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Friday, March 4, 2011

Tones are Everything

                March 3 & 4. Classes started this morning at 8:30am. I woke up to another glorious, but bitingly cold morning. The temperature change is drastic between Fiji and China. I can no longer wear shorts and I constantly need a sweatshirt. It’s to be expected, however, because this is China’s winter season. Breakfast was made by the dorm staff. A warm bowl of meat and vegetable noodles greeted me as I sat down to eat. They also served us hot milk, which went surprisingly well with the meal. After breakfast, we quickly went back to our room to grab pens and notebooks and then we trekked down to class. The campus seems even larger than it had done when we were driving through it. We are at the top of the University and class is held at the bottom entrance. It takes 30 minutes to hike down to class. Erik and Leung accompanied us the entire way, but Anna had left that morning to go into Shanghai.
                Our class building is the main building and is the largest. Leung, who had gone to school here, had to guide us through the halls and doors until we wound up at room 4-19. Our teacher was waiting inside and got up to shake our hands. I could already tell that she has a very limited knowledge of English, but, as Erik had explained, that comes as an advantage because this way you must immerse yourself completely in the Chinese Language. We were handed textbooks and sat down as she pointed to the first 3 chairs. It was only the 4 of us in the classroom. The textbooks are labeled Elementary Grade 1. When you’re a high school graduate and you’re handed an Elementary book, you have the feeling that you’re slightly moronic. She wrote her name in Mandarin on the board and repeated it out loud. It is so hard to pronounce that I can’t even try to communicate it through my blog.
                Then, class started. We began with the simplest words, like Ni Hao and Xie Xie, but then progressed to tones. There are 4 tones in the Chinese language and each can change the meaning of the word. Ma (in Chinese) has 4 meanings: horse, scold, mum, or numb each depending on which tone you say it in. The first 3 hours weren’t difficult and I felt that learning Mandarin isn’t as hard as everyone states it is. That was my first big mistake.
                I wasn’t hungry for lunch today, but went with everyone all the same. There is a small main street on campus that is lined with several restaurants and tourist shops. Leung recommended a restaurant, which he said serves the greatest fish in Dali. I’m not a huge fan of fish, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some more local food. Circular tables made up most of the space in the restaurant, with little room to slide in and out of your seat. A revolving centerpiece was used to pass items across the table and is used in most of the restaurants that I have been to so far. The fish, vegetables, and rice came out almost at once and the owner shook the hand of Leung vigorously. Obviously, they were good friends. The fish wasn’t chopped up into friendly pieces that you would normally see, but it came as the entire fish. Even the scales needed peeling back in order to access the meat. There were also several small bones that you had to look out for. The fish, however, was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. It had a slight spicy, barbeque flavor to it that made us devour it to the last morsel. The skeletal fish, with only its head and tail still intact, lay before us, while the rice and vegetables had been scoffed down.
Leung’s friend, who teaches Taekwondo, showed for the last hour before class and offered to teach me Taekwondo self-defense. I was all for it, but David and Christen were hesitant. I wanted to start straight away, but he hadn’t taught lessons in over 5 years. He explained that he needed to draw up a class schedule before we could start. We decided that in the next few days I could start my lessons. With nothing left to do and little time before our second part of Chinese lessons began, we headed back to class. It was only an hour long and consisted of us reviewing our past lesson. We weren’t given homework, thankfully. I had too much writing to do before I could dedicate more focus to Mandarin.
I felt sluggish and tired after many days of too much Chinese food and too little exercise. Don’t get me wrong, the food here is incomparable, but that’s the problem. You can’t stop eating. So I forced myself to run around the soccer field until I felt safe enough to eat dinner. After dinner, however, I was back at square 1. We had more dumplings that night. The skinny ones are my favorite, but the fatter ones are like donuts. You eat them until you throw up. I crawled into bed that night, grateful for some escape from the tempting aromas of food.
The next day was almost exactly the same as the last. However, we learned how to introduce ourselves in Chinese and were thrown into vocabulary that sent my head spinning. Any other language and I would be able to follow the class with ease. For Mandarin you have to translate the characters into Chinese words and then translate them into English words. It’s rigorous and time consuming. I spent the afternoon writing again and finally caught up to date on all my blog posts. We even had dumplings for dinner. I swear, if I eat anymore dumplings I will come back wrapped in dough with a pork center.
Thanks for the patience concerning my posts. Hopefully these last few entries make up for the wait. Also, thanks for all the comments; they make every post worth it.


  1. Wow, What an amazing experience Jimmy! China seem like a great opportunity for you and it looks like you are making the best of it. Enjoy and learn all you can. Love to you and Christen. Dad

  2. Oh yea,

    Don't forget to take tons of pictures and videos. XO Dad

  3. Jimmy,
    I woke with such a smile to find three new entries from you. I thank you for sharing your adventure. I, as you know am not a big reader, but your style of writing makes it a total joy. I will now look forward to your next entries. Have a dumpling for me!
    143 dearly...Mimi

  4. I am so excited for you and christen for this part of your travels! this is truly a great way to immerse yourself into a culture that is so very different from ours! and oh those dang dumplings are great--how bout the breakfast ones that are boiled with the sweet bean paste in the middle?? and then you gotta try red bean ice cream--YUM!!
    Your writing is superb, Jimmy. You are very clear and descriptive--i can read your inflections wonderfully!! I love your posts and love you more! :)

  5. ps: tones, huh? apparently i only speak with two tones: happy. or cranky! haha!!

  6. Oh the dumplings!You are making my mouth water writing about them! They are the best! Kyle's teacher spends her summers in Taiwan teaching. Last year she hosted a Chinese meal for all the kids and that's when I had them. As their "honored guest" I also had the fish head pointed at me upon serving. Gratefully, I was able to decline the fish eyes and respectfully offer them to someone else and "honor" them. I chose Kyle! Would you believe he ate the fish eyes! YUCK! Give me a dumpling any day! Kyle also wanted me to tell you that chicken feet are not so bad. He actually likes them! He said you should try them! (coming from a kid who truly eats with his eyes this is quite a recommendation Jimmy!)