Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lost for words

My lack of blogging is perhaps as indicative of my current state as when I'm posting regularly. This week has been non-stop but on the whole enjoyable. I have a friend here from Germany doing some work with me and we're all too aware that a week is a short time in physics, so we're trying to make the most of it. On top of a rather last minute seminar that I will be giving on Friday, continuing Chinese lessons and several other projects on the middle burner there isn't much time for anything else other than the current calculation.

In fact my collaborator coming out here has bought something rather starkly home to me, which highlights a concern I had only been partly aware of.

I enjoy Beijing a great deal. The city is an amazing place with so many things to go and see if you make the effort, the night life is variable but often spectacular and the food has been mentioned in this blog enough to last a blogging lifetime, my life as a physicist is also, for me, an extremely enjoyable one, but...

my Chinese is still not up to much. This isn't because I'm awful at languages, though I'm not great, but I just don't have the time (or motivation, if I'm honest) on top of long hours in the office and occasional attempts to explore the city to practice reading and writing - which is how I will actually increase my vocabulary. If I have a conversation and somebody just tells me a word without me concentrating for some time on remembering it, quickly the memory of the sound fades and the new word is gone. My hope is that the less alien nature of Spanish will make this sort of learning more possible.

I'm at the stage that I can listen in on a conversation and perhaps 80% of the time I have a good idea what they're talking about. That's because picking up one in five words usually gives a good clue. However, one in five words isn't enough to answer a one sentence question, unless it's something very familiar. So my part in conversations is generally a passive one.

This makes for an occasionally rather lonely existence in the office - note that I'm not writing this in a melodramatic flood of tears but feel that as I chronicle my time here the bad should be written up with the good. Thankfully there's generally a lot more of the latter.

Anyway, what has made me think about this a great deal this week is that my collaborator speaks extremely good Chinese, really remarkably so. Having learnt for 5 or 6 years, living in China for one and having a Chinese wife clearly helps and so I have no pretensions that I should be anywhere near his standard. We went for a coffee in the department coffee corner a couple of days ago and within a few minutes most of the staff were gathered around us, chatting away in wonder with him as I sat, passively listening, nodding whenever anyone looked at me and told me how good he was.

I realised that in perhaps an hour's conversation he had spoken with and found out more about my senior colleagues than I have in the year and a bit I've been here. I'd be lying if I said that this didn't make me feel pretty pathetic. They all speak very good English but I just haven't bonded with them as I would have liked. clearly they're all very friendly but my passable 'ni hao' as we meet in the corridor is a bit of a conversation stopper. Occasionally they will reply 'your Chinese isn't bad!' in Chinese, to which I make an appropriate response, and then I'm a bit stuck.

The point is that a) I need to learn more Chinese, which undoubtedly takes time and effort and isn't something which is simply absorbed passively. Time is something that has to be made, but other things must be sacrificed, and b) it would be nice if I could find a way to bond more with the professors here, who are all decent people, with a lot to say.

Anyway, that's what's on my mind at the moment so I shall go home now after 12 hours in the office and see if I can add a few more words to the vocabulary. Just six months to go here which seems crazy and I've had, without a doubt, a fantastic experience. Regret is an emotion I try and stay clear of, but I can certainly try and make the most of the short time I have left here.

Postings may continue to be infrequent for the moment, I'll do my best.

1 comment:

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