I made it to China last night. I am staying in Beijing for a five-week law program. I will be learning Chinese Intellectual Property and Patent Law. This is very exciting for me because this will be my first break from the past two years of generic law classes, and this will be my first chance to specialize in a developing niche field so that I won't be just another patent attorney.
The morning before I left to the airport, and all through the airplane ride, I was listening to a Pimsleur crash course in Mandarin. Also, I purchased a phonetics course which gave me many nouns [and their word associations so that I can memorize them easily (just my style)] to build my Chinese vocabulary. Although this phonetics course is fun for me, I knew that having a grasp of only nouns would only get me so far. This is why my focus is on the sentance structure and conversational Mandarin as taught by Pimsleur; I feel that this is the key to developing a foundation in, and actually speaking, Mandarin.
I had a scare, however. After many hours of learning, I decided to try out my Mandarin on a Chinese couple sitting next to me. The problem was that after all my effort, they didn't understand a word I was saying. However, I was very confident in what I learned, and I was sure that I heard and replicated the words properly; it occurred to me to ask them if they speak Mandarin; to my relief and disappointment, they said they didn’t speak Mandarin -- they spoke some other Asian language which sounded to me to be Cantonese. Just my luck. So I spent the next few hours learning words and trying them on people around the plane. The stewardesses thought it was cute that I was learning their language. They helped me out with the pronunciations when I got them wrong.
The arrival to China was very quick and the plane ride was surprisingly short. China Air had kosher food for me prepared, and the meals were delicious. One confusion I had was that we were supposed to count the Omer (a Torah commandment) at night. However, the problem was that it seemed like it was never night no matter where and when we were. I couldn't understand it because my rabbi and I figured it out beforehand that I would count the 46th day of the Omer on the plane at night, and then I would count the 47th day of the Omer after nightfall when I arrived in China. Problem! It was never night time on the plane! The sun was with us the whole time, as we flew west instead of east as planned.
Upon landing in Beijing, I had learned enough Mandarin to convince someone who was Chinese to speak to me in English. I also knew how to talk about talking the language and to discuss where I am from and how proficient or how terrible I was at speaking the language. I changed my currency at the airport, and I found a taxi which brought me to my hotel. Prior to my trip, I had prepared for me in written Mandarin the name of the hotel that I was staying at, and the directions to the hotel. All I did when I entered the taxi was give him this pre-printed card and everything else was smooth sailing. I've never experienced anything so easy.
One thing that was so interesting was my discussion with the taxi driver on the way to the hotel. He was asking me questions and as best I could, I was trying to answer them. When he asked me what I do for work, however, I tried to explain to him that I was studying to become a lawyer. But when he didn't understand me, I figured I'll have fun and I’ll make things up based on the words I learned on the plane. I told him among other things that I was a doctor. I felt so excited with this newfound ability to make up a new identity because 1) he'd never know the difference, 2) I gave him an answer to his question, 3) I was actually speaking with him in Mandarin, and 4) it was just chit chat that was never going to lead anywhere, so no harm done.
While in the taxi, I looked out the window (chu’ang) and I saw how everything was in Chinese neon letters, and I understood none of it except for the Honda dealership and the various companies that also had their Company names in English. As I was looking around, I realized that I was not in Kansas any more. I felt like James Bond, a spy in a foreign country. I saw police officers, and I visualized myself eluding them while they fired loaded weapons at me. I am so excited to be here!
One thing that spooked me a bit -- at the airport, already someone wanted to cheat me by having me step off the taxi line and go with him in his car. A rabbi stopped him and told me not to go with anyone except for those cars on the taxi line that the police guards instruct me to get in to. Yes, the first person I accidentally bumped into when I got to Beijing was the rabbi I will be staying at tonight for Shabbos and Shavuous (a Jewish festival).
A few minutes later, a few police officers surrounded me with concern and stood behind me and started pointing to something on my back. I thought it was the tzitzis (the fringes that came out from my shirt). When I asked if the tzitzis were what they were talking about, they got serious and put my right hand behind my back. I was certain I was about to be arrested for something. When they moved my hand over the back of my shirt, I felt something wet. I looked at my hands, and they looked all bloody. When I smelled them, I realized that it was ketchup. How I got ketchup on my back I have no idea, but I'll take that any day rather than getting arrested in a foreign communist government. They are still communist, no? Anyway, they got me napkins and cleaned me up, and I got into the taxi to head to the hotel.
I spent most of this morning setting up the computer, writing people e-mails, playing with the television (I've never seen anything so boring as the channels they have here), and unpacking. I also unpacked my portable steamer and so I spent around two hours ironing my suits and my shirts that were creased during the flight. The only thing is that the little portable steamer kept running out of water. I've been promising myself a shower since I got here, but I've been too busy just getting things ready for Shabbos (the Sabbath), which means that I need to leave to the rabbi's house in four hours.
During these next few hours, I will shower, I will pack my weekend bag, and I will try to get as much of the paper done as I can. I fear that it will be due any day now. Lastly, the sink water is supposedly poison, so we are supposed to buy bottled water. I found a Brita water boiler to make tea; it had a note on it “for boiling water for drinking only”. I hope this should be enough to boil out the bad stuff. With this, I am drinking Jasmine tea which tastes to me to be more like perfume than a tea, but nevertheless, it is a kosher and I am thirsty like you cannot imagine.
Have a wonderful Shabbos, and a chag sameach. May you mekabel the Torah b’simcha u’b’pnimius.