Christmas in China

My first Christmas away from home was successful! Because the semester ends on January 5th, we are in the middle of finals right now, which meant that going home for the holidays just wasn’t in the cards. The demands of work and school have made the past several weeks seem to fly right by, and before I knew it, Christmas was right around the corner. As to be expected, Christmas is not a holiday traditionally celebrated in China. However, more and more young people in China observe Christmas (either religiously or just with holiday spirit) so there were decorations, parties, and festivities to be had for my first holiday away from home!

Christmas trees sprouted in the most unusual places – in store shop windows, shopping squares, and curiously in the entryway of my lecture hall. In the week before Christmas, Wudaokou (the main shopping district near BLCU) was decorated with some of the fanciest lights I’ve ever seen! If nothing else, the Chinese are very enthusiastic about Christmas lights. They are everywhere, and they brighten even the darkest, coldest nights in Beijing.

So, swapping Christmas ham for dumplings, a family celebration for one with a bunch of my Chinese friends, and opening Christmas presents for sending Christmas cards and e-mails, my holiday was both untraditional and unconventional, but I had a fantastic time and it was an experience that I will certainly never forget.

圣诞快乐!(Merry Christmas!)

Hit that Tone

As anyone who has studied Chinese will tell you, the tones will give any newcomer to the language trouble after trouble after trouble. With five different tones (a high, rising, low, falling, and neutral tone), even just hearing the difference between words that are phonetically identically but have a different inflection (and thus are entirely different words) can be incredibly difficult. I was again reminded of the confusion tones can cause just recently.

On Saturday I was watching the lunar eclipse (月食 yuè shí) with a Chinese friend and to pass the time while we waited for the impending red moon, he started telling me the legend of 吴刚 (Wu Gang). It is said in legend that吴刚angered the gods in an attempt to gain immortality and as a result, he was banished to the moon. He was condemned to spend eternity cutting down a tree, which – as soon as he cut it down, would grow instantly anew.

My understanding of the legend was totally fine until discussing吴刚’s punishment. Instead of hearing kǎn shù (“chopping down a tree”), I distractedly took his words as kàn shū (“reading a book”) and laughingly replied that an eternity of reading book after book after book on the moon couldn’t be all that bad.

Rest assured that such a minor slip isn’t the only one I’ve made. They happen every day, and luckily most Chinese people are very understanding and usually laugh it off with me.

Some of my better slips:

Rabbit (兔子: tùzi) –> Bald Head (秃子: tūzi)

Steamed Bun (包子: bāozi) –>  Leopard (豹子: bàozi)

Taxi Driver (司机: sījī) –> Dead Chicken (死鸡: sǐjī)

You can probably guess all of the contexts that I tried to use these words in…. Needless to say, “What a cute rabbit!” didn’t come off as affectionate when I said “What a cute bald head!” My two-year-old host sister BURST out laughing one morning when I meant to tell her, “These steamed buns are so delicious!” and I actually told her that I had a thing for eating leopard. She went straight to her mother in a fit of giggles to tell her that Americans liked to eat wild animals. And my taxi driver just rolled his eyes with a chuckle when I handed him my cab fare and thanked him by calling him a dead chicken.

Needless to say – if life in China wasn’t exciting enough, the language provides that last little piece of everyday adventure. Quite often, you never know what you’re going to get – perhaps most especially if you’re the one asking for it.


Beijing Language and Culture University has been around since the early 1960s, when it emerged as the first university to specialize in teaching Chinese to foreigners. Since then, the university has grown and undergone many significant changes – it now offers a multitude of languages to Chinese students and foreigners alike and offers a variety of postgraduate degrees as well. As to be expected, BLCU is involved in a variety of research in regards to the acquisition of language, specifically with regards to Chinese as a second language, and it is this effort that has allowed many of my classmates and I the chance to take the HSK for free.

The 汉语水平考试 (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is the internationally recognized standardized test with regards to Chinese. With the release of a “New HSK” there are two commonly recognized formats of the test (predictably the “new” and the “old” HSK). In exchange for answering a simple questionnaire for basic statistical research, we get to take the HSK for free!

With the end of the semester approaching, I already have several Chinese tests on the horizon. So, why not throw in one more? My brain is overloaded with characters already (courtesy of our impending oral and written finals for class), so shoving a couple more in there definitely won’t hurt. The test is on a Sunday morning – I’m steeling myself for several long days of study before Sunday hits!

Excursion to the Summer Palace

Beijing has no shortage of destinations for the tourist to explore. With so much culture and history, the city is littered with historic sites – from temples to gardens to palaces. One of my favorites is The Summer Palace (颐和园), a magnificent garden originally built for the one of the Qing dynasty’s ruling emperors. With a lake, rolling hills, and awe-inspiring architecture, it truly is a sight to see and should not be missed for anyone spending any amount of time in Beijing.

Lotus Educational Foundation led the afternoon outing to The Summer Palace, which was fantastic because Zoe and Linda (employees here at LEF) had been there several times before and were able to give us an unparalleled tour of the garden grounds. Although the weather was overcast and cloudy, the sites did not disappoint. I enjoyed trying to read as many characters as I could (helped along gently by Zoe and Linda whenever I would falter) and the short hike up Longevity Hill for a sweeping look over the entire garden was absolutely spectacular.

The various buildings, shrines, and artwork throughout the garden are really marvelous. The lake was speckled with paddle-boats and canoes for the more adventurous and even had some people reclining, sipping tea on the fancier tour boats. I especially enjoyed the giant marble boat (no longer up and running) that somehow used to maneuver its way across the water.

Trains, Travels, and Touring

In the United States, trains are hardly a viable means of transportation. They tend to be expensive and slow, scattered sparingly throughout the country (and especially the West coast), a sharp contrast to trains here in China. With the National Holiday and a week free from work and school, I accompanied one of my classmates south to 扬州 (Yángzhōu) to spend the week visiting with her family. We hopped on a train late Monday night and in the soft comfort of our soft sleeper reservations, we slept as our train sped for ten hours across the countryside. We woke up to a bright Tuesday morning in Yángzhōu, and after a casual cup of coffee as our train pulled into the station, we spend the next several days loafing throughout the city.

Yángzhōu was beautiful, set alongside rivers and lakes that strolled casually through the city. While large compared to the average city back home, Yángzhōu was without the sprawling, endless metropolitan feeling of Beijing. The people to the south were very friendly, but foreigners were thin on the grounds, so the casual point and exclamation of “外国人!” (foreigner!) was not uncommon. Also, the people speak a different dialect of Chinese, which meant that there were times where I had absolutely no idea what was going on (opposed to my usual feeling of being only 75% in the dark).

Again, because of the holiday, everywhere we went for a glimpse of the sights was teaming with people. Generally, though, having spent the last several weeks familiarizing myself with masses and crowds in boarding the subway every morning during rush hour, I wasn’t much bothered. We toured around Yángzhōu, hopped a bus over to Nánjīng to see those sights, and then on our last day of holiday, we went about two hours outside the city to Zhōu zhuāng, which has been called the “Venice of China.” It was absolutely gorgeous, a little town with canals sweeping all throughout the town, boats casually meandering by, and seafood everywhere you looked.

We hopped back on the train home and arrived back in Beijing bright and early on Saturday morning, just in time to get to class. When you have seven days of rest in China, apparently it is customary that you have seven days of work to follow. Albeit, while school on a Saturday and Sunday are oddly foreign, it was worth the exciting holiday a hundred times over!

Holiday Excursions

The first week in October offers a brief reprieve from the every day hustle and bustle to life in the city. The 国庆节 (guóqíng jiè), which follows National Day on October 1st, is a weeklong holiday celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Everyone here gets a week off work and school in honor the anniversary, and so I was looking forward to a week full of exciting outings now that I had the chance to travel.

My holiday began with an excursion with my host family. Without any idea what was in store for the day, (while I continue to make great strides in learning Chinese, some things are still just lost in translation – so I generally just peruse through the every day here with a sense of humor that gets me by), I accompanied my host family off early in the morning. We ended up going to a National Park of sorts, where my host sister met up with two of her classmates. Together with the three of them and their mothers, the lot of us started roving through the wilderness, hiking up the mountainside through the trees and scrambling over rocks.

The people were out in droves in honor of National Week, so everywhere you went it was very crowded. Even so, we had an absolutely marvelous time. My host sister (her chosen English name is Cindy) and her friends and I chatted all throughout the day. At first, Cindy’s friends were very shy to practice their English (despite constant encouragement from their mothers). However, after some prodding and poking with the right questions, and eagerly showing them that butchering a language is nothing to be embarrassed about through my own use of Chinese, they were excited to have a go with their English and wouldn’t stop talking!

I find that these are some of my favorite moments in living with a host family. My constant exposure to Chinese has improved my 口语 (kǒuyǔ – my speaking ability) and yet, at the same time, it has given me a glimpse into every day life for people in China. It’s an absolutely extraordinary experience, and while it has its challenges, I find it ultimately extremely rewarding.

(“Climbing the mountain” with my host sister and her friends)

Hou Hai and Hutongs

It is perhaps the most the most extraordinarily ordinary things that I find so fascinating here in Beijing. While many of the biggest differences are not new to me (having spent time here before in 2009), I still find often find myself intrigued by the absolutely ordinary. It is these differences that make living here so exciting and rewarding on an everyday basis – whether it’s hanging my clothes up to dry (I’ve always had a dryer back home), learning how to use the shower (which baffled me at first – they are styled quite differently over here), or eating what I believed to be chicken, only to be told that it was in fact pigeon (it was actually quite savory), each day I find myself with no shortage of surprises.

With several hours of daylight left after completing my placement test at BLCU, I hopped back on the subway and headed over to Hou Hai. One of three small lakes in central Beijing (the other two are Xi Hai and Bei Hai), Hou Hai is a rare and beautiful reprieve from the city. The outskirts of the lake are littered with hutongs, narrow little alleyways and streets that are old Chinese neighborhoods. I found it quite exciting to wind throughout them, taking in pieces of the old city that have been left behind and bashfully offer greetings to the curious residents watching me as I passed. After I had gotten lost more than a few times in a number of different hutongs, I continued on and finally managed to reach the lake. The lake is gorgeous, with weeping willows all along the waters edge, bicycle carriages winding slowly around, and old men standing in large groups watching others play mahjong.

I had to get home for dinner with my host family, otherwise I would have been eager to watch the lake come to life at night. If I remember right, there are a series of very popular small bars and places to eat along the waters edge; lanterns are hung at every establishment – bars, restaurants, and boats alike, making it an absolutely magnificent scene in the evening.

One of the hutongs I explored on the way to Hou Hai.

Calligraphy practice.

Hou Hai.

Back in Beijing!

After nervous goodbyes with friends and family, packing up a year’s worth of photographs, clothes, and other knickknacks from home, and one fourteen-hour plane ride across the Pacific Ocean, I am finally here! Now that I am firmly settled with a wonderful host family just north of Wudaokou (五道口) , I am slowly starting to make myself at home again. The city of Beijing is a sharp contrast to that of Seattle, and the most curious (and sometimes the most simple) differences catch my eye, make me look twice. In the first two weeks I have been here, I’ve found that there is no such thing as an ordinary day – every day has continued to bring its own challenges, adventures, and rewards.

I first came to Beijing with the Lotus Educational Foundation in the summer of 2009. After studying Chinese for a year at the University of Washington, I was looking to spend the summer in Beijing to improve my Chinese. I stumbled across Lotus while searching for summer study abroad programs. They made the application process so painless that as soon as my sophomore year of university ended, I was on a plane headed to Beijing with no idea what to expect. Needless to say, I had a fabulous time. I can confidently attest that living with a host family, apart from being a marvelous experience in itself, is by far the best way to learn Chinese. I spent three months studying at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), living with a Chinese family, traveling around as much as my Chinese would allow, and quickly learning to get by in a world of an entirely different language, culture, and way of life. 

So, when I was looking to return to Beijing after my graduation from the UW, I knew that I didn’t have far to look. My welcome back to Lotus was just as warm as it was two years ago, and since being back, I have been learning the ropes of working as an intern here at the non-profit Lotus Educational Foundation. I am also studying at Beijing Language and Culture University in the morning, and since classes started last week, I have been struck with a mixture of both fear and elation at how fast my classes seem to be moving. Fear, because I have more and more characters to learn every night for class. Elation, because my Chinese already seems to be improving quickly!

Between classes, my homestay, working with Lotus, and trying all the while to navigate Beijing with my rusty Chinese (I feel like I might fit in well at a pre-school right now, as far as speaking and writing goes), I am filled with nothing but excitement for the future of my time in Beijing.

My Experience at the Jin Mei Hope School

This article  is written by Aviva Berkowitz

Looking back at the whirlwind of colorful images, smells, and experiences that made up 3 weeks of my summer, I cannot help but be amazed at how the time flew. It is positively dizzying to recall all of my activity and song-filled days at the Jin Mei, or New Hope, School and it is hard to believe that it is all over for I have been anticipating my volunteer work there for a good few months. 

On my first day, armed with plenty of poster-board, markers, scissors, and tape, I naively thought that I could easily win over and be able to engage my 3 classes of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.  I quickly learned, though, that it would be a bit more complicated than that and that I would need to be a lot more creative in order to hold their attention!  I embraced the challenge, cooking up clever plans as best I could, organizing matching games and activities, recalling catchy songs and jingles that stuck with me when I was a kid.  Each day I came into class with a prepared topic.  I would teach them various vocabulary words related to that topic with the aid of the blackboard and drawings from chalk as well as colorful poster-board.  I then came up with a game, song or activity to keep their interest alive and ensure that they were actively learning instead of just mindlessly repeating a string of words.  In this way we learned all about colors, shapes, fruits and vegetables, the parts of the body, and pieces of clothing, among other things.  We made colorful cereal necklaces to review shapes.  We played “pin the fruit on the basket” (my own made-up version of “pin the tail on the donkey”), which they were most enthusiastic about, in order to incorporate the names of the various fruits into their growing fund of knowledge.  I was so gratified and impressed when I held a review session at the end of my second week and witnessed how much they remembered!

I was most inspired by the students in each class who were so motivated and eager to learn.  They took initiative to forward their learning experience by drawing collections of pictures on the blackboard, asking me how to say those things in English, and diligently repeating everything I said.  And whenever I was having a hard day or getting discouraged, they were the ones that lifted my spirits and reminded me what I was there for.

One of my favorite parts of those few weeks was acting as the student and allowing the children to assume the role of teachers, trying to help me learn Chinese!  They taught me how to pronounce various words and names and would squeal with such delight when I responded correctly.  I enjoyed watching them take such pleasure in this venture and I also was surprised at how difficult I found it to keep up with them; to remember how to make all the different sounds and form the words that they had taught me only a few minutes earlier.  I grew to appreciate then how challenging it must be for them as well, to learn a new language so different from their own and I admired them, marveled at how quickly some of them picked it up!

It would not be true to say that I did not have fears and doubts about this project before I began.  Mostly, I worried how I would communicate with the children when I did not speak a word of Chinese.  I was anxious that none of my ideas would work and that I would not be able to teach them anything.  However, the truth is that this opportunity surpassed my expectations.  I forced myself to look beyond my worries, to embrace the challenge and I was surprised to find how natural and effective it was to communicate with smiles and thumbs-up when I couldn’t use words.  I realized that I loved my students and that these would be a very rewarding and valuable few weeks indeed, ones I would always look back on and remember.

Day 10: Capital Museum

The Rain cleared up the Beijing sky to an almost pure blue. I have to say there were some mountains outside the Lotus office window that I didn’t know existed.

Many students decided to take the day off and go together to do some shopping and hanging out at one of their host families homes. I went with the group to the Capital

Museum. Every floor displayed countless pieces of priceless artifacts made of Jade, Gold, Bronze and pottery. As Buddhism was very prominent in early China, there were many statues of different Buddhas. On one of the top floors there was a display of “Jingzhu”, or the Beijing Opera. The costumes are some of the most beautiful clothes I’ve ever seen.

On our way back, Evan, two other Lotus students and I decided to take a taxi just for the heck of it. I thought it was kind of funny how comfortable Evan was with giving the taxi driver directions. The Lotus address just rolled off his tongue. Nice job Evan.