Tongue Tied

This post is broken up into two parts – what I wrote when I was in the US, and a couple of thoughts about settling into Beijing from the past couple of days. Thanks for your patience as I collect my thoughts, recover from jetlag, and figure out how to find consistent internet access to post things and get in touch.

I’m spending the month of August in an intensive language study program offered through Peking University. The tuition for the course has been subsidized by Yenching Academy, to allow the incoming students with no formal language background the opportunity to build a foundation in Mandarin. I am equal parts excited and apprehensive – nervous to be making the move in just a few short days, excited to have the chance to dive into the learning environment at PKU before the classes for my Master’s program officially begin.

Total immersion is the only way I think I will be able to make significant progress when it comes to learning Mandarin, but with this comes a different set of challenges. For a few months, I’ll be capable of interacting with people outside of the Yenching Academy cohort only using the most basic types of communication, and there is always a sense of loneliness associated with the inability to speak frankly and openly with others.

Even so, I relish these chances to listen and observe, and to find contentment without using language of my own. The existence of a language barrier has helped me see the distance between myself and others, and has provided opportunities for private reflection. When traveling in countries where I do not speak the language, I have felt very quiet and at peace. For example: after a long day wandering through the architectural biennale in Venice, I came to realize that I had not spoken a word to another person all day, and didn’t yearn for the company of others in the least. In Hong Kong, when hiking along the paths of Lantau Island surrounding the Big Buddha, I took in the scenery and knew that the moment was more private and more rich for having been experienced in silence.


Shortly before I left for China, I got a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s newest book out of the library. In Other Words is Lahiri’s first book written in Italian, and I found so much of it to be a beautiful reflection on the nature of adopting a new language and immersing oneself in a new culture. She talks about how writing in Italian provides her with a new way to express herself – allowing her to speak like a child for the first time in years, with all of the blatant honesty and beauty that such simple language allows.

Early in the book, she talks about attempting to learn Italian when she lived in New York City – carving out an hour or more each week to attend lessons and practice the language:

“If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown. The other language is always there to support you, to save you. But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words

I wonder if I’m truly going to be able to follow her advice, to leave the shore without depending on the solid and familiar ground of the English language. There’s both comfort and necessity to the language – as I begin to make friends with the members of my cohort, we communicate primarily in English. Still, we endlessly practice the basics of Mandarin: repeating our 4 tones, counting to 10, cobbling together simple statements to describe what we’re thinking or feeling or doing.

This morning, we took our placement tests for the upcoming month, and I was put in the second group of the introductory level. The placement test was comprised of multiple choice questions, each gauging our ability to recognize and use Mandarin in our daily lives and in scholarly settings. For almost every answer, I responded “never” or “rarely”. Perhaps by the end of the year I’ll be comfortable enough to declare “sometimes” when I’m faced with similar questions in the future?

We picked up our textbooks this afternoon, and I’m pretty excited to get started with the classes. My group will be meeting from 8 am – 12 pm during the week. In addition to our time spent in the formal classroom setting, every Yenching Academy student has been paired up with a foreign language partner, and we are expected to meet with these partners for six hours each week to practice our language skills. These partners come from the graduate program in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, and are all native Mandarin speakers. All in all, this amounts to a little bit over a hundred hours of Chinese practice throughout the next month.

As far as general logistics go – I’ve had to purchase a new SIM card to use in my phone, as I need to have a local Chinese phone number to set up a bank account at the branch here on campus. During the school year, our program will be depositing our monthly stipend (totaling 3500 RMB/month) into this account directly to cover various expenses. My Chinese language partner has offered to help me set up this account tomorrow, so I’ll probably be meeting with her after lunch to do this! I’m still feeling jetlagged, but there’s so much exciting stuff happening all around me that is keeping me awake. Finally, I’ve decided to use the Chinese name 梅玉苹 (Mei Yu Ping), after getting a lot of help from family and friends in translating!

Over the next few days, I’m hoping to get more consistent access to the internet & have more opportunities to reach out to the people that have contacted me over the past few days. (Sorry, Ma and Pa – I promise I’ll call you soon!) Other than that – nothing of note to share. 🙂

Sending you love from halfway around the world,



2 thoughts on “Tongue Tied

  1. Hi Kris,

    Hope you are over all the jet lag!
    I saw a special on a part of very rural China (middle of the country) where even the little red book did not go. Lots of bamboo in the mountains- so high up that vehicles can’t get up there. Farmers cut them down ( ~ 50 lbs each) and carry it down the mt to sell– for 4cents each. At the point where there is a ‘road’ of sorts a truck will dangerously make it there to collect. At the point he then drops off 16 tons he makes enough money to feed his family for a week…

    Ian is in town so that he can go to the beach w/ us for a long w/e. Elyse and Garth are in ME. It is so very hot and humid here– hope the air quality is not too harsh for you.

    xoxo – favorite aunt in Cabin John


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