Today was our first day of classes at the University of Dalian.  The campus is beautiful and with over 30,000 students, quite large.  Most foreign students (‘liúxuéshēng’, pronounced ‘lee-ooh shoe-aye sh-ung’) along with all the Chinese students refer to it as DUT.  In Chinese it is Dàlián lî gōng dà xué (written here in pinyin). Literally translated, it means Dalian Science and Technology of Big Learning – I love the ‘big learning’ part. Chinese grammar switches much of the noun/subject/verb locations in comparison to English so it sounds quite funny to English speakers, but in truth, it makes the language grammar a bit easier to apply.  Also, the word ‘pinyin’ refers to the Romanization method China has adopted to translate Chinese to the rest of the world.  For some sounds the pinyin method of translating Chinese characters and sounds translate very well, others, particularly the z, c, and s sounds; are ridiculously difficult to discern for western ears (more on this later!).

Much of the difficulty in learning to speak Chinese comes from the use of their ‘tones.’ The Chinese use four tones to speak the language, plus one neutral tone (that unfortunately sounds like the fourth or third tone when mixed with one of the others).  The first is a higher-pitched, held-out sound.  Our excellent language instructor Yan Ping related it to music – which I find works incredibly well with all the tones – saying that it sounds something like the la in western ‘do re me fa so la te doe’ musical tones (I quite literally ‘sing’ Chinese at this point).  You have to hold it out without dropping, which apparently is a dead giveaway for a foreigner just learning Chinese.

The second is a rising tone.  English has a similar counterpart for example, we would say to someone “are you sure?” The questioning tone in English to provide emphasis at the end is similar (vaguely speaking) to the second tone.  The third tone starts a little lower, drops, than rises quickly.  I like to think of the shape of a  ‘check mark’ as the general idea of how to make the sound.  When the Chinese speak it though, it is very fast and one of the more difficult tones to discern.  The fourth tone is a falling tone, much like we would say if one were scolding a young child not to touch something, ‘No!’   The last tone is a ‘neutral tone’ that is distinct in that it’s very staccato and short (I use ‘distinct’ very loosely J).  To my untrained ear, it sounds just like the first tone, but is discernable because of the quick staccato sound.  In the pinyin system I mentioned earlier (and that I used to write the Chinese name for Dalian University), the marks above the vowels are a reminder of the tone to use when speaking the words.  Although Mac doesn’t have the proper third tone mark; in actual pinyin, the shape is a ‘v’ and opposite of how it’s marked here (though I think the one I’ll use going forward is a good substitute!).

Dalian is a costal city that was once a Russian port city, which is where it received its name.  The technology university we are studying at is one of the top 30 in the country out of some 2000 universities in China according to our guide.  The campus is sprawling but exceptionally beautiful for the vast majority of it.  Surrounding the university are hundreds of restaurants, shops, and quite a few markets where the students and faculty can enjoy the local Chinese cuisine. Many of the buildings on campus are large and surprisingly new; our international dormitory for example has 17 floors.  The beautiful black building that houses the computer science and mathematics departments has I would guess 40 floors- it’s a skyscraper in the middle of the campus.  The campus is surrounded by walls and buildings, which essentially allow access through only four gates – the north, south, east, and west.  Our international student dormitory building is near the North gate, (bêi mèn).  Each of our 11 students guard a piece of paper that has this phrase “Dàlián lî gōng dà xué bêi mèn,” written in Chinese with their life; it is the lifeline back to our home (for two weeks anyway) at the university.

What has caught me by surprise already is how largely well off the populace seem to be in most areas of the city. Driving around campus and down town are expensive and usually brand new automobile brands such as Buick, BMW, Audi, and high-end VWs.  In stark contrast, on the fringes of the university are the crumbling, abandoned-looking buildings, much less taken care of and full of broken windows with moss filled mortar.   It is difficult to tell who actually live in these buildings; the poor obviously, but are they university janitors, or perhaps the more poor of the student body? Sights like these and others are reminders that yes, China is still very much a developing country, albeit a behemoth one.  I can only imagine what the distribution of wealth will be in the countryside.  One of my colleges made that comment as we ate food at a fairly nice restaurant, ‘just think, there are still hundreds of thousands of people in this country that are starving right now.’  It is a good reality check to keep in the back of one’s mind, we are seeing the shiny side of the Chinese coin.