Jeremy Rubinstein '14: Every Day is New, Every Month is Different
Jeremy Rubinstein was the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellow at Beijing Normal University. This is his first year narrative.
As I embarked on my experience in Beijing, I was eager to really connect with this new environment. I loved learning Chinese language, wanted to broaden and deepen my understanding of Chinese culture, and was feeling positive about starting my new life. I didn’t merely see Beijing as the site where I happened to be working and taking classes for my fellowship; I really wanted to feel rooted here, to create a sense that it’s my home, and ideally have a group of friends, since I think that’s something that’s nice to have.
There are a significant number of international students at Beijing Normal University, and they have a pretty tight-knit community. At the beginning of the semester, everyone reached out, and was very open to meeting new people. I live in the same part of campus as they do, so it was a very accessible social outlet, right when I arrived.
I had a number of friendly encounters with Chinese people towards the beginning, too. One evening, when I was on my laptop in the McDonald’s by campus, before I got Wi-Fi in my dorm, I noticed a girl taking a picture of me out of the corner of my eye. I turned to her and asked her why she took a picture of me. She praised my Chinese speaking. I asked her again; she and the girl next to her giggled and denied having taken a picture of me. I walked over to look at the recent pictures taken, on her fancy-looking camera. Sure enough, there were three or four very nice little candid shots of me. I asked her again why, and she, in her bubbly manner, giggled, “Because you’re handsome!” I sat down by them and chatted for a little while. They said they were majoring in English. I asked if they wanted to speak English with me. They smirked, slightly nervously, “Nah!” They mentioned they were waiting for some other friends, and at midnight, they were going to set off for a suburban area on the outskirts of Beijing, and hang out there for a couple days. They invited me to come along. It was tempting, but classes would start soon, and I was pretty behind on designing my course syllabus, so I declined. After that, the girl who took the picture and I occasionally made polite conversation on WeChat (an extremely popular Chinese chat app, similar to WhatsApp), and bumped into each other once or twice on campus. One of the pictures became my Facebook profile picture for the following few months. I had no contact with her friend since that day.
One of the first friendships that I formed with a Chinese person began one day I went out for dinner at a restaurant a little bit outside of campus, with a friend from the UK. We sat down, and the waiter who came over was a young, handsome guy, with a sort of mischievous type of smile, maybe around our age. As we ordered, he remarked that our Chinese was good, and he asked for our WeChats. My British friend didn’t have a WeChat at that time, so I just exchanged mine with the waiter. After that, the waiter, Han, messaged me persistently, and pressed me to make time to meet up with him when he was off work. We met up a few times. It was pretty early on in my fellowship, and I was figuring out my schedule, how to organize my time, and balance my teaching and studying responsibilities, but every couple days we would check in with each other. We’d go out and get beers when he got out of work, around 10pm. We’d eat chuanr (rhymes with “memoir”)—grilled meats and vegetables on skewers, smothered in cumin and hot pepper paste—and peanuts marinated in vinegar. One time he bought me a type of Beijing orange-flavored soda, even though I hadn’t asked for it. Sometimes he was full because he’d eaten food from the restaurant where he worked, but he would sit with me while I ate. I would ask him questions about his life. He didn’t finish high school. His parents were in the countryside. He said he didn’t like studying. I’d ask him questions about his life, about his girlfriend and the girlfriends he’d had. Once, I brought up a Chinese song I’d listen to randomly on YouTube back when I was in the United States, not knowing if it was currently popular among young people. He played it on his phone in the middle of the restaurant where we were eating the chuanr and drinking beer, and alternated singing and humming along. He told me I had a good voice. I didn’t think so and figured it was a meaningless compliment, some sort of social formality. Once I brought two of my American friends to hang out with him. He also brought two of his friends along, who worked at the same restaurant he did. It was pretty much the usual, just with six people instead of two. All three of the Chinese guys were smoking cigarettes at the table throughout the meal, and one of my friends was pretty bothered by that. It struck me at a few points that Han seemed to be chugging beers pretty quickly, but I didn’t think much of it, I figured he was aware of his tolerance. However, toward the end of the night, when one of my friends got up to go to the restroom, he found him there, vomiting. Not long afterwards, we all got ready to go back to our dorms. Han’s friends seemed to have things under control; all three of them lived together. One of my friends, a girl, complained to me for the following several weeks that Han was sending her unwanted flirty WeChat messages.
One day, out of nowhere, Han told me he was leaving Beijing. He went to his hometown to spend Chinese New Year with his family, but he didn’t come back afterwards. At several points I asked if he would be coming back to Beijing. His answers varied, he was sort of being vague about it. He seemed to have moved to another city for work. Our contact on WeChat started to fizzle out. Even back when we were both in Beijing, I had been thinking about how we were on very different tracks in life, and feeling like I didn’t know if we had many conversation topics left. Don’t know if he was thinking the same thing or not.
Students who study Chinese learn four-syllable-long idiomatic expressions called chengyu, a linguistic feature that has been preserved through the significant evolution from classical to modern Chinese. They tend to be introduced in intermediate and advanced language courses, giving one’s speech or writing a more sophisticated, literary tone. One of the first fewchengyu I learned quite effectively expresses my feelings about China, as I view it: 日新月异 (rì xīn yuè yì). It roughly translates as “every day is new, every month is different”, and it describes rapid, drastic changes. Of course, change is a recurring theme in discussions about China. China has undergone huge transformations, from a communist society to the large-scale capitalist reforms starting in the late seventies and eighties. In recent decades, the country has dramatically risen to prominence, to become the significant force in the global economy that it is today. These changes are a huge factor in the popularity of learning Chinese language now. But before my year in Beijing, I don’t think I anticipated the vivid sense I’d have, in my everyday life, that every day would be new and every month would be different.
In my four years at Oberlin, the dining halls were always Stevie, Dascomb, and Lord Saunders. On the campus of Beijing Normal University, a new dining hall popped up unexpectedly, when I’d only been here a few months. And there’s been construction in my building all throughout the second half of my year here. It looks they’re building an addition to my building, and it totally blocks the normal route I used to take to go anywhere on campus. It’s annoying that I have to loop around the building now, but word has it, it’s going to be another dining hall, so it’ll be nice to be able to roll out of bed and grab breakfast without going outside. I liked to go to a fruit shop outside campus to buy fruit. The owner was really friendly, with beautiful big eyes and an accent I had trouble understanding. Right before the Chinese New Year holiday, I went to buy some fruit and I chatted with him a bit about my travel plans. He said he’d be going to his hometown for the holiday, and spoke fondly about the delicious food in rural areas. What I didn’t expect was that the shop would be gone, replaced by a hardware store, when I got back after the holiday. A month or so later, a whole string of shops closed, right across the street from where the fruit shop had been. I think the buildings are being refurbished. They’re all go-to stores for students on campus. Who knows what’ll be there when I get back to campus in the fall.
One aspect of my life in China that seemed to remain relatively constant was my experience teaching. I knew my students were all going to have internships in which they would go abroad and teach Chinese, mostly at Confucius institutes, but from what I understood, the internships began the following school year. I would continue to have them in class through spring semester, or if not, they’d at least be around campus, and we could stay friends. Each of my classes met once a week. Students were responsible and attended class consistently. I thought highly of them, and I was enthusiastic about getting to know them, little by little, throughout the year of my fellowship, especially as I started bumping into them around campus and feeling like they were my friends. All my students have the same major, teaching Chinese as a second language. Unlike in schools in the US, where students have a lot of electives, even within their major, these students all basically have the same course schedule, and go to almost all their classes in one big group. Therefore, they all got to know each other very well. I admired their strong sense of community. They seemed very supportive of one another, to me. They lived in the school dormitories, 4 or 6 to a room, and seemed to get along quite harmoniously. Returning to this group of students, week after week, created a nice sense of stability for me. I felt supported by them, especially during the first few weeks when I was still struggling to get acclimated myself. In class, when I would throw in a Chinese syllable, trying to make some sort of pun, or for comic effect, their eyes all widened, and they applauded in unison. On days when I didn’t have class, just thinking about their bright smiles would cheer me up.
One day, around the middle of fall semester, a student approached me and told me she would not be coming to class for the following several weeks because she had to attend a training for her internship. Soon after, dozens of my students stopped showing up to class, and I found out they would be leaving China the following semester. Not all of them left in the spring, a bunch stayed, but even so, it really got to me that so many of my students, whom I was just starting to get to know and grow so fond of, would be leaving so much sooner than I was expecting.
While Han was in his hometown, he added me to a group chat on WeChat. But it was sort of a mish-mash group of his friends that didn’t seem to know one another. He even added one of the American friends that I introduced him to, but that he had only hung out with that one night when he was wasted. No one seemed to be motivated to chat in the group besides him. He seemed lonely. Sometimes he or a few other people would post voice messages, but they were in another dialect, I couldn’t understand them at all. The group didn’t interest me, so I removed myself after a few days. From time to time, I exchanged WeChat messages with one of Han’s friends whom I’d met that night we went out as a group. He had remained in Beijing. One night, when I was out way in a different part of the city with a group of American friends, I kept getting messages from him asking where I was and what I was up to. I suggested we meet the next day, but he said the next day he was moving away. And he had no idea if he’d be back in Beijing anytime soon, but he said that if he did come back to Beijing, we had to meet up.
The nice thing is, as soon as someone leaves, I meet someone new. There hasn’t been a long period during my time here where I haven’t felt preoccupied with some interesting person or activity. And I have made some lasting friendships in China; there have been some constants in my work and life on campus. But the feeling that things are constantly in flux is impossible to ignore. One day, it occurred to me that many friendships and aspects of my life felt like a good book or movie. It enriches my life, and then it comes to an end. It isn’t a bad thing. And when I came to embrace fact that that every day is new and every month is different, I began to look forward to the ephemeral amusements in my life here.
Walking down a hutong in Beijing