Thinking about the endless nights of google-ing when I knew I wanted to spend my summer studying Chinese (my newest shiniest hobby), I decided to post my own perspective on the matter. The matter being the Chinese Summer Training at BLCU (Beijing Language and Culture University).
It is very subjective, of course, but there are things I wished someone would blog about.
Is it worth it?
Some say it’s great, some say it’s s**t. The truth is, as always, somewhere in the middle. If you want to go home with a significant level of Chinese, you need to study study study. Sure, some teachers are not that great (mine was fantastic, though), but in general by participating in Class and get some homework done, you’ll learn a great deal of Chinese. Truth being said, it’s quite easy getting distracted, but in the end, loosing yourself on the streets of Beijing can help a great deal – very few people speak another language besides Chinese. Even if you don’t study that much, just going to classes helps a great deal.
Fill in the forms and e-mail them, that is pretty much what the require. Then wait patiently for the letter. It will come, eventually.
Now I think it is pretty easy, but I know from experience it can be pretty confusing. The best option (in my opinion, of course) is the International Student House, or Building 17. Why? It is right outside the campus door, which means more liberty. It is slightly more expensive that the average dorm, but no curfew, hot water all the time, some ladies cleaning the rooms every morning (some mornings against your will :). Dorm 17 can fill up quite early, so try and book a room ASAP (once you have the letter from BLCU). For the single room they’ll say it’s not possible, no more rooms available, etc, but don’t give up easy. Complaining and wining is the most efficient form of getting things. If you can’t get one single, the double room is not that bad. They will assign you a roommate sooner or later (mine was later, thank god!). When you call, best to have near you a Chinese speaker friend, if not, it will become pretty soon a tragicomedy, but in the heat of the moment, it will look more like a horror story. I know a couple of people who did not book and just showed up looking convinced they did reserve a room, and they got the most-wanted single room, but it’s a lottery you can very well loose.
I stayed in Dorm 17, so I can only say about the other dorms what I heard from others. There are some with the showers outside the building (can’t imagine going out for a shower in the winter), or with a guard outside watching the time, and if you break the curfew 3 times you’re out, and so on. Other than that, I imagine they’re fine. And quite cheaper.
BLCU diner is cheap, very cheap, and the quickest solution to get a rapid, greasy meal. There are some restaurants and cafes in the same building, but significantly more expensive. My favorite place for lunch? The U-Center (shopping mall across the street) cafeteria, they have the best noodles I had in my life, for 1,5 Euros a (huge) bowl.
When you show up you will have to pass a level test, which is quite accurate. Bear in mind you will be in the same classroom with 20 other people and each of you have to speak “publicly”. The teacher asks all of them one by one and start asking questions in Chinese, gives you some texts to read, and that’s it. But if you’re shy, start preparing. Once you start classes, if you are not happy with the level, you can always switch (with teacher’s approval).
I studied Chinese for 6 month before going to BLCU, and I got to be in level B. I was very proud of myself for that, but it lasted quite little. To my initial shock, the teacher came in and started to speak at normal speed (which for me was terribly fast), only in Chinese. My first impulse was: What am I doing here???? Bear for a while before running to switch to the lower level, after a couple of days it gets better. I learned a great deal, even if at first I was absolutely terrified of the poker faced teacher, and I will always remember her well.
Mostly students, coming from all over the world, mostly in their (very) early 20s, and in my case, they knew a great deal compared to me. It was quite frustrating at first, until I found out most of them have been studying for at least 2 years. So don’t hurry in beating yourself up that others seem to pick up quicker than you. Chances are they already studied that, but they are in the same level as you, so head up.
The Summer program lasts for 4 weeks. First week-end is normally a trip to the Great Wall. Packed with tourists and students, but still stunning. Don’t forget to charge the camera!! And it’s a good opportunity to eye people and make some friends. Most of the students are by themselves, so they are as eager as you to bond.
Then, for the other free week-ends, they organize trips. In my case it was Inner Mongolia (a Chinese province) and Datong caves,
and the other to the Shaolin Temple.
They are quite cheap, well organized, and allow you to see a bit outside Beijing, and make some friends outside the classroom. Very touristy though, which I guess is fine for the average 20 years old student.
Propaganda and Sensation are two twin discos 5 minutes away from Dorm 17, and quite popular as well. Wu is a good option, and if you fancy a western bar, Helen’s is right outside Sensations. This is for the every-day party scene, for a more posh and no-students areas, San Li Tun Village is Beijing most popular party scene.
Have some notions of Chinese when you arrive, otherwise ordering at KFC can be a nightmare, not to mention the shock when you realize almost no one speaks English.
Make the most of the sunny days! There is a huge difference seeing the Summer Palace on a normal contaminated dark-grey fog, and on a sunny day.
If you are in your 30s, like me, you will find yourself surrounded with very young people who will look at you with wide eyes, while imagining you with a walking stick. Never-mind the age gap, you can meet great people and make life lasting friends.
Don’t be afraid to interact with locals. Young Chinese are eager to interact as well, we had the best days with our new Chinese friends we met on the street while asking for directions. And what can be better than a cultural exchange in your broken Chinese mixed with their broken English?
Try not to party EVERY night, and most important of all, try not to skip classes. Even if you will find very few moments to study outside classroom, the mere fact of being in there helps a great deal in improving your language skills.
And most of all, HAVE FUN! It’s been a great experience, I will always remember it with a smile on my face.
P.S. It’s 3 AM, so please be gentle with my grammar or spelling mistakes. :). Any doubts or questions, happy to help.