repitition or deviation not to mention great help from either classmates or lao shi.

As a result of our spectacular perfomance over 15 minutes – and after less than three weeks effort – this university is now completely sold on the BLCU teaching methods. Shows that you can fool some of the people ….. for at least 15 minutes.

If you can fake sincerity – you have it made.

7th March

Weekend relief. Sleep at last – a real ‘zhou mo kual le!’ And a chance to escape from Colditz for a day without homework.

Balance last week – very good. Could be more pinyin but I can see why not, less stories, followed by more interactive spoken practise would be nice. We seem to have the new words after – not before – the story which seems strange. However, the fact that I dislike the pure remembering and recital of a story probably means that it is indeed a good way for me to practise and I do approach it diligently. Ours is not to reason why – ours is to do on a ‘need to know’ basis.

It is getting obvious that classes are there to practise the homework and it is getting more important to read ahead so that the class time is optimised – not to approach the material cold. Tough to do with so much homework.

We seem to be going too fast to learn but I hear that we will catch up over time with more revision coming in later.

I’m at the age where I can see and take an interest in the many and varied learning tools of our teachers – their cleverness and their adaptability to classroom dynamics and individuals. I never saw this until I went to Harvard – but the interactivity is similar. They repeat sections, role play, introduce each other, characters on board and rub off, cold calls – more than Harvard. homework, pronounciation, repetition. My friend R says that the Japanese are better even – using technology to get different classmates to talk to each other over a skype form of headset/microphone system.

6th March

Not so much teacher’s pet not being asked so much – being nice to the old man?

Exchange class – hammer coming down! Class speed increasing. A whole different series of double barreled characters – all 15 strokes each. But I’m staerting to recognise patterns and structures.

5th March

Crossing the Road in China

Crossing the Road in Beijing is an Art Form that has to be learned very quickly in order to slightly increase the rate of survival. Vehicles basically obey the traffic signs, though if anything is not explicitily forbidden by traffic sign and atendant policeman – it is allowed. It is extraordinary that in such a regulated society , so much anarchy exists on the roads.

I aim to cross a road with Pilot’s eyes. looking everywere for the unexpected missile to approach. It is like crossing the channel near Dover on a summer’s evening in England with half the light aircraft in the UK flying between 1950 and 2050 feet over the Dover VOR (radio reference point). You never know what’s coming so you do have eyes in the back of your head.

At a crossing, the procedure is first to cross the protected cycle lane down which local vehicular traffic may be driving. All vehicles – except four wheeled ones – may be traveling in all directions. And sometimes four wheeled ones.

Make sure that you always cross with a crowd of people and bicycles. It gives some sort of protection, not because vehicles will stop, but the sheer thickness of numbers might slow the vehicle before it gets to you.

The ‘green men’ pedestrian lights are not totally useless – they just don’t display the information you expect. And that, like Hanzi, has to be learned by rote. Red does not mean don’t cross – neither does green mean the opposite. Red might mean that 6 lanes of traffic are about to strike you down or that there is a merely a one lane filter operating (either on one side of the road or another) and that 5 lanes are in fact good to cross.

As any driver can go right on red at all times – and usually do at high speed without any consideration to the green man or other road users, the pedestrian lights have to be used with care and experience. So you have to be alert at all times and maybe start your crossing on the red man – but when the straight ahead traffic lights are red and the filter is green. Come up to the filter lane as the traffic light goes red, then continue to cross as the green man turns green, watching out for the very live right on red lanes. Got it? Neither do many road traffic victims.

Having said that an electric bicycle looks to be a ‘must have’ investment in these environmental times and much overdue for use in Europe, where sadly my 80cc Piaggio Typhoon scooter looks increasingly like a polluting dinosaur. Helmets not required.

4th March

Teacher’s pet with flu. Missed the IM

3rd March

Teacher’s pet – but is this an age thing? Standard of teaching very high – looking at the tools memory work.

Characters

Everybody very motivated.

2nd March

Class time exact.

Dictation

Know answer until she asks me!

1st March 2009

Weekend homework is punishing – three hours to plan and write 50 sentences of excruciating simpleness. The Palm dictionary – made by pleco.com – is a lifesaver. I’m not sure how else one would decipher the hieroglyphics but somehow it seems cheating. Not that I care – getting abreast of the language in any way possible is the ambition.

Three hours on one simple exercise and about 35 new words to learn – not just English to Pinyin but Pinyin to characters. That is the hard stage and somehow makes the English – Chinese vocab easy!

28th February

The Ikea experience

27th February

Helen arrives – but which Terminal?

26th February 2009

As a friend of mine says that the intensity of study is like drinking from a firehose. Dictation (Ting Xie) is the worst. After three days we are expected to write the word for pen! 10 strokes. It’s ok for the Japanese and Koreans and the sole Englishman (me being Welsh!) who is a specialist in Japanese, but for some of us our answer papers remain a brilliant white! I managed to do some doodles and was most impressed with myself when I not only recognised but could write down the word for ’9′ only to realise that it was the question number!

23rd February

Hawker reading his Bible on a barrow.

22nd February

First RTA – a fender bender, where Y200 changed hands and church

20th February 2009

The good news is that I managed to make the A4 set, wooo hey. Good for the ego perhaps as the A’s are the rank beginners and the numbers refer to the level within – so A0 are the rank beginners and A4 is the top class of the A’s. Before you think it there is an equal number of B’s as well, beginners stop there – they don’t go down to S’s!

As usual during the first five minutes I though I shouldn’t be in this set – it is TOO easy. After 10 minutes I thought what am I doing here, it’s TOO hard?! By the end of the day I think it is about right – the Goldilocks scenario – as long as I put in two hours a night myself. Homework is desired, expected and given.

I have the same erie feeling that I had with maths at school. Total understanding in the class and in front of teacher, but put it all together meaningfully without the usual props and I suffer meltdown. However, I do know now HOW I learn, which is in concentrated, lengthy and intensive spurts. I know know how to fool myself to work and to provide milestones and deadlines and more important when to xiu xi – or take a break. I know that I am too thick to pick things up the first time but once I have momentum I can burst ahead of the pack. Knowing how I learn is going to be my secret weapon against the plethora of youthfully, flexible brains.

My class (and I suppose every other class) is interesting – we started with 16 people – and whittled down quite quickly to 14 with drop outs. As usual, the early and unjustifyable reaction is to think that the class is a bunch of losers but I know that after a week we will be the best of friends forever – always happens in these situations.

The introduction of each student to each other was eye-opening. Sitting at the front, I went first and had to ask but was not asked myself, my age. This may have been Laoshi’s plan. It turns out that the youngest class member is 17, with a handful pre-20; most are mid twenties and one or two in their thirties – I think the oldest is 33! Fortunately I didn’t have to say “Wo wu shi er sui”. I didn’t even have to say that I have a wife at home and two adult children – almost all of my classmates contributing at that time talked about baba, mama, ge ge and ji ji. Might have frightened a few to know that I had a MBA from Harvard before almost all of them were born!

Teacher, however, is excellent and is a veteran of 15 years at Beiyu, despite looking20 herself. Being that experienced and perceptive, there is no way that I will be disguising myself as being competent. She will see through it in an instant. It will take a lot of effort to disguise my competency at the language, though I felt quite pleased about my tones.

What surprised me is that we are using and reading characters already – and how useful they are compared to Pinyin! If you can do it the building blocks to the language are obvious, but whether my sieve-like brain will remember it all is out with the jury. This weekend we have to practise 42 characters – and I’ve no idea how to write yet. Still cribbing off the world best piece of software – PLECO (pleco.com) – the wonderfully versatile dictionary on my Palm, may provide an interim solution.

Part of the learning process in Beiyu clearly focuses on an organised omission of clear instruction – in almost every area of life. It take times to get to know how things work and to acquire a body of knowledge and you have to keep asking everybody for information – but perhaps you don’t forget the lessons learned as a result. Still, I can’t help wondering if life would be a little more efficient with some clearer direction. No doubt when I have been here a little longer I will be able to adopt the supercilious attitude of a know-all in front of any new entrants.

At the moment we seem to be like day one recruits in the Marine Corps – just having had their heads shaved and trying to work out what piece of equipment fits where. It is a long time to the passing out parade.

19th February 2009

The Proficiency Test – the deficiency test my case – was held on the third floor of Classroom 3 in Room 301. I was second to arrive in the class and wisely and fortuitously chose a front seat. A Thai student was followed by an Aussie, two American Chinese and several Japanese and Koreans. I went forth and had an embarrasingly short interview – the three previous students had been 1. a HK Chinese (characters no problem), a Korean and a Japanese (language overlaps by as much as a third!). So I was able to comfortably bring the class down to my level. The teachers were delightful – a yunger lady and an older gentlemen; very kind but ruthless. My class level is to be decided tomorrow.

The reason for the key seating position was that in going fourth out of 15 I was finished by 9.15 and had the morning to meet some new best friends in the local coffee shop – mainly 18 -25 years old and largely from Europe. One young lady, H, is to be Immy’s class mate at Cambridge next year. It is a small world.

So far, in the few people that I have met, I’ve met another two bankers and an investment banking attorney from New York. Going back to Uni must be the thinking person’s escape from the credit crunch!

18th February 2009

Another beautifully bureaucratic day today starting in the early dawn by getting into a taxi to find the Beijing Immunisation Bureau which does medicals for foreigners who are seeking Beijing resident status. Not needed for my course unless you wish to leave the country before I graduate!! The snow didn’t help, nor a precisely uncontrolled pirouette in the taxi as the driver overcooked it on a snowy corner. Fortunately he was doing about 20 mph and after an extended journey he stopped by front ending the kerb (with his tyres) at a low and therefore amusing speed.

We managed to get lost along a rural farm track with the snow pelting down and the driver now going at 2 mph. Now that it was snowy not icy the wrong strategy was adopted. The sort of thing that can get a HK person allergic with impatience. Eventually we saw a grey building that looked distinctly official at which pioint I demanded that we stop and get out. Not surprisingly it was the Bureau and also not surprisingly it was nowhere near where it should have been on the map. Also not surprisingly, the driver did not want to wait in a deserted, snowy wilderness and sped off.

The medical was run like a military operation with an extraordinary number of foreigners belying the weather and desolateness outside. Step one was getting the form; two filling it in, three going to reception; four to the cashier (always a major step in a command economy). Step five was the taking of blood – mainly for an Aids test one couldn’t help wondering whether one was giving or receiving). Step six, the sight test – which being a pilot I fooled easily; step 7 the ECG – rather rough but nevertheless it provided an instant printout (which may form an avant-garde wallhanging on my study room wall). Step eight, chest X ray; nine height and weight – challenging both. Ten was colourblindness – that really is one the pilots can fool; eleven a vacuously rapid look into the upper orifii. Twelve was a longer check – perhaps 3 minutes of blood pressure test (through my sleeve) and a further check on the ticker which had shown a strange blip – probably where the electrode slipped. All done in 15 minutes. Most impressive and perhaps about as useful as a pilot’s medical.

The best part was the removal of further cash by men in white coats involved in fringe activities – and bearing in mind the potential loss of time they were services well appreciated. So 20 kuai on passport photos and 30 kuai on getting the certificate delivered to another address were instantly snapped up.

A similar interview took place in China Mobile’s main phone shop in Zhongguangcun where I went to obtain a SIM card. By contrast the private sector was an exercise in customer disappointment. It took 90 minutes of highly detailed questioning – all translated most patiently by my new best friend, L to get the right solution. Does this SIM card work outside Beijing, from China to Beijing, email, voice mail, text, international ??, etc etc. The whole process managed to downgrade our purchase from over 1000 kuai to a mere 59. It works and it is +86 134 8869-3400. Call me!

A quick visit to a few Cold War apartments revealed the gap between the definitions of luxury in different parts of the world. The elimination of heating in the older blocks on March 15th may prove a challenge, although much of the upper end of BJ now boasts personally controlled heating, privatising the cost and providing an element of free will.

Still at least I’ve moved out of the world’s COLDEST HOTEL ROOM into the relative warmth of the BLCU Conference Centre – saving 100 bucks a night in the process.

I’ve found the No Where Cafe in the building, which I might never leave as they do awesome cappucino and have a wireless link. Tomorrow is the Mandarin proficiency Test to determine the level of study group. I’m off to hit the books and to get an early night …… right?

17th February 2009

At HK Airport, 06:30, KA990, seat 11A, Beijing-bound. The Great Cathay. A nice book-end half a century later as I was born in Cathays, Cardiff in the Promised Land.

I was met at Beijing Airport by a friend of a friend, L. L is setting up a business and most kindly offered to take some of his valuable time to act as translator and fixer. A better new best friend you could not wish to ask for as L, UK-educated, who then took me through the registration process, which was largely conducted in Chinese. Perhaps for a reason? I’m there to learn (but in true HK form don’t want to waste time mis-communicating!).

Despite complications to be aired later, registration was over by 3.15 pm – an astonishingly fast hour and a bit. The whole thing reminded me of my summer in Ricci Hall of HK University back in 1975! The quick timing included checking out the student accomodation (no thanks), the business class accomodation (acceptable, but tonight I’m in a hotel), and the admissions office as I need more than the required single entry China visa if I am to go to the HK Rugby Sevens. The efficiency was helped by just timing our arrival ahead of about 40 people, including 20 giggling Korean girls.

There spent a frustrating two hours around the mobile phone shops trying to get a consistent story on the efficacy of a various phone cards (new shop new story – even for L), and a great deal of time with a real estate agent who seemed very keen to talk about anything but renting the right flat. On both occasions L was a Godsend. L is a budding entrepreneur and is worth a bet if anyone is looking to invest. An interesting day on top of European jet lag having spent just a day in HK.