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Beijing: learning the language and discovering the old and the new

I participated in the January 2019 UTS intensive language course at Beijing Institute of technology. Having just finished Chinese 4, I wanted to go on an intensive language course that enabled me to put into practice what I’ve learnt from my Mandarin classes and gain new cross-cultural skills.

Intensive language classes took place every day for 1.5 hours in the morning. Our teacher was excellent and despite the challenges of all the UTS students having different language levels (from absolute beginner to Chinese 4) I felt that my speaking abilities improved. The language courses covered critical vocabulary and skills for our time in Beijing. I have learnt some of these grammar points and words already during my Mandarin classes at UTS, but the themes included ordering food, seeking help, sightseeing, directions and describing our trip.  The cohort also took part in culture classes every afternoon. During these, we learnt about traditional Chinese culture practices such as the tea ceremony, calligraphy paintings and, thanks to our visit occurring just a few weeks before Lunar New Year, we were also taught about the cultural significance and practices of the Spring Festival.

We also went on several excursions, to places such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. During these excursions we were given free rein and just told to be at a specific meeting point at a certain time in order to be transported back to BIT. All these sights were remarkable in terms of their construction as well as their rich history, the immense detail and ornamentation were extraordinary and truly breathtaking.

There was also a lot of free time afforded to us due to the lack of classes which allowed for independent sightseeing. Initially the cooler weather was a fun change from the Australian summer heat, I found it impressive just how good the heating was in Beijing but also very odd at how hot it was inside buildings. I often found myself rugged up to combat the cold weather only to be sweltering once entering a building and having to strip off some of my many layers. With this free time, I was able to explore the more metropolitan aspects of Beijing as well as venture to places such as Longqing Gorge to attend the Ice lantern festival.

It was fascinating to see China’s rise and rapid development in person, and Beijing is the perfect metaphor for modern China – a contrast of the new world and the old. A highly developed and sophisticated subway system roars beneath old vans selling street food and the occasional scooter van. Soaring glass skyscrapers of unprecedented design and engineering feats tower over the hutongs – Old Beijing’s cramped alleyways, traditional houses and cultural centres.

Nowhere is this contrast perhaps more astounding than Tiananmen Square. The square, being the 4th largest in the world, is an ominous icon that celebrates the power and rise of the Chinese Communist Party. It is surrounded by imposing buildings of socialist realist architecture that symbolise the epicentre of communist China – the National Museum, the Great Hall of the People and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Many hundreds of people gather for a photo in beneath the Monument to the People – taking pride of place in the very centre of the square. Every sunrise and sunset, hundreds line up to see the impressive flag raising and lowering ceremonies. It is distinctly different civic experience to ours in Australia and it was good to learn about this different culture in person.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Beijing, study the language and learn more about the culture. In these times of rising international tensions, it is vital that people-to-people links are strengthened through educational and cultural opportunities, for we can all learn from others.

– Benjamin Blackshaw

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