中文看起来容易,做起来难 (Chinese, Not As Easy As It Looks)

Routine is a tricky thing. At once, it is something that I can’t live without, and yet, is always asking to be tampered with. At Cornell, it is proving to be as integral as ever, but I’m finding that there are considerable wholes, wholes that at Oberlin would scarcely exist. But for all intents and purposes, it’s been a good thing—I finally have time to smell the proverbial roses, get a chance to make long-overdue phone calls to friends on my way to and from places, and walk around campus without the stress of constantly running late for one thing or another. With wonderful detours to the daily grind aside, my life largely revolves around four things: studying Chinese, working out, cooking food, and seeing friends. Since trying to become proficient in Chinese is the primary reason for why I’m at Cornell in the first place, I’ll dedicate this post strictly to that.

The FALCON Program (short for Full-year Asian Language CONcentration) is surprisingly ranked among the best immersive language programs in the country for Chinese and Japanese. Though I am only participating in the summer, the Chinese program typically runs the full academic year, where students learn Introductory Chinese in the summer, continue into Intermediate in the fall at Cornell, and finish up with Advanced in the spring at Peking University in China. Because the pace is so fast, students can theoretically attain a degree of fluency in a third of the time of traditional study, which is useful for students and professionals looking to study or work in China.

Despite the questionable biases of the coverage in Cornell’s own daily newspaper, I can certainly echo its accolades. The program is structured with four classes a day, five days a week. English is greatly discouraged and is almost never spoken in the classroom. We have officially switched to using simplified characters over traditional, which, though a bit jarring at first, certainly makes learning them that much easier. Classes run in 55-minute chunks from 9-11 and again from 1:30-3:30. During the time in between, we are expected to spend two hours doing any number of related exercises—worksheet pages, translations, readings, short essays, reviewing vocabulary, and memorizing passage excerpts—for the afternoon’s class. The process is then repeated every night for the following morning. Every day, I spend that “break” in the library with a couple of other friends from class, tirelessly chipping away at our work while grabbing a quick bite to eat for lunch.

The class itself runs like a well-oiled machine. We are utilizing the same textbook as I would have been using had I taken 200-level Chinese at Oberlin, but the only catch is that we are ripping through it at four times the pace. We are doing an entire year’s worth of language study over the course of nine weeks—they didn’t call this program “intensive” for nothing. Thankfully, reading the stories in our textbook hasn’t become too much of a chore. It is refreshing to know that in Chinese, as in English, some things are just intrinsically funny. These include: getting ripped off by a Chinese shopkeeper, taking issues of Playboy magazine through customs, the number of times one suffers from diarrhea after eating watermelon, whether or not a person can contract an infectious disease from a squat toilet, and the reasons why someone might walk their caged bird through a Beijing park.

Instead of one or two professors, we have five, all with distinctly different quirks and teaching methods. Of the five, only one is a man—noticeably more laid back, but also more apt to mumble his words. Aside from class, we have weekly “Tea Time” every Friday afternoon, which is a great way to talk informally with professors and students in a (mostly) relaxed environment. I feel that it is the best way for us to practice—not having to worry too much about structure or grammar, and simply trying to communicate. It was there that I learned that the Chinese FALCON Director is actually an Oberlin grad, who was pleased to know that I was participating in the program!

There are currently eleven students enrolled in the class, out of a group that started with thirteen. Of them, all are Cornell undergrads save for me, and most are first- and second-year students. Ironically, the two that shared the most in common with me were the two that dropped—one, a fifth-year at Cornell who needed a few more credits to graduate, and the other, an undergrad at Vassar, who was moved down to the 100-level class for failing to perform. In fact, it originally appeared as if the class was designed to weed outsiders out. In the first week, I had to put up with a ton of unfamiliar vocabulary, partly as a result of Oberlin’s using a different 100-level textbook, and partly because of the specificities to Cornell’s campus. I quickly got used to the words for “slope,” “gorge,” “Ithaca,” and “snow.” There was also a lot about the format of the class and the teaching style of the professors that I had to acquaint myself with (notably, Cornell doesn’t use the Honor Code). But the whole initiation, much like a fraternity’s ritual hazing (I’ll get to fraternities in another post), made me that much more driven to succeed.

And so far it’s paid off. I’ve done quite well on all the homework and tests that we’ve had, despite that fact that I’m not taking this class for the grade (my transcript is over and done with until grad school) or the reputation (I presumably won’t be in class with any of these people again). Like most things, I like to think that I’m doing it for myself, and in this case, the hope that adherence to the rigid structure of the program will allow me to be better prepared for the next two years in China. As I mentioned briefly in my first post, I’m very fortunate that I’m still very much in an academic mindset. Had I been at home for a solid three or four weeks prior to arriving, my motivation for learning would no doubt be staggeringly low. As it is, I often have to find the energy and the impetus for studying or doing homework every night, as opposed to say, writing another blog post. The workload is about as difficult as one might expect from a program of this caliber, but thankfully, not overwhelmingly so.

Even though the subject matter at Cornell is of a slightly different nature, my study habits are almost completely unchanged from my undergrad years at Oberlin. I always opt to do my homework early in the morning over staying up late, and as previously mentioned, I now spend every afternoon, as I did every evening at Oberlin, in the library. My housemates can certainly vouch for me that I spent more time there than I did at my own house senior year. Much to my complete surprise, Cornell has more than 20 libraries, most focused around the niche subjects that it offers as majors: engineering, law, hotel, fine arts, math, and ornithology, to name some. Although I haven’t found a place quite as academically stimulating (and aesthetically stultifying) as the infamous Classroom, I now oscillate my time between a little café much like Azariah’s and a computer corner much like, well…let’s just say that I really am a creature of habit.

A view of Olin Library, just about as physically unappealing as Mudd, which I frequent nearly every day.

Though I’ve been very happy with FALCON thus far, taking it has made me wish that I started studying Chinese earlier. When I was a first-year at Oberlin, I knew that I wanted to study language, and with Spanish all but ruined for me by my AP Spanish teacher in high school, I decided that I would either stick with Japanese (which I had been taking for three years up to that point) or make the switch to Mandarin. The placement test was to be the true deciding factor for me; if I placed into second-year Japanese, I would take it, and if not, I would start out fresh with Mandarin. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s funny, though, how such a seemingly insignificant decision shaped the whole course of my studies. Had I not taken Japanese at Oberlin, I would never have spent a semester in Japan, nor have become at least moderately proficient in the language. As a result of studying abroad, I knew that I wanted to continue to explore Asia but did not want to spend two more years in Japan, resulting in my decision to start taking Mandarin during my senior year. Had I gone the China route, I may never have wanted to pursue Shansi at all. Even if I had, I would almost certainly have had to spend this summer doing a language program in China rather than the states because my level would have been too advanced for the strictly beginner and intermediate level Chinese summer courses offered at Cornell (and most other American universities). Needless to say, had I not been doing Shansi, there would be no chance that I would find myself at Cornell for the summer either. First, continuing to study Chinese would seem negligible, and second, I wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of tuition, room, board, and transportation that Shansi has generously subsidized (one of the many perks of the fellowship).

I’m really glad that I decided to start learning Mandarin. Though a lot of my impetus came from the hopes of doing Shansi after graduation, much of it was aimed at trying to bridge the generational gap between me and the Chinese side of my family. I have always felt slightly ostracized among my Chinese relatives because my sister and I are the only two people in the family who can’t speak Cantonese. It has been a point of contention for us our whole lives, and I feel that in a lot of ways it has stilted our relationships with cousins, aunts, and uncles on that side. Though they were very happy to hear about my upcoming trip to China, in some ways they knew, like me, that I would still never really be able to talk to them.

Cornell, in addition to tons of other Asian languages including Vietnamese, Korean, and Sanskrit, also offers Cantonese, something that I was sorely remiss for at Oberlin. Other half-Chinese friends of mine have griped about not wanting to study Mandarin for its lack of utility among family, and I certainly share their sentiments. Hopefully one day I will be able to pursue Cantonese (maybe when I go on a trip to visit Guangdong), but if nothing else, both languages are still written using the same characters, allowing me the ability to communicate with family, armed with a pen and paper in my hands.