Being back at Beida is strange. I’m forced to reconcile my old memories of it from 2001 with the new situations: classes are no longer in Shaoyuan Building 2, but rather in the Russian building. Outside the North Gate there is no longer a street full of DVD shops, laundromats, and restaurants; these have been replaced by mud fields and rubble heaps, and the occasional tent of squatters with signs saying “We Protest Beijing University’s Illegal and Unfair Demolition of our Livelihood.” I’m no longer on close, friendly terms with my classmates the way I was in the Stanford program; I live off campus, and most of them are Korean or Japanese, and after class ends – even if it’s the Oral Chinese class, which is fun and lively – we all just kind of silently go our separate ways.Different, too, is just being back in China: the differences between Harbin and Beijing are too great and numerous to list here, but suffice it to say that culturally, historically, and economically, the cities are worlds apart. Teaching and studying as one would expect, are very different things indeed – and I have to admit that I much prefer the latter, although I’ll probably have to take a job doing the former.

After the three-day registration period at Beida, all the students had to take written and oral placement tests. I’d done some studying over the summer while I was at home, with practise books for the HSK – “Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi,” the Chinese proficiency exam – that I’d bought in Harbin. So I assured parents and girlfriend alike that there was nothing to worry about, that I’d kick ass and chew bubblegum.
Really, though, I was a bit worried: the year in Harbin had done funny things to my Chinese. My listening comprehension was great, from all the eavesdropping I’d done, but I was still in the habit, picked up from eavesdropping, of scanning for keywords rather than listening to natural speech. My spoken Chinese had gotten better, but since nobody except my girlfriend was impolite enough to correct me, my tones were patchy, and a lost of mistakes had been made often enough to have become habit. My reading was pretty good – I could read my fifth-graders’ textbooks without any real problem – but since, with the exception of addresses and phone numbers, I’d done very little actual handwriting, relying instead on computers or my cellphone’s SMS character input, my handwriting – never good to begin with, in English or Chinese – had become horrible, and I’d forgotten how to write (but not how to read) a lot of the characters I’d once known.
So I wasn’t quite as confident as I claimed to be. In fact, I was scared shitless. Still, I studied during the days leading up to the test, and when the morning came, I went to the second floor of Shaoyuan 7, Number 2* pencils in hand as instructed, sat down, took my test paper, and proceeded to kick its ass up and down the length of Zhongguancun Avenue. Or so I thought.

Afterwards, getting lunch in the cafeteria, doubts began to set in: was there some subtlety in the usage of 反正 that I’d been missing? That character in the written portion that I erased and rewrote several times – was it the wrong ‘zang?’ And shit, why hadn’t I used “若无其事” to show off in the story-writing bit?
The oral exam the next morning was just a 5-minute interview. By that point, though I tried to convince myself that those 5 minutes would just go on standard pleasantries like how I liked China, how I was feeling that day, etc., I had thoroughly brain-fucked myself over the written exam. I went into the interview a stammering wreck, and walked out feeling that I’d just banjaxed a perfectly interesting conversation.

I wasn’t sure at all how placement would work at Beida, whether I’d be considered Intermediate or High Intermediate or what. In another life, back at Temple in Philadelphia, I’d been in the Advanced Chinese class, but since it was the States and Temple had a very small Chinese program, I’d never really thought that counted for much. Taking practise tests for the HSK – the closest thing to a real standard for measuring Chinese proficiency – I’d assessed myself as being comfortably High Intermediate, but then that was a self-assessment on a multiple-choice test, and I couldn’t tell whether I was really that good or whether I’d just been well-prepared by the American public educational system when it came to taking standardised bubble-tests. And anyway, Beida’s gradations for Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced were nothing like the HSK’s – perhaps for political reasons, the HSK having been developed by Beijing Language and Culture University, a little further east down Chengfu Lu.

Saturday morning we all crowded into the Russian building to find out our placements and pick up our textbooks. Our scores were ordered by the class we’d been placed into, so we had to start looking at ‘yi ban‘ – Class One – and work our way along the wall, printout by printout, until we saw our name. Brief panic ensued when I didn’t see mine, but I started over from the beginning, yi ban er ban san ban, and looked closely until I saw, on the far right-hand side of the wall, my name, under the heading ershi ban: Class 20.
I’d placed into the highest class they had.

After that we all got our textbooks, made note of the electives we wanted to take, and went home. I ended up taking, besides Chinese and Oral Chinese, Readings in Modern Chinese Literature and An Overview of China. (The latter was my third choice; Advanced Composition was full and Ancient History was closed for lack of student interest after I registered for it.)

小白兔, 白又白
爱吃萝卜, 爱吃菜
蹦蹦跳跳, 真可爱!
Little white rabbit, whiter than white,
His two ears stand nice and straight.
He likes eating turnips; he likes eating greens,
Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and cute as can be!

That’s what I learned the first time I was at Beida, over two years ago.
Now I’m reading Lu Xun novels for class, and Mo Yan novels for fun.
And although every one of the classes I have makes it clear to me that I still have a long way to go, they also remind me how far I’ve come.

Comments (12)

  1. jennifer wrote::

    you make me want to go abroad. The US isn’t as interesting as they want it to be. the president is going to get us killed…

    are you going to learn another language along with your life-long mastery of chinese?

    Monday, December 1, 2003 at 5:22 am #
  2. Stephen wrote::

    Well Congratulations (or f�licitations in French). I hate having to take proficiency tests. Especially the waiting part afterwards, where you have to wait, and have time to reflect on what you’ve just done.

    Monday, December 1, 2003 at 5:24 am #
  3. Kaiser wrote::

    Sounds like you ti’d some serious pigu on the HSK, so don’t beat yourself up worrying. You gonna do some writing for That’s? Been in touch with them yet?

    Monday, December 1, 2003 at 9:37 am #
  4. Kaiser wrote::

    I should read to the end next time. Congrats are in order. Second highest class, eh? Wonderful!

    Monday, December 1, 2003 at 9:39 am #
  5. Todd wrote::

    lu t, I love rhymes like that! Did you ever use that one for jumping rope too? It sounds very similar to a jump rope rhyme that somebody taught me, about a little bear instead of a little rabbit:


    Do you remember any other rhymes from elementary school? :)

    Tuesday, December 2, 2003 at 4:50 am #
  6. yoshio wrote::

    damn… i love that song!

    Tuesday, December 2, 2003 at 7:01 am #
  7. lu t wrote::

    hehe, back in elementary school we had a little saying about rabbits too. we’d say and act out the words when we get a bit cold during winters. it went something like this:
    小白兔, 小白兔, 跳一跳,
    小白兔, 小白兔, 转一转,
    小白兔, 小白兔, 摸摸地,
    小白兔, 小白兔, 滚出去! :D

    Tuesday, December 2, 2003 at 10:10 am #
  8. Prince Roy wrote::

    so I’m confused–did you actually take the HSK or Beida’s version of it. I thought the HSK was only listening and reading comp? Also, doesn’t the HSK rank the testee on a number scale, like 1-6? Anyway, congrats on whatever test it was you took. Sounds like you’re at least at a 4 on the State Department scale…

    Tuesday, December 2, 2003 at 10:52 am #
  9. Brendan wrote::

    Roy – a 4? I doubt that very much.
    It was juat a placement test. It may have been adapted from something else, but anyway, it’s not the HSK. By the standards of Beida’s test, I’m Advanced by the standards of the Duiwai Hanyu Zhongxin, which is to say that they think I’d be able, after a semester of these classes, to do respectably on the HSK.

    That’s another thing I should’ve specified — these aren’t real Beida classes; they’re through the Duiwai Hanyu Zhongxin. So being in the highest level most assuredly doesn’t mean that my Chinese is anywhere near a 4 on the State scale. Next semester I’m planning to ‘ru xi’ and take regular Beida classes – and that will be the real test!

    Tuesday, December 2, 2003 at 12:45 pm #
  10. Karen wrote::

    hmm,I love that song,too. I once had some chances to flip through these textbooks when I was tutoring American students back in Beida. But I didn’t know they have such interesting stuff in there:)

    BTW,I guess that DVD store deep inside Wei Xiu Yuan has survived all the tearing-down and construction projects. At least before I left Beijing,it was there.

    I really missed all these cozy pubs outside the side east gate,though I have never been inside any of them physically. When I realised it’d be time to be more ‘cultured’,they were all gone. It really stinks, as nothing more but knowing they were out there would make you feel happy and a bit previleged. These words being said, Beida is still way better off than UIC campus in terms of architecture style. The latter campus practically has not a single adorable landmark, just seemingly deserted gray buidlings.

    Tuesday, December 2, 2003 at 12:53 pm #
  11. Logan Egbert wrote::

    Im new to the whole China blog scene because of my interest and eventual hiring for next year at ZUCC. However after reading this and a few other entries (on this and other sites) about the learning curve for Chinese i am a bit frightened about the kind of language barrier i am going to face!

    I was never naive, i knew Chinese was going to be tough. But i thought, hey i have learned German fluently…”the third language comes quicker” they say. Now, i just dont see that happening. I have a tutor, however i dont imagine he can bring me up to the level i need before i leave! Has anyone else gone this route? Or did you all know a fair amount of Chinese before leaving the States?
    Anyways, enough whining! Any input would be helpful though.

    Monday, December 8, 2003 at 2:16 am #
  12. Todd wrote::

    Logon, to tell the truth I’ve never even been to the States. But I would say, don’t worry too much about the language barrier, it’s quite possible to get by even with no chinese (thousands of english teachers have done it before!) and if you put in the effort then you’re bound to learn it faster here than you would in your home country.

    Tuesday, December 9, 2003 at 3:14 am #