As I said, this time coming into the Harbin program I intended to spend less time in my room, and more time completing side projects, making friends, hanging out with said friends, and participating in clubs etc. I thought that would be doable because my second semester here last time was relatively stress-free and I spent a fair amount of time playing video games. If this first week is any indicator though, that dream is not to be. It started our fair enough, a lot of work that took up a decent amount of time, but none of it super hard. In the meantime I was just watching and pitying my classmates going through the same massive wave of stress I experienced three years ago, telling them all the time, “it’ll get better, don’t worry, trust me, etc.”
I was initially feeling a little guilty; felt I should be suffering as well. That is until today when I had my second poetry class, during which I experienced that terrible, stomach-shriveling feeling that only a teacher whose class you haven’t entirely prepared for can make you feel. Not necessarily through scolding you, but through asking questions you simply can’t answer, without end, until you have a splitting headache, can’t string a coherent sentence together, and feel you’re absolutely worthless. Which was a good thing to happen to me I suppose, it was a wakeup call. Everyone here’s been telling me my Chinese is the best in the program, which may be true, but there’s still so much for me to learn. I’m happy to be being challenged, but that tone shift from being ceaselessly praised to the reminder of the truth that I’d known that I’m still completely hopeless and sound super uneducated in a lot of ways when speaking Chinese was a bit jarring. Brought me right back to three years ago it did. Hoping I can get a handle on things this week once I figure out how much time I need to spend on classes, and how much I care about my grades and reputation as a good student I suppose. Heheh.
That’s hard though when half of your classes are one-on-one. So to go a bit into my schedule, my easiest class so far is literature, one of the two electives this program offers that I hadn’t taken previously. It’s got three other students, all Fulbrighters, although that may change tomorrow as we have til Monday to choose our classes. The first story is a short one on love just after the Cultural Revolution; the teacher’s great and the discussions lively to boot. My other elective is business Chinese, which I took last time, but they’ve changed the material and the teacher has said she’ll add in some politics into the mix for us. It’s a decent amount of work, and I feel bad for my classmate Sam, as language genius that he is he’s currently at a lower level than myself, and even I find the work a bit much. Or perhaps I’ve gotten lazy and less zealous since the last time I was here. (That second one is certainly true.) Should be educational at the least.
Normally this program offers a one-on-two pronunciation drill class, but haven already taken it I was allowed to choose a topic of interest to me to study, and settled on poetry, as I’d like to spend some time learning it with a teacher while I have the opportunity. They put me with professor Wu who teaches classical Chinese among other things, and whose class I had never had before. She’s extremely knowledgeable about poetry as well (although I got brownie points by showing her a poem by a famous poet she had never read before, score!), and quite nice. Didn’t stop her from making me feel completely worthless today in class though. It was partly due to the fact that I didn’t realize how much in detail she expected me to preview the material, and I had spread my resources a bit thin, but also the fact that it’s been two and a half years since I’ve been in this strenuous of a Chinese learning environment, and I have to get back into the groove. A little fear of death can be good sometimes. On the plus side I get off class at 10 tomorrow so it’s almost like a three day weekend!
My last class is my one-on-one, which is one of the specialties of this program. Each student gets to pick a topic they want to research, and the program will find them a professor to teach it. It the past I studied Chinese literary allusions (almost all of which I’ve forgotten), and nuclear nonproliferation in East Asia (which I’m hoping to turn into a career). This time around I wanted to study Sino-North Korean relations, as it will be massively relevant to my Fulbright research. However, they gave me a European history specialist who in his own words “doesn’t understand North Korea.” Seeing as they usually have a specialist on call for this topic, I’ll admit I felt a bit slighted. So I talked with the program head, which is a bit out of character for me to complain about something I’m being given for free, and they gave me a new teacher, who happens to be the on-call specialist. Apparently she was a bit busy this semester and wasn’t going to work the gig for the first time in nine years, but upon hearing there was a student in need of her skills she moved things around. So I’m quite touched and optimistic. As for the complaining, yes I’m here on scholarship, but I’m here on scholarship from the American government in hope that it will make my Fulbright project more effective, so I suppose I’m getting the American government their money’s worth if not myself.
As for the weekend, I’ll be taking my flower sticks to Central Street again to do some cultural diplomacy as it were before meeting the other students (who’ll be on a scavenger hunt around the city) for some hotpot. Then some homework of course, and hopefully a museum visit. Apologies for the run-on sentences, and some pictures next time most likely.