Friday, July 11, 2008

Last Saturday, I was greeted in my dorm room by Li Jiahao, my 10-year-old honorary little brother in Beijing. Every student in the HBA program was assigned to a family here, but I had the good luck to be put with a family that lives on campus. Mr. Li is an English professor here, and during the school week his family lives in the dormitory across the street from mine. On the weekend they have a much nicer apartment in Huilongguan (where I took the picture at right), but living on campus makes it easier for the Lis to get to work (Mrs. Li is a nurse in the clinic at the School of Mines next door), and for Jiahao to come over to my dormitory. He's a smart kid; he thinks my textbooks aren't difficult enough and from time to time will teach me literary expressions he thinks I ought to know. Right now he's on summer vacation, but he still goes to classes a few days a week to work on his English. When I've been wrangling with Chinese for a while it's a welcome break to help Jiahao understand the vagaries of English irregular verbs.

The Li family has very much taken me under their wing, and lavish attention on me in a way I doubt an American family would do. They've invited my whole family, for example, to come to Beijing and stay at their home in Huilongguan, and they fairly regularly invite me to dinner or bring homemade food to my dormitory. When I finish writing this, Mrs. Li has offered to teach me how to make dumplings.

In my temporary Chinese family, there are two other HBA students, both from second-year, but a language barrier even more severe than mine and a considerably more burdensome workload leave them less time to spend with our Chinese family. At the beginnging of the program, my fourth-year-classmates and I were given a whole song-and-dance about how difficult the work would be, but to be honest, it hasn't been bad at all. I'm good enough at Chinese that the language pledge doesn't mean a vow of silence, and compared to the rather insane life I built for myself at Yale, a 400-character essay a day is nothing.

And if I should ever get bored or discouraged, the Li family is more than happy to feed me. Food is tremendously important to the Chinese: I don't know whether this is necessarily true, or whether the Chinese appreciate fine dining more than other nations, but it is a stereotype that has become a part of Chinese self-consciousness. "民以食为天," Mr. Li will often say to me at the start of a meal. It's a 2000-year old aphorism: "The people regard food as heaven." Another favorite aphorism of Mr. Li's is "吃饱了, 不想家": "When you've eaten your fill, you won't miss home." Of course I miss home; I miss my family, and yesterday I went on a shopping spree for milk and cheese (cheese is phenomenally expensive in Beijing, but it can be had). But the Li family do a pretty good job of filling the gap, whether giving me the occasional piece of fruit or taking me out for a full-blown Beijing hot-pot dinner. Tomorrow Mr. Li is taking me to his co-worker's wedding; but I doubt I'll have time to post on it before I leave for the countryside Sunday morning.

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