This year, I was resolved to go to China and study Chinese for one month during the summer. I investigated many possible scenarios but ultimately decided a private tutor would work best for me. Through the assistance of my friend Zou Lei, from Changsha, I was put in touch with a Chinese teacher, Zhao Jieqiong, who was affiliated with the Confucius Institute of Hunan University, also in Changsha. After some minor scheduling and planning, I set off to China in the middle of June.
The majority of my routine consisted of 5-to-6 hours a day of studying Chinese from a standard introductory Chinese textbook that is popular in the United States. Jieqiong and I would meet at the university or a coffee shop, taking lunch around noon. I found the practice listening and speaking to be quite valuable and feel that those particular aspects of my Chinese did, in fact, show substantial improvement. Jieqiong was a very good, patient teacher and, looking back now, she more than provided the service we agreed upon before I came over.
There were many other highlights on a personal level that made this trip very special for me. The first weekend, Lei and I walked all around Changsha, a large city of over 7 million people and capital of Hunan Province. In the typical summer weather mixture of blazing heat and high humidity, we put in some serious miles exploring Yuelu Mountain and Juzi Zhou, an island in the middle of the Xiangjiang River that flows through the center of the city.
The next weekend, he and I, along with Jieqiong, took the high speed train 30 minutes south to hike one of the five sacred mountains of China — Heng Mountain. We were joined by Lei’s friend, Liu Kai, upon arrival. The majority of the day was occupied by a steep, steady ascent and descent of the mountain on a blacktop road. Altogether, I’d say we walked 20 + miles, long yet reasonable. For me, this was the zenith of the trip; the friends, the sunshine, the history, the views all made for an unforgettable adventure.
After that, I was able to fly up to Beijing and pay a weekend visit to see several people. This included a day shopping and browsing around a “hutong” neighborhood with CSU student Xiao Mengying and friend Zhang Meng. Currently, I am hosting an international student, Ding Xiaoen, at my house back in Colorado. So, the second day, I was able to have lunch with her parents and personally inform them of the awesome job their awesome daughter is doing! At this lunch were former student and friend Li Qiuchen and my friend and Chinese travel expert of the last two years, the beautiful Ding Ding. When lunch was over and we said goodbye to Xiaoen’s parents, we strolled around and played at Beihai Park, now becoming one of my favorite places in Beijing, before taking in dinner and the Beijing Opera. On the last day, I had breakfast with Meng and Qiuchen and visited their apartment. Later, the three of us were joined by Mengying and her friend Pu Yuanyuan for a spirited game of laser tag!
Finally, on the last full weekend of my trip, Jieqiong and I took a trip out to visit her parents. They live on a working farm that is located about 2 hours southwest of Changsha, past a city called Shaoshan. Along with other family members of hers and their friends, we all enjoyed our time together, eating, visiting, and learning about each other’s country and culture. I really enjoyed the authenticity of experiencing a true slice of rural China, as I strolled around the area surveying the rice paddies, the aquaculture pond, the vegetable gardens, and the chickens, ducks, and pigs. On the next day, Lei and I once again put on our walking shoes and hit the ground in Changsha. He and I visited a Buddhist temple (Kaifu Si), the old city tower (Tianxin), and had a memorable dinner, complete with “stinky tofu”, on the busy Pozi Street at the locally famous Huogongdian, a must-try restaurant if you are ever in this city. This day was capped by a visit to Martyr’s Park (Lieshi Gongyuan). Even at this late hour, many older couples square-danced on the sidewalks and younger people were milling about.
On a professional level, I was honored to have the opportunity to visit Hunan University and meet with several faculty and students at the College of Finance and Statistics. We introduced ourselves to each other and discussed a possible collaboration. As well, I had the opportunity to walk around and see this impressive and historic campus.
Overall, the experience was very positive and one that I will never forget. On a few occasions, I had to deal with what could best be described not so much as loneliness nor homesickness, but more so as culture shock. There are few Westerners in Changsha and therefore I was regularly subjected to stares, whispers, and picture taking. This rarely bothered me and I respectfully state this not as a judgment, but as an observation. My isolation induced a dependence on Lei and Jieqiong, physically and emotionally. While they are both among the kindest people you will ever meet, I tried to the best of my ability to minimize this dependence in fairness to them and because of my own strong, independent personality. In Changsha, few people are truly proficient in English and many people speak a regional dialect that has no strong connection with Mandarin. Essentially functioning at the communicative level of a 3-year-old child, I had to maneuver around the city many times on my own. Even ordering a cup of coffee was not guaranteed to be an easy task. This was challenging on a few occasions — a trip I took by myself to see Ma Wangdui Han Tombs where I was uncertain about the directions comes to mind! But on average, I approached all this as a fun adventure and was able to adjust and adapt.
There are two things which I might have enjoyed as much as anything else I did. The first was experiencing the so-called “small stuff”. Going shopping at the supermarket, watching people go through their daily routines, all the spicy, delicious Changsha food (that I already miss!), and taking walks and working out at the local gym. All this cultural immersion greatly enhanced the experience for me. The second was meeting all the other kind and wonderful people that touched my life in a positive way — Pan Guoqin, Huang Chunyan, Bo Weichen, Jiang Xuanlong, Huang Gaoxing, Zhang Lei, Feng Fan, Yong Jie, Jia Puyu, Zhu Hong, Yao Jiqing, the wonderful ladies that cleaned my room at the hotel each day, and anyone else I forgot to mention. Thank you so much!
I fully understand that it is impossible for me to encapsulate this experience in a small post on my blog. Nevertheless, I believe I hit the salient points, and these combined with the photo album below come close to the take-home message of the trip.