Thursday evening, 10/03/2016
While words and thoughts might be flowing relatively freely up here (taps temple), jamming each one out onscreen is torture – the near zero temperatures this week have frozen my finger joints stiff. Apologies to anyone who’s received messages from me that seem uncharacteristically stilted! The cause for any verbal distance is all physiological, not emotional. Copying out Chinese characters hundreds of times over has become an even more arduous task than before, and sometimes I catch myself absentmindedly blasting my already-dry hair, my hands, even my jeans in the morning before putting them on with our little pink Phillips hairdryer just for some warm respite.
Shanghai really pulled a fast one on us, weather-wise. We had a few beautiful days of low 20s, sunny days last week, enough for me to pull out the Drifits and go for runs around campus – bare, unshaven legs out for use. Then just as quickly, things dropped back to low single-digits. On Tuesday I had the unforgiving task of crossing the city twice – first to pick up a foreigner medical report at a hospital in Changning, and then to a police station back in Yangpu to finally apply for my residency permit (yes, more, BUREAUCRACY!). Strong winds combined with icy rain rendered my umbrella completely pointless so I just gathered strength and submitted to the elements.
By the time I made it back to Tongji University, the rain had soaked through my huge parka, through my clothes, through my thermals, through my undergarments. My entire body’s skin was wet, and as the wind beat against me on the walk back home I truly thought it was game over, KO for me – I’ve never felt such sensory trauma.
Three days later and my bag is still wet – as are my books, my documentation for being in this country, even my passport. Some days can really be a struggle here.
A significantly nicer day at Yu Yuan gardens. We look happy because we’re thinking of all the KFC we’re gonna destroy after.
The spring semester is now in full swing and the intensity of the coursework has been surprising. Lessons run from 8am to noon each weekday, and are comprised of main classes (for me, Intermediate Chinese) and then classes for specific skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. Having class for four hours straight each day is incredibly taxing (how do primary school kids do this?), and I find that by the third hour on most days my eyes are glazing over and all I can think about is which can ting (餐厅) I’m going to smash food at later. I’ve been put into D class, which is for people who have been studying Chinese full-time for two years. What I’ve actually studied is two years of four hours/week at UTS, so I’ve found that I have a lot of catching up to do to reach the standard of everyone else in our class.
It’s all very primary school here – the teacher is standing up and “teaching” the class for the entire lesson each day.
Speaking of standard-bearing, such a descriptor belongs exclusively to one group of students in my class – the North Korean Dads. Yeah, you heard me. It’s not often in one’s life that she can say she goes to class everyday with a bunch of 30-something year-old North Koreans but that’s honestly no weirder than pretty much everything else I experience here. There’s five of them and they sit in a cluster in the middle of the room, are purportedly here to “study architecture”, all have families back in the DPRK, and are crazy good at Chinese.
Honestly, to the point where they’re cramping my own ability to learn. Set the scene. The teacher introduces some complex grammatical structure I’ve never encountered. I am extremely confused. The teacher, unaware of each individual’s familiarity with the concept, glosses over its usage before asking the class if they understand or if she should explain further. The North Koreans nod enthusiastically. 懂了。Yes teacher, we understand. The teacher is like, great, let’s move on then. No!!! What!!! Stop!!! I DON’T GET IT!!! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO COMPETE WITH YOU GUYS.
My inability to compete with them aside, they’re undoubtedly the most colourful section of our class, because they’re actually fucking hilarious. For one, they’re good enough at Mandarin to actually be funny in the language, and two, they have an amazing, dry sense of humour that no one is completely sure is intentional or not. The North Korean bloc, all dressed in their mid-last century clothes (one of them was wearing, I kid you not, a Kim Jong-Un pin in class today) are forever coming up with quips that have the whole class laughing.
A typical canteen lunch after class – this cost AU$2.80. Carb loading all day everyday, babey.
The rest of our class is a hearty mix of South Koreans, Japanese, Germans, Eastern Europeans and a few individual representatives from Scotland, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Australia and so on. It’s a big, friendly class and our group WeChat is always buzzing with invitations to go drinking on Friday night, have dinner at someone’s house, go karaoke. I have people to talk to everyday and go on food breaks with, which is comforting. To my knowledge, I’ve only unwittingly upset one person in our class – let’s keep it at that low number for the year. I feel pretty bad about it but that’s a story for another day.
The workload is heavy, and there are quizzes every week. The possibility of working alongside full-time study here is starting to seem more faint as long as I am wanting to get good grades. Which I absolutely am, North Korean Dads be damned.