Saturday, 19 February 2011

We’re in Beijing!

Er ... we’re in Beijing!


THE one thing that you have to get used to in Beijing is the curious case of the “er”. Mandarin-speaking Malaysians will usually say zheli, nali, (literally translated as “here, there” respectively).

In the Chinese capital it’s usually said with an er at the end, “zhe’er and na er. Let me give you another example of the “er”.

When you ask for directions, Beijingers will say zai nan men’er” (at the south gate) or “yi su hua’er” (a bunch of flowers). But it is not exactly wrong if you don’t say it at all.

In fact the er is just a Beijing slang. Learning when to use the er is an art and you really have to be in Beijing to learn how to use it. And if you decide to study Chinese in Beijing, er is not the only thing that you have to look out for.

China may be the largest producer of affordable Nike shoes or Adidas for that matter, but it doesn’t mean living in Beijing is cheap.

Regarded as one of China’s top varsities, Tsinghua University has an American-inspired auditorium.
It may not be a financial centre or have the cleanest air quality, but it is no doubt China’s cultural and political centre.

Besides, Beijing has a concentration of China’s best universities. Tsinghua, Peking, Renmin and the China University of Political Science and Law are all located within the Haidian district. It also plays host to several other universities and tech giants such as Microsoft and Google.

Foreign students are invading China fast and you don’t need an expert to tell you why.

This forms part of the problem. The demand for accommodation is driving up rent. With property prices at an all-time high, rest assured the price for a bed won’t come cheap either.

Student accommodation with a Chinese price tag is obviously meant for local students only. Foreigners were welcomed as friends before.

Now, after 30 years of economic liberalisation, the laowais (foreigners) are viewed as friends with benefits.
In Tsinghua University, a dorm bed for foreign students is at least 40 yuan (RM20) a day and extremely hard to come by.

An en suite now cost 100 yuan (RM50) a day, which works out to about RM1,500 a month! That is the price for an entire year in some local dormitories!

When in Beijing, be prepared to pay at least 1,000 yuan (RM500) for a bed.

Teaching Hanyu is big business in China. Chinese universities charge about RM5,000 per semester.

Private institutions that cater to Western clients charge from 80-200 yuan (RM37-RM92) an hour, which I feel is terribly expensive especially if you’re just starting out.

The average price for beginners is 30 yuan (RM15) an hour. University students around the Wudaokou area are more than willing to be your friend and tutor.

If university life is too rigid for you, then try The Global Village. It is a Korean-owned language school next to the Wudaokou subway station.

Its website is exclusively in Korean and its existence among other foreigners is spread solely by word of mouth.

In many ways the Global Village has become synonymous to Wudaokou as Peking and Tsinghua University is to the area.

A one-hour class may cost the same as any other university, but it allows you to pick and choose classes.
The school is extremely popular among Koreans preparing for the standardised Hanyu exams (HSK).

Western students on a budget see it mainly as a springboard to their adventures in China. Many attend only one class in the morning and proceed to teach English for the rest of the day.

Like many former or “reformed” socialist countries, visa requirements remain strict. If you plan to study at a university, the application is straight forward.

Studying in the Global Village is more complicated. Foreigners with a tourist visa have to extend it while studying at the school. But getting a visa extension in China could be problematic.

Meeting other laowais is perhaps one of the advantages of learning Mandarin in China. When I say foreigners I don’t mean Americans and British. I mean “real” foreigners from countries you can’t pronounce.

Two of my former classmates are from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. My current classmates include an Andorran, a Lithuanian and Kyrgyzstani.

My “brother” James is from Niger, and he will launch a Bruce Lee sidekick straight at your groin if you pronounce his country wrongly. I sometimes have lunch with the laowais and I feel like I am in the United Nations!

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said in a speech of China at Peking University in 2008, “tian bu pa, di bu pa, jiu pa, zhi pa laowai shuo zhonggou hua (not afraid of heaven, not afraid of the earth, only afraid of foreigners who speak Chinese)”.

The foreigners are coming in full force. In the not too distant future, the “er” will not be so strange after all!

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